Authors 11-27-98 Note: Since this article was published, the Freetel link listed here is no longer valid. Check out ICQ for Internet Telephony possiblities, http://www.icq.com, or search the Net on "Internet telephony". CS
Free lunch anyone? Or would you rather make long distance phone calls free of charge? Just as the proverbial free lunch isn't without recompense, long distance voice conversations via the Internet aren't totally free either --- but almost. If you're already paying for Internet access, you can make voice connections across the street or across the globe at no additional fee.
The technology is referred to as telephony and simply involves using your existing computer hardware, telephony software and an Internet connection to make long distance connections for the price of your monthly Internet access. Most computers sold in recent years are already equipped with a sound card and speakers as standard. Simple microphones for the sound system are usually included as well, but can be purchased for as little as $15 if you can't seem to locate the one that came with your system.
Look at the back of your computer and you'll see where your speakers connect to the sound card. Above that connection is a hole labeled "Mic In" which is where you plug in your microphone jack. That's all the hardware you need to get started! You speak into the microphone and the caller hails from your speakers. It's actually pretty weird at first.
But we're still missing one important element before we can embark on a free long distance binge: telephony software. At present there are at least eight good Internet phone software companies vying for your business in this emerging market. Some companies offer the software for free, ala true Internet style, and prices for other packages hover in the $49 range.
Being the very shrewd consumer that I am (i.e. cheap), I elected to download the freeware, FreeTel, from the Net at http://www.freetel.com/. The download time was less than three minutes and the setup process was equally quick and painless. I logged onto the Internet, double-clicked the FreeTel icon and was swiftly connected to the telephony server that manages the voice on network (VON) traffic for FreeTel.
This particular application behaves much like an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) server or one of the "chat rooms" on America Online. There is a full directory listing of all persons online and once connected you can be "called" by anyone looking for conversation. Like most chat facilities on the Net, there's plenty of lonely folk "lookin' for love in all the wrong places", but there's just as many people who designate a meeting time and await the free voice connection with their friends or loved ones from far away locales.
I connected on schedule with a friend from the Midwest and found the connection to be remarkably adequate. You can't hear a pin drop yet, or even a pound of nails, but for free it wasn't half-bad. It was, however, half-duplex meaning that both persons couldn't speak at once, making our interaction more like a ship-to-shore radio. FreeTel does support full-duplex conversations (both parties can speak at once), but most sound cards, like mine, only are only capable of half-duplex. New sound drivers are available, however, for standard sound cards to enable them to support full-duplex transmission.
Audio is transmitted over the Internet in compressed packets that are uncompressed and reassembled on each end of the conversation. Because the technology is still crude and unstandardized, I experienced a fair amount of "drop-out" or choppy conversation. But FreeTel addresses this by displaying a two-sided chalkboard of sorts for typing messages onscreen if portions of the audio gets lost in cyberspace.
The biggest drawback of the Internet phone thus far is incompatibility between different telephony applications. A FreeTel user, for example, can't talk to a WebPhone or TeleVox user. This means if you have friends or family you want to connect with, you must all use the same telephony software for now.
Opposition to this technology comes primarily from third party carriers or resellers of long distance services who have appealed to the FCC to intervene and regulate Internet phones. Large providers such as AT&T and MCI, however, have welcomed telephony and believe it should "develop without interference". I guess this isn't so surprising since they get paid anyway by the Internet providers!
It's anyone's guess how much regulation will be imposed, if any, on this rapidly developing technology or how soon. But for the time being it's free so go ahead...reach out and touch someone in cyberspace.
Feedback? E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org