The ability to send Email has eliminated much of the need to phone back to the office while youre traveling abroad, but there are still times when you wish to speak with someone voice-to-voice. You may also wish to speak with a spouse back at home, or maintain a more personal level of contact with a child than Email allows.
This is when an Internet telephone may come in handy.
Use of the Internet to carry human voices as a telephone would is not all that new. But there have been a number of advances have made the technology easier to use and the quality of the transmissions easier on the ear.
Although this is quickly changing, to use an Internet telephone both you and the person you are calling must have special software, a special telephone handset, and access to the Internet.
Pros and cons
For people who travel with a laptop computer, there are both good and bad points when you compare an Internet telephone to a more traditional one. The best part is cost savings. If you are on the road using, say, iPass for Internet Access (see the article on iPass), you are probably not spending more than US$ .20 a minute for your Internet connection. You may be spending less.
That, then, is essentially your only cost, as your co-worker or spouse is probably connected to the Internet at little or no incremental cost. Compare this to the US$.50, $1 or $2 a minute charges that you would be charged on a regular international phone call.
On the down side, both parties to a conversation must have Internet access and both must be online before an Internet phone call be successfully made. It can sometimes take a traditional phone call, unfortunately, just to schedule an Internet call.
The other drawback is sound quality. The quality of connections can vary, depending on the manner with which each party is connected to the Internet and the amount of traffic on the Internet at a given point in time. Parties can normally understand each other, but there can be slight breaks in the sound, as well as a slight delay between when one person stops talking and the other person starts.
In short, the sound quality is much like one might have experienced 10 or 15 years ago on a traditional overseas call.
Setting it up
Besides Internet access, you need a computer with sound capability that has jacks into which one can plug a microphone and a speaker. Then you need that microphone and speaker, or better still you should obtain a special handset, such as the Internet Telephone INT100CS which is reviewed elsewhere on this web site (click here to see article). This handset looks and is designed to function like the handset on any telephone, but this one simply has two plugs on the end of the handsets wire that plug into your computer.
Next you will need software. The INT100CS Internet Telephone comes with a floppy disk containing software from a company called WebPhone. This software can also be downloaded from the Internet at http://www.itelco.com. Alternative software packages can also be downloaded at no cost from Intel (at http://www.intel.com/cpc/videophone or Microsoft (at http://www.microsoft.com/netmeeting).
Do note that not all Internet Telephone software packages operate with the same standards. The two computers hosting a call must be running compatible software. The Intel and Microsoft packages are compatible and a soon-to-be released WebPhone upgrade will also be compatible with the two computer giants.
Roadnews.com performed its most recent tests using the WebPhone package. Heres what you do: First you connect the telephone handset, install the software, and enter some configuration settings. Then you establish your Internet connection and open the WebPhone software.
WebPhone sends out a message to the central WebPhone computer registering the fact that you are online and available to receive calls and indicating the exact IP address at which you can be reached. Then when the second party comes online, he or she can reach you by simply typing in your Email address.
You can also use directory assistance, voice mail, speed dialing or even two-way real-time video.
The more computer and Internet power youve got, the better you can expect your sound quality to be. WebPhone recommends a minimum of a 486 running at 33 megahertz with a 14.4 modem. A faster computer will work better as it can sample and compress sound more efficiently. A faster modem would have obvious benefits.
A note of caution:
Be aware that Internet telephone technology and systems are new. Dont expect too much. If you dont mind tinkering and playing about, this may be a good time to test out Internet telephone service. If you prefer to let others get bugs out first, you may wish to wait a bit before jumping in. But you wont have to wait too long. Six months or a year should be enough to bring the technology within the average users grasp.
You should also keep the potential for Internet telephone in mind next time you purchase a laptop computer. Right now only about 20 percent of the units being purchased have the sound capabilities necessary to operate an Internet Telephone. And unlike a desktop model where soundcards can be added later, laptops generally cannot be retrofitted, according to a spokesman for Riparius Ventures, the company marketing the Internet Telephone handset.
A look ahead
A large barrier must be broken for Internet telephone service to catch on in a larger way. The need for two Internet phones to be used on two computers simultaneously must be eliminated. One should be able to originate a call on the Internet, but be able to ring through to a normal telephone number.
At RoadNews.com, we witnessed this very barrier fall recently when the spokesman for Riparius Ventures returned one of our phone calls on an Internet telephone that rang straight through on our regular phone line.