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Ask Shak:
The Scoop on Internet Telephony -
Is it a Business Solution?


One of the most important relationships you’ll ever have is with your personal computer. There’s perhaps no other component of our business life that’s more vexing as that box that sits on most people’s desks. Everyone has computer questions and we’re here to assist you in that department. Below are a few questions I’ve received recently from readers. I hope the answers will be useful to you.

Over the past few months we’ve been getting more questions from clients about making phone calls over the Internet. In particular one individual, who has a business partner on the mainland, asked about Dialpad.com, which has a free phone service.

So let’s start at the beginning. In the industry using your computer to make calls on the Net is known as Internet Telephony or "Voice over IP". This technology has indeed garnered a great deal of press and no wonder. Who wouldn’t like to make free phone calls? Dialpad.com does indeed provide free long-distance calls to anyone with a web-enabled PC and a headset. I think this is pretty cool stuff for someone who wants to save money but is willing to sacrifice a great deal of quality. In other words you could try calling your nephew or possibly a business partner but you might think twice about calling a client.

That said, Voice over IP is one of the more interesting developments in the Internet arena for the average user. It wasn’t too long ago that the only way to make an Internet call was PC-to-PC but this required both parties to have the same software and to be logged on at the same time. This was greatly popularized by programs such as Microsoft’s "Netmeeting" and others.

Nowadays there are a number of companies that offer PC- to-phone service free and, at discounted rates. The services vary. Some provide service to only U.S. numbers whereas others will work with overseas calls. Others will provide you with free calls if you fill out their questionnaire and agree to subject yourself to ads.

Dialpad.com, a Silicon Valley company, I think offers the most simple system. You download their software available at www.dialpad.com fill out a form and provide them with demographic data. To use it all you do is log on to your Dialpad account on the site and a window pops up. You then punch in the number and the call goes through. Banner ads run simultaneously but they are not too obnoxious. After placing the call your number is relayed via the Internet to the actual phone number.

As I alluded to above, the sound quality is not great. I would say it’s pretty similar to a cell phone call and depends on your pipe to the Internet. A 56K modem works decently but quality would probably be better if you had a high speed Roadrunner or DSL connection. There are always variables that make this type of telephony iffy such as Internet traffic, time of day, and whoever is on the other end may have to deal with dropped words and the like.

To use it you’ll need Windows 95, 98 or NT, a microphone, speakers and of course a good quality, preferably a full duplex sound card. When conditions are optimal this works pretty well so long as you have a fast modem and don’t run too many other programs simultaneously. Using a headset will make it easier to hear who your speaking to. It’s worth looking into if you can put up with the hassles and the price is certainly right.

Some of the other similar PC-to-phone services include:

Net2Phone (www.net2phone.com) was one of the first companies to offer PC-to-phone service. They offer discounted calls with rates ranging from 4.9 cents per minute to Britain and 6 cents per minute to Japan.

MediaRing.com (www.mediaring.com) currently has a free promotional plan that allows for unlimited 25- minute calls to U.S. locations. Normally it’s a paid program with rates ranging from 10 cents per minute to Britain and 16 cents per minute to Japan.

Callrewards (www.callrewards.com) offers 20 minutes free for signing up. However one must earn air time by referring others and participating in their ads. It currently only supports U.S. phone numbers but will go international soon.

Net.Caller (www.accesspower.com) allows for unlimted free calls to the U.S. and Canada for $10 per month and unlimited calls to 12 European nations (and the U.S.) for $20 per month.

DeltaThree (www.deltathree.com) provides inexpensive national and international paid calls that range from 3.9 cents per minute to North America; 8 cents per minute to the U.K. and 11 cents per minute to Japan.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu computer and networking company established in 1991. Questions should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com.

Pacific Business News, February 4, 2000

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