How much does it cost you to phone your brother in Canada or Aunt in Australia? Too much probably, which is why they only hear from you for a few minutes at Christmas or when there's been a death in the family. What if you could speak to them for just a few pence per minute; you would call them more often, wouldn't you…?

Maybe not, but the point is international telephone calls are expensive, though precisely how much can be difficult to work out due to the maze of tariffs. To slash your overseas phone bill by as much as 90% all you and the person you're calling needs is a reasonably up to date multimedia PC with a soundcard and a modem (14.4 kbps or faster), plus a microphone and some simple to use software.

It's called Internet Telephony and it makes use of the fact that sounds can be converted into digital data and sent from one PC to another, in much the same way as the other types of information flying around the Internet. The reason it is so cheap is that when you're on-line, accessing the Internet, you normally only pay local rate telephone charges, (plus a monthly subscription); the fixed costs are the same whether the web site is based in the next town, or Timbuktu.

The obvious disadvantage is that both parties -- you and the person you're talking to -- must have a PC, and be on-line at the same time, though there are ways around that. Several companies provide a service whereby you can call a conventional fixed-line telephone from a PC. At the moment packages such as Net2Phone (web address below) are better suited to business users, and the number of countries where services operate is limited, but it makes the PC almost as flexible as a normal direct-dialled phone. This is an area of intense development and several large computer and telecomm companies, including IBM, Siemens and Deutsche Telecom have begun marketing web phone systems for corporate users.

Early PC to PC Internet telephone software had a reputation for poor quality and reliability, and that still holds true to some extent but it is improving all the time. Internet data is sent in short bursts or 'packets', which is not a problem with text or images. It simply means that when the Internet is busy a web page takes longer to appear, but when the packets contains speech, interruptions can be annoying break the flow of a conversation. Better software and an increase in the number of high-speed data lines that make up the backbone of the Internet have reduced the extent of the problem. Nevertheless, at peak times there can be delays, but the actual sound quality is now almost as good as a conventional telephone line.

Some Internet phone systems allow multi-way conversations and the host web sites often have 'chat' rooms, dedicated to a particular theme or subject. Needless to say a lot of them tend to be 'adult' oriented, so come caution is advised, particularly where youngsters have access to the PC. It's also worth pointing out that Internet phone connections are not secure and your conversation can be monitored at any point on its journey.

Another problem that is now being overcome is the lack of standardisation between the various Internet telephone software packages. In other words you had to use the same program as the person you're talking to. That's less of an issue nowadays, though it makes life easier if both computers are using the same software as PC to PC connections may have to go through a dedicated web site. However, that needn't be a problem and it means you can use extra facilities, such sending and receiving video images, as well as speech. The picture is usually static, updated every few seconds, but it adds a novel dimension to keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives.

A video phone connection requires some extra hardware, you will need a video capture card or module costing around £100, plus a camera, though if you have a camcorder you can use that instead.

There are numerous freeware and shareware programs on the Internet but NetMeeting 2.1 is of the most up to date and accessible packages moreover it is available free of charge from the Microsoft web site. In addition to conforming to the most commonly used net phone protocols it also supports two-way video. The program is a just over 2.0 megabytes in size, and it takes around ten to fifteen minutes to download on a 33.6k modem. It is self-extracting, so it is easy to install and once you have entered a few simple details, (your name and e-mail address), and adjusted the volume levels, it's ready to use.

You can choose to include your name on various on-line telephone directories, signifying your interests, and elect to receive or bar unsolicited incoming calls when you are on-line. To make a call click on a name in a directory, a red asterisk signifies that they are also connected, a camera symbol shows that they have a live video connection as well. However, if you simply want a one to one conversation  just enter their E-mail address into the directory. At a pre-arranged time, when you know they are going to be on line, click on the entry, and the recipients PC will emit a ringing tone. They answer with a mouse click, the line is open and away you go.

If your PC is already set up for E-mail the additional costs for Internet telephony are minimal. The technology and software is still at the pioneering stage but that makes it all the more exciting. You'll be participating in an experiment that promises to revolutionise the communications industry, and it could save you a small fortune in phone bills!





A multi-way or conference call, where several people can talk together


Device that converts digital signals coming from your PC into audible tones that can be sent via a conventional telephone line


Digital data on the Internet is conveyed in short bursts which helps help maximise the capacity of the high-speed telephone lines and communications links between server computers 



If any of the peripherals attached to your Windows 95 PC are behaving erratically, or not at all, your first port of call should be the Device Manager. This can be found in Control Panel; double click on the System logo and select the Device Manager tab. This will bring up a list of the devices used by, and connected to your machine. If any of the entries has a yellow exclamation mark next to them this could indicate that the source of the problem is a missing or corrupt driver. Start the Trouble-shooter utility by clicking on Help on the Start menu then type 'Conflict' in the Index field. Double click on the highlighted line that appears and follow the instructions.

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