Calling Mom on Your Computer

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Phonoholics no longer need wipe beads of sweat from their brows as they open this month's phone bill. Anyone who gabs endlessly by telephone has a new best friend: free Internet-to-phone calls. All you need is a PC, Net access, a microphone or headset and someone to talk to. Let the talkfest begin.

Known as Net or voice-over-IP telephony, the calls are carried by your Internet service provider, so that a call anywhere costs no more than your local access to your ISP (assuming you even pay for that). You can talk to someone similarly rigged on another PC or to any regular phone connection. Advertisers on these sites basically underwrite your calls, but at a price to you: On two of the services we review, you may have to click on ads to earn phone minutes. The sites also want to know all about you. You've got to fill out questionnaires, and then you've got to watch or even interact with banner ads and junk "tailored" to fit your interests in order to keep using the service.