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Internet phone calls spreading rapidly

It's the little Internet secret that the major phone companies don't want you to hear: Phone calls don't have to cost a cent.

From your computer, you can make free phone calls to anywhere in the United States. That secret is spreading like wildfire, with tens of thousands of new users signing up each day with providers, some of whom have integrated the service with instant messaging.

One reason for the boom is the improved quality of Internet phone calls. The technology -- converting sound waves into digital signals and then sending them across the Internet -- has been around for several years. But the quality of the call was so poor that it didn't catch on as an alternative to traditional land-line phone calls.

Ann Garske, a 68-year-old retiree in Pleasanton, first learned of Internet telephony from her daughter.

``Guess what, Mom, I'm calling you on the computer for free!'' she recalled her daughter saying over a static-filled line a year ago.

It was a novelty, Garske said. But she stopped being an active user of the service because the technology generated an echo that made conversation too frustrating.

Speakers and microphone

Garske decided to try it again a month ago after hearing about Dialpad's improved sound quality and echo suppression. Now, Internet telephony is helping her keep in touch with her eight children and 10 grandchildren sprinkled across California -- Burlingame, Davis, Modesto, San Diego, Thousand Oaks and Tracy.

``It's a wonderful way to communicate,'' she said. ``Although most of them have e-mail, it's nice to hear their voices.''

To make one of these calls on the Internet, Garske uses an Internet-connected PC with a sound card, speakers and a microphone. (You can substitute a headset for the speakers and microphone for better sound quality.)

Garske registered with Dialpad.com of Santa Clara, one of a handful of Web sites that provide software to connect Internet phone calls.

For a PC-to-PC call, the software takes the digital signals that comprise your speech and transmits that information over the Internet, rather than the traditional telephone grid. A PC-to-telephone call, however, requires passage across the telephone grid -- and a payment to the local phone company -- to make the final connection.

Using the Internet drastically reduces the cost of connecting the call, allowing some of these software companies to offer free domestic long-distance service. Dialpad, Net2Phone and Phonefree are firms that have taken this path and plan to make up the cost with advertising revenue. By attracting customers to their site with free calls, the companies believe they can sell cheap international calls and calling cards.

There are two ways to get the software: Download it from a company's Web site or click on the phone call feature of an instant messaging service.

You can call up a Web site of one of the Internet telephony providers and register.

All the sites require some personal information in exchange for the free service. They ask where you live, what you do for work, how much money you make, what your interests are. The information is collected to direct advertisements to your computer and to send along to business partners with your permission.

The download can take anywhere from a few minutes to 20 minutes, depending on the speed of your Internet connection. With a username, password, and the downloaded software, you're nearly set to talk the night away.

(When I tried making a call, I got bogged down by an uncooperative microphone. I couldn't get it to pick up my voice until I went back to Windows and jiggered the volume settings. Net2Phone had me run a few tests to see if my speakers and microphone worked, and offered helpful onscreen directions to correct my mute microphone.)

Dialpad touts its technology as the one service that doesn't require a download of software. After registering for a username and password, you can begin making calls from its Web site.

To pay for international calls, and long-distance calls for companies that don't give them away, you need to type in credit card information and put money into an account.

You can also take advantage of Internet telephony without dialing from your PC. Dialpad and Net2Phone sell pre-paid phone cards. They operate just like standard ones, but are generally cheaper because the calls are routed over the Internet.

Still an awkward pause

An alternative to downloading Internet telephony software is logging into your preferred instant messaging service. The big three -- AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger Service and Yahoo Messenger -- all use Net2Phone technology to add voice capability.

Net2Phone has woven its software into each of those partners' text services so that the user can choose to call over the PC or type a text message to a buddy.

Last month, Net2Phone boasted of logging its one billionth minute of phone calls since 1996, and Dialpad claims to have gone from zero to 11 million registered users in just over a year, although many who register may not be active users. Frost & Sullivan, a San Jose-based research firm, estimates that about 12.7 billion minutes worth of calls will be routed over the Internet this year.

Still, only a tiny fraction of all phone calls are routed over the Internet -- less than 5 percent by the companies' own estimates. That includes the minutes sold wholesale to traditional long-distance operators such as Worldcom and AT&T.

There are a few drawbacks to Internet telephony, the primary one being sound quality. Though the different services argue that their technology is better than their competitors', the calls are virtually indistinguishable and carry the same problems.

There remains an awkward pause known as latency between the time you finish speaking and when the person on the other end of the line hears you talk. But the latency is much more tolerable now -- on a good day, it's similar to a cell phone call. The sound itself is sometimes scratchy, sometimes tinny. Sometimes an echo makes the call seem like it originated in a bathroom.

For a PC-to-PC call -- the only ones that are universally free of charge -- the person you want to call must be sitting at the computer and connected to the Internet at the exact time you dial. There's no such thing as a ring tone beckoning a friend from the kitchen for a PC-to-PC call.

Graske, the grandmother from Pleasanton, is happy to put up with the flaws. These days, she treats a call across the country like a local one.

``When it's free, you can be on the phone forever,'' she said. ``It allows you to chat and spend time talking instead of worrying about the phone bill.''

BY JOSHUA L. KWAN
Mercury News

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