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PC-to-Phone, PC-to-PC, PC-to-Fax, Phone-to-Phone and voice mail. Free phone cards. Call !!!Make long distance calls for free online

By George Lorenzo

Many of us make long distance calls on a regular basis; wouldn't it be nice never to have to pay for them? Well, there is a way to do just that -- using the Internet.

Take Diane Zero Meckel, from Slatington, Pa., who makes calls every month to her parents in Arizona; two daughters and grandchildren in Scranton, Pa. (about 80 miles away); brother in New Jersey; and friends as far away as Australia and Slovakia.

Using a PC-to-phone or PC-to-PC connection provided by PhoneFree.com, Meckel estimates she's saving about $50 a month. The cost, coincidentally like her middle name, is zero for domestic calls in all 50 states.

Millions of other computer users are taking advantage of what's called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology that enables Internet telephony companies such as PhoneFree, Dialpad.com and Net2Phone.com to provide free PC-to-phone and PC-to-PC calling.

What's the catch?

In order to use Internet calling, your computer must have a microphone, soundcard and speakers, and you'll have to download software from these sites.

PhoneFree, Dialpad and Net2Phone advise users to purchase a headset with microphone to get clear sound (see sidebar). For best results, you'll also need a good cable, digital subscriber line (DSL) or 56K dial-up connection.

Prior to getting your computer ready for Internet phone service, you must complete mandatory registration forms online that ask for a lot of personal information, such as your income level and hobbies -- so, expect to receive e-mail advertising from your service, its partners and advertisers.

Does it really work?

The quality of Internet calls is not nearly as clear as telephone calls. Expect intermittent static, echoes and broken-up conversations. Sometimes, it might be difficult to connect at all. Because of such annoyances and the lower cost of local calls, VoIP services probably aren't worth your time unless you're calling long distance.

"On occasion it (Internet phone calls) is a bit echoee, but by and large, it's nearly as good as a regular phone call," says Dialpad user Robert Defoe, from Elma, N.Y. "I had to explain to my relatives that we should try to speak one at a time, more like a walkie-talkie than a telephone, and they adjusted quickly."

"It's not a perfect connection but certainly good enough to have basic conversations," says Dialpad CEO Brad Garlinghouse.

PC-to-phone calling

To use PhoneFree or Net2Phone, go to their Web sites and download proprietary software to your computer using easy-to-follow instructions. Once installed, an icon appears on your desktop; you can make calls by clicking on or keying in phone numbers through a graphic representation of a phone key pad.

Dialpad is a Web-based service. After registering with Dialpad, its software is automatically downloaded and installed on your computer. You make Internet calls through the Dialpad Web site after entering your username and password.

When a call is initiated with such services, voice data is encoded into digital "packets" that are transmitted over the Internet. Packets are sent to a gateway that translates them into signals that can pass through the telephone company of the person receiving the call. This person is notified as with any call -- by the phone ringing.

While all three services offer free U.S. PC-to-phone calling, you'll have to cough up some cash for international calls on PhoneFree and Net2Phone; Dialpad does not offer international PC-to-phone calling at this time.

PC-to-PC calling

PhoneFree, Dialpad and Net2Phone also offer PC-to-PC Internet calling, where callers talk via their computer microphone and speakers (or headset). The same software is used as with PC-to-phone calling. The process differs in that both parties must be online at the same time and use the same VoIP service for PC-to-PC calling. PC-to-PC calling is like live text messaging except there's audio involved.

An added benefit to PC-to-PC calling with these three services is that you can make international calls for free. But just how clear are these calls?

Meckel says she has had problems connecting with friends in Australia when the weather is bad. Another PhoneFree user, Ivon Joly of Montreal, Canada, frequently uses PC-to-PC calling to speak to his in-laws in Brazil and says he's "amazed by how clear we can hear each other."

PhoneFree's special features

PhoneFree has some special features that other services don't, such as an online white-pages telephone book where registered members can list their names, numbers and special interests. Just click on a name to call a fellow member.

PhoneFree also has video capabilities. For PC-to-PC calls, two PhoneFree users can see each other while speaking, provided they both have video cameras hooked up to their computers. The service's software allows users to record, listen and/or view audio and video files, so users can send video mail.

PhoneFree CEO and President Jan Horsfall says that video images are not high resolution. However, he adds, "Users seem to get enough value out of our video today that I think they are going to be very patient as the video quality continues to improve."

The future of VoIP

According to Net2Phone Vice President Sarah Hofstetter, customers with cable access will one day be able to plug a traditional telephone into newly built cable modems that have phone jacks. This will allow users to make clear, inexpensive long distance calls through cable lines.

She adds that "the goal of Internet telephony is to not be restricted to any one kind of device." In the future, we'll be able to use wireless handheld organizers and laptops for Internet calls. Moreover, these devices will integrate voice, video and speech recognition technologies.

"You'll be able to call the Net2Phone network and say 'call grandma' and it will recognize your voice and make the call for you," Hofsetter says. "You won't have to remember phone numbers anymore."

Dialpad's Garlinghouse says that as more consumers get Internet connections through means other than phone lines, they'll no longer need traditional phone companies. "The way we think about the world is that Dialpad (or some other Internet telephony company) will be your next phone company."

-- George Lorenzo is the author of Sams Teach Yourself E-College Today: Applying for College, Taking Classes and Financing Your Education Online.

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