Q: I recently read a newspaper bit on low-cost phone calls over the Internet. Seems like there was some chatter about this in the late ’90s, but the quality was always too poor to make it fly. Is the new crop any better, or is this just residual dotcom hype?
Good memory, dear reader, as there was a considerable to-do in the boom years about Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP). The idea’s that, instead of funneling calls through cumbersome, pricey phone switches, you can convert voices into digital data and transmit ’em like any e-mail. The sticking point has always been the fuzziness of the resulting calls—sort of like speaking through a cell while immersed in a vat of Jiffy Pop. No longer, as you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a traditional call and a VoIP’er nowadays. There are still a few drawbacks, but not enough to scare away the penny-pinchers who’re sick of paying exorbitant amounts to call Wisconsin, Macedonia, or Queens.
VoIP has always been a world-beater of a concept. Whereas old-style calls require a dedicated digital link for every conversation, the next wave chops up your voice into “packets” of digital data. Those packets are reassembled in the appropriate order on the other end, and converted back into analog voice signals. Since Internet traffic isn’t regulated, VoIP providers needn’t pay zillions to phone companies for the “privilege” of using their wires. Guess who benefits from the cost savings? Yes, my consumer friends. You.
A few years back, Mr. Roboto would’ve advised against taking the nearly free ride. He recalls using Net2Phone (net2phone.com) and concluding that the sound quality was only slightly less grating than a rhesus monkey’s screech. Truly oddball things occasionally happened, too, like the packets getting reassembled in the wrong order. Fun if you’re a Junior Jumble enthusiast, but an annoyance for the other 99.9 percent of the population.
Net2Phone’s latest CommCenter software, which can be downloaded for free, solves a lot of those issues. The bummer is that you’ll likely need to jack a headset into your computer; the service still doesn’t work with conventional phones, though you can invest in what’s called an Internet phone. A phone that runs through your USB port goes for as little as $30, though mediocre is too kind a word for the sound quality.
Mr. Roboto prefers Vonage’s DigitalVoice service (vonage.com), with a monthly rate of $40 to call anywhere in the U.S. or Canada; international rates are piddling, like six cents a minute to Chile. For the flat fee, plus a 3 percent tax, you get voice mail, call waiting, and other assorted goodies that Verizon makes you pay through the nose for. Best of all, you can use your standard handset; Vonage tosses in a free adapter. (EarthLink is reselling Vonage’s service under the Unlimited Voice name, available to its broadband customers at unlimitedvoice.com.)
Before getting too weak in the knees about paying eight cents a minute to ring Jakarta, consider the caveats. Whenever your Internet connection flickers out, your phone’s unusable, so patrons of dodgy ISPs may be frustrated often. You’ll need to buy a router in order to surf the Web while you talk; a serviceable one is about $40. And though the quality’s more or less up to snuff, a hiccup in bandwidth will still garble your speech.
Wait if you’d like, but odds are you’ll be VoIP’ing sooner or later. Mr. Roboto just returned from Tokyo, the ultimate technology bellwether, where Internet calling’s hotter than Ryoko Hirosue (ryoko-hirosue.org). Stateside, the Baby Bell phone companies know which way the wind’s blowing, and have asked the FCC to start regulating VoIP calls. Here’s to praying they won’t succeed, and that the days of the 10.6 cent Verizon local call—not to mention the 30-cent-a-minute call to Minsk—will get dinosaured shortly.
Speaking of the Land of the Rising Sun, Mr. Roboto’s always amazed by those I’m-all-about-the-art American stars who shamelessly hawk facial creams and sodas on Japanese TV. Share the chuckles by viewing such ads at the brilliant Japander.com, the site that Harrison Ford (Kirin lager) and Winona Ryder (Subaru) certainly wish death upon.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 29, 2003