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It's funny how life is all interconnected. The last couple of weeks have made me a firm believer in the "Butterfly Effect" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0289879). Like in the movie, it's clear that small, seemingly insignificant events can have a major impact on future results. My latest lesson in this sphere: The cancellation of Star World by YES.
While the removal of BBC Prime by HOT has been getting all the attention in recent weeks, the loss of Star World was just as dastardly, in my opinion. Of course, it would be ridiculous to draw a comparison between the cultured offerings on BBC Prime and the Philistine sitcoms on Star World, but there you go.
Anyway, here's the butterfly part of the story: A number of the programs that were broadcast on Star World are not available on any of the other YES channels - but they are viewable on the Web, at the sites of the US broadcasters (see my previous article on this subject at http://digital.newzgeek.com/112806-proxies.html). Thanks to the combination of network Web sites and Internet proxies, I can watch any online program - for example, Prison Break and American Idol, two Star World programs that are either not on YES, or are on at inconvenient times. Some shows can even be downloaded - legally, of course.
All this online video viewing is free - but you pay a steep price in Internet bandwidth. With my 2.5 mb Internet connection now mostly swallowed by online video and audio, something's gotta give. And that something has been, more and more, the quality and even functionality of my IP phone connection.
I've been paying 30 bucks a month for several years now for the privilege of having a phone number, here in Israel, that dials and answers as if it is in the US. It's convenient, if expensive (for that money I could make more and longer phone calls using one of the local long distance carriers) - but I've given the number to so many people, the idea of closing it down always seemed more trouble than it was worth - I'd still need to make long distance calls to the US, and it's convenient having a number that people can reach me at > from over there, especially for friends, family and clients who are often not as experienced in matters of international diplomacy or dialing as we Israelis are.
But when the thing stops working for long periods - when it's "down" more than it's "up" - I have to draw the line. It's one thing to pay for a line that provides a service you can get cheaper elsewhere. When you're paying $30 bucks a month for, basically, an e-mail message service - when the phone doesn't get answered on my end, callers can leave a message, which gets forwarded to my e-mail box - and you have to either fiddle with the telephony to Internet box endlessly in order to get it working, or make your return phone calls via regular long distance, it's time to reevaluate the entire operation.
So, reevaluate I did, and I came up with some interesting solutions - all of them cheaper than $30 a month I've been paying (which, based on the package I had, came out to 6 cents per minute prepaid - i.e. whether I used all the allotted time or not). If you signed up for VoIP package a few years ago and haven't checked out the arena recently, you're in for a pleasant - and money-saving - surprise.
> The watchword in the VoIP world these days is SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), as in SIP services that allow computer to computer or computer to PSTN voice communications. SIP "soft phones," like Gizmo (http://www.gizmoproject.com), allow you to make calls from your computer to other PCs for free, or to land or cell lines for a small charge. The problem with soft phones, of course, is that you are more or less tethered to the computer when making phone calls. One solution for phone portability with soft phones is a USB phone, or a phone that allows you to connect to PC phone services via your home wireless network - such as the Zyxel P-2000W VoIP Wi-fin phone (http://tinyurl.com/z7acz).
However, most people opt for a "traditional" VoIP setup using an ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter) box, that allows them to use regular telephones with their VoIP service. But the new crop of SIP services obviates that need. I wrote a little while ago about Jajah (http://digital.newzgeek.com/122606-jajah.html), which lets you use your PSTN phone directly with VoIP services, without having to plug in an ATA box in between the two protocols. After you initiate a call with your Web browser, Jajah's service takes care of the digital phone connection on its own servers "out there," and calls you back when the connection is made. In my experience, the quality of a Jajah call to a landline is much better than that of an ATA-arbitered call.
Jajah isn't the only Web-initiated IP telephony service to use PSTN phones directly. If you're calling from the US, for example, you can use Futurephone (http://www.futurephone.com/index.html) to make completely free calls to many countries, including Israel. And so on.
In addition, almost all plans based on using your ATA-connected landline to make Internet phone calls require you to sign up for a plan, where you agree in advance to pay for a certain number (or unlimited) number of minutes that you usually don't end up completely using. Whereas Jajah and its ilk allow you to pay as you go, with charges accruing for each minute spent on the phone (and don't forget, Jajah calls between users of the service is free, within certain limitations). A useful comparison chart of soft phone SIP VoIP services can be seen at http://www.voipproducts.eu.
So calling out is no longer a concern - but what about calling in? Other than using an ATA service, is there a way to get a virtual phone number that will allow callers from abroad dial a 10-digit US number, and > have the phone ring in Israel?
Of course there are - and they range in price from nothing to a lot ("a lot" being over that $30 benchmark I've been measuring these services by). If you register your computer's soft phone with a service like FWD (http://www.freeworlddialup.com), you can sign up for a free incoming US phone number at any number of sites - such as http://www.ipkall.com, and have the call forwarded to your soft phone (or IP phone/ATA box, if you so choose). Note, though, that IPKall will work perfectly fine with a plain old PC soft phone. I signed up for a free incoming number at http://www.sipnumber.com - which lets you forward calls to a land line as well as a soft phone. Messages get forwarded directly to my e-mail box, so if I'm not around to answer the phone, I get a message right away, which I can respond to using my Jajah account (although SIPnumber's rates are just as good - and you get 60 free minutes of outbound calls per number when you sign up). Note that the service is supposed to forward calls anywhere - including Israel - from the US number, I haven't gotten it to work yet (probably because I didn't set up the incoming phone number information properly).
With the new soft phone SIP services, I can save a heap of money on VoIP service and still have my phone ring "in America" - and, I can watch American Idol while doing it. All this, thanks to a flapping of a butterfly's wings, courtesy of YES.
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