Phone calls over the Internet used to go something like this: "Hey! We're talking on the Internet!" (Pause.) "Yeah!" (Pause.) "Are you still there?" (Dead silence.) "What?"
Internet calling is back, but it's undergone an extreme makeover. Dubbed VoIP, which stands for "Voice over Internet Protocol," it looks and feels like regular phone service, with garden-variety phones, dialtones, monthly fees and everything.
Transcript: Express features editor Holly Morris discussed a special VoIP report.
Despite its user-unfriendly name, VoIP (pronounced "voyp") simply means that phone calls travel over the Internet in bits and pieces of data, like e-mail or a Web page, rather than over the phone company's system. All you need is a DSL or cable broadband connection. VoIP boosters - and there are a lot of them - will tell you that combining phone and data lines is the way of the future. If you've heard the term "convergence," well, this is it.
And for now, the future looks cheap. At $20 to $35 for unlimited long-distance plans, VoIP costs less than most traditional phone services, though you still have to pay for a broadband connection. (Pricier but fuller-featured plans are available for businesses.) You're also spared the fees and taxes that weigh down cell and landline services. International calls can run up to 50 percent less.
Here's where it gets weird: VoIP numbers aren't linked to physical locations. You can sign up for a number in any area code offered by a service - handy if you do business in one state and live in another. (Or if you want to pretend you live in a more glamorous city.) You can also add additional numbers for about $5 a month. These "virtual numbers" act like e-mail aliases; when someone dials one, it rings your VoIP line. If your boyfriend lives in Atlanta, you can add a 770 number so that you're a local call.
These phone numbers can follow you everywhere you go, even overseas, provided there's a broadband connection to plug your VoIP adapter into. If your current number can be transferred to your VoIP line (which depends on several factors), you can keep it forever.
VoIP services also offer features, for free, that cost extra on traditional phone lines, such as voicemail, caller ID, three-way calling, call forwarding and the blissful Do Not Disturb, which turns callers away. Several let you check your voicemail online or have messages forwarded to your e-mail as sound files; many have complex call-forwarding schemes that can track you down at several different phones.
Of course, any early adopter is going to face the glitches and hitches of a new technology. Unlike a traditional phone line, VoIP won't work if the power goes out. At least for now, all numbers are unlisted. And 911 is tricky. Since a VoIP number isn't tied to a location, most VoIP 911 calls are routed to a local intermediary number based on an address you specify. You have to give the operator your address and phone number - a real problem if you can't talk.
Sound-wise, VoIP lines are about on par with cell-phones, and some are much, much better. The real stress comes when you use the Internet while talking on the phone, which can introduce burbles, break-ups and voice delays of anywhere from one to a whopping five seconds.
How much trouble you have will depend on the speed of your connection, network traffic, whether or not you're also online, and other factors. Cable connections generally have more capacity than DSL, which means fewer glitches when you're online. But throw in a second or third computer user and either voice or data transfer is going to suffer, even on a cable connection.
Finally, setting up VoIP isn't as easy as plugging a phone into a wall jack. You have to be comfortable enough with technology to futz with your home network, whether that's a laptop and a broadband modem or a sprawling wireless network.
Speaking of phone jacks
forget 'em. The only place to plug a phone into a VoIP line is the telephone adapter box your service provides, which plugs into a broadband modem. (If you want to get technical, a home's wiring can sometimes be jiggered to send VoIP service to all jacks.) Providers recommend cordless phone systems that use a base station to control additional handsets. Other gizmos that need phone jacks, such as Tivos and home security systems, are probably not going to work. And most services are still working on fax capability.
You can sign up by buying a start-up kit at a store (Best Buy, amazon.com and the like) or subscribing directly via a service's Web site. You're rewarded with cables, sometimes less-than-clear instructions and the adapter box, which converts the phone's analog signal into digital information.
Then the futzing begins. Some adapters require you to buy a router so you can use your phone and computer at the same time. Some are routers, which can replace your current router or plug into it (and where it goes in your chain o' networking gear can affect sound quality and speed of file transfers).
But as anyone who ever shouted "I'm talking on the Internet!" into their computer knows, things will only keep getting better.