The talk of the town

VOIP technology makes phone bills a thing of the past.

By DAVID SHAMAH
September 25, 2005 17:39

Not too long ago, when I was a kid (okay, long enough ago), telephones were among the most sturdy items in the average home. They came in one color - black - and had heavy rotary dials that forced you to keep your fingers in good shape if you wanted to make a phone call. Those phones were near-indestructible - as was the Phone Company (there was only one). The Phone Company was sort of a corporate "benevolent despot" - as long as you paid it tribute (and money, in the form of your monthly bill), it gave you the ability to make phone calls, and would dispatch a serious-looking fellow to fix your phone or line in the rare event that something went wrong. Rock-solid, that system was. Not like what we've got today, unfortunately. I don't know about you, but we keep having bad luck with the cordless phones we've been buying for a long time now, having to replace them every year or so with new models. True, prices for calls have gone down, but you don't get what you don't pay for; the cheaper the service, like with long distance, the longer you're kept on hold for a service agent, and the more buttons you have to press on the automated menu when you try to get hold of a human being in order to explain what you need. One day they're going to really break up Bezeq - and then see what it's going to be like to get an operator! If past experience is any indication, instituting competition among local phone companies is going to make the telephone experience a more or less do-it-yourself affair. But even though you won't have anyone to talk to at whatever phone company ends up handling your account, you'll still be paying your monthly fee. With phone companies giving you less than you pay for these days, why not cut out the middleman altogether and dispense with their fees? If the people you talk to on a regular basis have computers, you can talk to them for free, through your computer's microphone, or even through a special "telephone" that hooks into your PC's USB port! The program that made this mode of phone chatting, called Voice Over IP (VOIP) - a must-have for savvy computer users - is the free basic version of Skype (http://www.skype.com), which has hundreds of thousands of users all around the world. With Skype, you can "call" other Skype users for free by "dialing" from your computer, which makes it not only useful, but cheap, since you're utilizing the Internet connection you're already paying for. SKYPE: A COMPLETE 'PHONE SUITE' Until now, holding a full fledged phone conversation over the Internet has only been something the technically adept would even attempt; it had a reputation for lousy sound quality, "dropouts" (where snippets of conversation get lost in the ether), and "hesitation," where the person you're talking to only hears what you say a few seconds after you've said it. But the truth is that VOIP - and Skype - have made great technical strides in the past few years. Skype itself is barely two years old and has millions of users around the world (although I could only track down a couple of thousand in Israel using Skype's phone directory). And Skype is ready for "prime time" - the company was just bought out by no less than Internet auction kings eBay for a whole bunch of money ($2.6 billion!). If it's good enough for eBay, I guess, it's good enough for the rest of us. And it really is. If you tried Skype when it first came out and were disappointed, you'll be pleasantly surprised if you download version 1.3 or 1.4 beta, which have crystal clear sound and solid connections, thanks to the significant improvements in VOIP technology in the past couple of years. And Skype has added lots of services to its features list just in the past year; there's conference calling, call forwarding, and integration with Outlook and Internet Explorer. There is even a wireless versions of Skype for use with a WiFi laptop - or a WiFi-enabled Pocket PC PDA! It's a much cheaper way to get a wireless phone-enabled PDA than buying a Treo (http://www.palm.com/us/products/smartphones/treo650). Because Skype is a computer program that can take advantage of other PC technologies besides voice Internet communication, and because it has a huge user base, there are all sorts of add-on programs that will make your Skyping experience more rewarding and productive. In fact, some of these add-ons replicate services Skype offers but charges money for. (You didn't think eBay would drop a couple of billion on a company they can't make money off of, did you?) Skype, for example, has a voicemail service, but you can download Pamela (http://www.pamela-systems.com) and install a free answering machine that records unlimited numbers of calls, and lets you leave a specialized message in 32 languages. Jybe (http://www.jybe.com) is a collaborative surf/chat tool that lets groups of users work on an on-line project together, or in the case of Skype, initiate and run conference calls/document sharing/Web surfing on a Skype call. Very cool! Video4IM (http://www.video4im.com) will transform your Skype audio connection into a video phone, integrating images from your Webcam into the Skype interface. DialMP3 lets you dial into your Skype account and listen to MP3s on your computer (http://www.voxu.com/projects/DialMP3). And iSkoot (http://www.iskoot.com) offers free call forwarding, as well as the ability to make calls to Skype users from any cell phone, for a small fee. It should be noted, though, that despite much speculation in the computer press, nobody knows what eBay's plans are for Skype, so it would be a good idea to download any Skype freebie you're interested in sooner than later. BYE, BYE BEZEQ? If you really decide you like Skype, you might even consider using it for all your telephony needs, replacing the regular (PSTN) "land line" you're paying Bezeq for. With SkypeIn and SkypeOut premium services, you can do just that. SkypeIn gives you a virtual phone number that people using PSTN phones can dial in order to be connected to your Skype account - similar to popular VOIP services like Packet 8, which allow you to have a virtual phone number in the US. But Skype's US and European virtual numbers are a lot cheaper than any VOIP service, at 30 euros per number annually (although VOIP services generally give you lots of free minutes per month to make calls with, depending on your plan). There's an interesting comparison of VOIP services (Vonage, in this case) and Skype at http://www.sitetube.com/miscellaneous/skype-versus-vonage.shtml. You can also make outgoing Skype calls to regular phone numbers, using the company's SkypeOut service, which charges a per-minute fee for local and international calls. Of course, the big question is whether Skype is cheaper than Bezeq, so I'm going to give you the basic facts, without "plans" or discounts or whatever. Bezeq's basic daytime rate per minute with VAT is about 12 agorot, while SkypeOut's rate in Israel is 16 agorot. Bezeq charges you a monthly fee, but nightime calls are cheaper. You figure out which one's a better deal from SkypeOut's (http://www.skype.com/ products/skypeout/) and Bezeq's (http://www.bezeq.co.il/Cultures/he-IL/Bezeq/Tariff/enter/Default.htm) rate pages. If you really want to go whole hog with Skype, you'll probably want to work out a system whereby you can make calls while not being tethered to your PC. For that, you'll need a gadget that, while in its infancy, is going to be getting a lot more buzz in coming months - a "telephone" you plug into the USB port of your computer that hooks into Skype, letting you dial calls to both Skype and PSTN phones! Skype itself sells some of these devices (http://www.skype.com/store/accessories/), and there are cheaper versions (Google for "VOIP phones" and see what comes back) - some of them are even "dual use" phones, which let you hook into the land-line network, as well as calling Skype users for free. Finally, we can use that old adage - "talk is cheap" - and really mean it! Get Skype (http://www.skype.com/download/) for free for Windows 2000/XP, Mac OS X, newer Linux systems, and Pocket PC PDAs. Ds@newzgeek.com


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