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Computer Column

March 17, 2004

By Craig Crossman

When we think about what telephones of the future may be like, images of phones with video screens, digital readouts, lots of buttons and flashing lights are what typically come to mind. And while some of those impressions may be true, most of that stuff really doesn't scratch the surface. All of those things are mostly cosmetic.

The real future of the telephone is not the phone itself, but rather the service that will connect all of them to each other. And the service of the future that will eventually connect all of our telephones is already here. It's the Internet.

Most of our phones today are still connected to each other via the public switched telephone network that has been in place for decades. But as the popularity of the Internet began to take hold, the idea of sending other types of data besides simple text across the information super highway began to evolve.

It soon became possible to send full-motion video and sound since all of it could be converted into digital data. So if you could send sound over the Internet, why not use it to place a phone call? Thus was born the technology known as Voice over Internet Protocol or "VoIP" for short.

The first Voip attempts were crude to say the least. To make a "call," you needed two personal computers connected to the Internet running special software that usually had to be from the same company (until some standards began to emerge). Informing the other end you were ready to place a call was usually done by agreeing on a preset time or going online to a central meeting place such as a chat room.

Using a sound card with a microphone and speakers connected, you'd establish a connection. You could then converse with each other. But it was pretty bad.

The first endeavors were half duplex. This meant you had to talk much like a "press-to-talk" walkie-talkie where only one party could talk at a time and the other would have to listen. Plus the audio quality was horrible. But still, you were talking long distance for as long as you liked and it was FREE!

Time passed and improvements added full duplex where you could talk and listen at the same time. Eventually you could use your computer to call an actual telephone and the sound quality got a lot better.

Today, Voip promises a potential that is positioning it as a major contender. In fact, most are predicting the technology to be the one that will eventually replace the existing switched telephone network.

Several consumer outlets such as Circuit City are already selling Voip services that offer unlimited long distance calling at flat rates that challenge services offered by the major telephone companies. And all you need is a broadband connection to the Internet such as DSL or cable modem.

The Voip provider usually includes some kind of telephone adapter into which you plug an ordinary telephone. You are issued a telephone number and you're ready to make phone calls to just about anywhere.

Where you can call and what limitations you may experience are governed by the Voip service provider so it's best you get all the details before you subscribe. For example, make sure the provider lets you call any telephone whether it's connected to another Voip service or to a regular phone line

Another exciting feature of Voip technology is that the number actually follows your telephone. So say for example that you have your phone plugged into your Internet connection in Florida. When you decide to go to your summer home in New York, just take the Voip adapter with you.

When you plug it into your New York Internet service and plug a phone into it, the phone will ring in New York even though the caller is still dialing the same phone number that made it ring in Florida. This portability is similar to what happens with your cell phone in that the number follows you wherever you go.

There are still some setbacks with Voip in that things like emergency 911 calls may not work, and information services such as 411 might not yet be in place. After all, if the number follows you wherever you go, dispatching emergency services to your location may prove to be a bit more daunting. But all of these things are mere technological hurdles, many of which have already being resolved as Voip continues to make headway.

Some of those hurdles are also legal and political. The FCC for example, recently stated that Voip is not subject to all of the communication taxes and tariffs to which current telecommunication companies find themselves bound. That's because the FCC says that Voip is really no different than email in that it's all just digital data being sent back and forth over the Internet. So if email isn't being taxed, then neither should VoIP.

With that in mind, it's no wonder that all the major players in the telecommunications industry are already getting their hands into the exploding Voip industry. Long distance company AT&T has already introduced its own Voip service called CallVantage (www.usa.att.com/callvantage/action/smp).

If you're interested in some of the current companies now offering Voip services to consumers, check out the ones from Vonage (www.vonage.com) which is the one being offered at Circuit City, and Packer8 (www.packet8.net). Some of these companies offer unlimited calling plans starting at $19.99 a month. Some include the necessary hardware, some do not. Check out the different web sites for more details and information on availability in your area, different calling plans, features such as Voice Mail, Call Waiting, Caller-ID, international calling and lots more.

So what will the telephone of the future look like? It just might look like the one already sitting on your desk. After all, just as in life, it's how well you're connected that makes all the difference.



 
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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See www.vonage.com/911 for details.

** Certain call types excluded.

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