If the Internet can be your bookshelf, your radio and your TV, why can't it be your phone as well?
It's been able to be that for years, actually. But until recently, sending and receiving phone calls online were pastimes best left to techies who could reel off their computers' numeric Internet Protocol addresses from memory -- you couldn't simply plug a regular phone into the Internet.
Now you can. Naturally, it comes at a price, but the fees charged by most "voice over Internet Protocol" ("VoIP" for short) services fall far below those of land-line phone service.
And unlike land-line phone service, you can find real choice in the VoIP market. Companies act as though they actually need to win over their customers, competing to offer the best bundle of services for the lowest price.
VoIP works by breaking down a conversation into a stream of digital packets that can be shipped across any broadband Internet connection. Business took to the technology first, but consumer-priced versions soon followed. I recently tried out three of them: AT&T's CallVantage, 8x8 Inc.'s Packet8 and Vonage's self-titled service.
These contenders share a few things in common: You get your choice of area code; free domestic calling; and call waiting, caller ID and voice mail at no extra charge. You also need a DSL or cable Internet connection (Vonage and Packet8 say satellite access might work, while AT&T says it's "not supported").
Each VoIP service supplies a book-sized box called a telephone adapter with Ethernet ports (to connect to the Internet as well as your computer or home network) and one or more phone jacks. This Internet dial tone only works out of those phone jacks -- plug in a cordless phone if you want to talk in other rooms.
This box must be positioned correctly in your networking setup for it to work, but there's no standard way for doing that. Vonage's adapter can be plugged into either a broadband modem or a router, AT&T's will only function when connected to a modem, and Packet8's adapter must plug into a router.
Getting this placement straight was a little like trying to set up a home theater from individual components -- I spent far too much time rearranging look-alike cables and wishing they didn't all come in shades of gray.
Each adapter came programmed with a phone number and networking settings appropriate to many cable-modem and home- or office-network setups. This means that you can move your "home" number to any other locale with a fast Internet connection, just by plugging in the adapter there.