On the Internet, Talk Is Cheap

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When I told a friend I was making phone calls over the Internet he chuckled urbanely, sat me down in a comfy chair and gently explained that no, you get the Internet over your phone, not the other way round, and for God's sake, would I please try to pull myself together?

He was wrong, of course. Internet phone service is very real, and newfangled as it sounds, it has one very old-fashioned American virtue: it's cheap.

It's not even that newfangled. Companies like Net2phone and DialPad have been selling Internet phone service for years. But it hasn't caught on for a variety of reasons: it can be tricky to use, some services require exotic hardware, and the audio quality is iffy at best--most Internet phone calls sound like they're coming from a broken pay phone on Mars.

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But that's changing. There's a new technology called Session Initiation Protocol that handles Internet phone calls more efficiently, making them less expensive and more hi-fi. Last week I decided to give it a chance.

I signed up for a new Internet phone service called Vonage, which costs $40 a month for unlimited local and long-distance calling (plus a one-time $25 setup fee). The average American phone bill is $55, so that's a pretty good deal, even factoring in the cost of a broadband Internet connection, which is required. You sign up online at www.vonage.com, and they send you a sinister-looking box the size of a large ashtray. Hook your cable modem or DSL line up to one end of the box, plug any ordinary phone into the other end, and you're ready to go. No PC required. (If you want to share your connection with a PC, as most people will, you'll need to run it through a router. Vonage will sell you one for $25; the setup is a little more involved, but it's still not brain surgery.)

Once the service is up and running, you quickly forget you're talking over the Internet. Really. Pick up the phone, and you hear a regular old dial tone, and anyone calling you will hear the usual ringing noise. The sound quality is crisp and clear. I won't say it's perfect--there's a slightly hollow, tinny quality--but unless you're planning to listen to Mahler's Fifth over the phone, it's no big deal. And there are other perks besides the price. At Vonage's website you can access a list of your last 10 calls, both incoming and outgoing. You can set your phone to forward calls to any other number, and you can even check voice mail online. Oh, and get this: for your new phone number, you get a choice of area codes. Greetings from northern New Jersey (732)!

Drawbacks? For arcane technical reasons, you can't call 911. Also, I found that "Guess what? I'm calling from the Internet!" isn't the dazzling conversation opener I thought it would be. Otherwise, I'm sold. In the year to come, most cable, broadband and phone companies will start adding Internet telephone service to their standard packages, and when they do, it's going to get even cheaper. The future is calling, and it's not collect.

Questions? E-mail Lev--no calls, please--at lev@timeinc.net