Talk Is Cheap


How would you like to be able to speak with your Aunt Maud in Australia or your brother in the USA for free, for as long as you like? If you both have PCs and broadband then it can be done using Voice Over Internet Protocol or ‘VOIP’. This ingenious development is revolutionising the telecomms industry and one day it could make conventional fixed line phones redundant. It’s early days and there’s still a lot of confusion but if you would like to see what the future holds you can try it right now, and it won’t cost you a bean!



What is it?

VOIP or Voice Over Internet Protocol is a clever trick that lets PC owners use the Internet or computer networks to make phone calls to one another, or call from a PC to a landline or mobile phone (and vice-versa). 


How does it work?
Phone conversations are turned into ‘packets’ of data and sent over the Internet in exactly the same way as web pages and email messages. The only requirement is that both PCs should have a broadband connection. VOIP can be made to work on dial-up but the quality is dreadful and not worth the effort. 


What are the advantages?
PC-to-PC VOIP calls are carried on the Internet so they are free or very low cost (over and above the user’s normal broadband subscription and connection fees etc.). Some VOIP software is free and it’s a great way to try it out, though paid-for VOIP services are generally more flexible with extra features.


Any Internet-capable PC can be used for making and taking VOIP calls and that includes laptops and portable PCs, so you can stay in touch whilst travelling, using broadband connections in hotels and through wireless ‘hot spots’ in cafés and airport lounges.    


Under ideal conditions call quality can be excellent, even better than a landline connection, though much depends on the software used, the speed of the connection, Internet and network traffic levels and the headphone or handset used with the PC or laptop.


Some VOIP programs support multi-way (conference) calling and two-way video calls, when both PCs are equipped with webcams.


What are the pitfalls?

Both PC users normally have to use the same VOIP software or service and you will need a headset or handset that plugs into the PC if you want your calls to be private.


Incoming calls can usually only be received when the PC is on, connected to the Internet and running the correct VOIP software, though a growing number of VOIP phones operate independently of PCs by connecting to suitable ‘Ethernet’ type broadband modems.


To take calls from landline or mobile phones it is necessary to use a service that provides the user with an access phone number or a Direct Inward Dialling (DID) facility. This normally involves a subscription or additional call charges for one or both parties. Similarly, outgoing VOIP calls to a landline or mobile phone number has to go through a service provider, though the fees or subscription is usually a lot less than normal fixed line local and international call charges.


Some VOIP services – mostly the free or low cost ones -- are capped and automatically disconnect after a preset period. Calls to emergency services, directory enquiries and so on may not be possible on some systems and most VOIP systems will not operate during a power cut.


VOIP technology is still very much in its infancy and there is very little in the way of standardisation. Companies and services will undoubtedly fail or disappear in the early days so it may be unwise to invest too much in equipment or subscriptions, or rely on VOIP as your only phone service.



How much does it cost?

It needn’t cost you a penny. If you want to give it a try, and have a friend or relative with a broadband PC – and they can live anywhere in the world -- simply download Skype, set up an account (and tell the person you want to talk with to do the same). It’s worth buying a headset microphone (or a purpose designed handset) and prices for these start at around £5.00.


If you want to dial out to landlines and mobiles then you will need to subscribe to a service and pay for outgoing calls but the cost varies enormously. There are free dial-out services – with strings attached – but in general the outlay is from a few pounds a month for unlimited use to per minute call charges that vary according to the type of phone and country being called. 


To receive incoming calls from landline and mobile phones you will need to pay or subscribe to a service, which will issue you with a telephone number. Once again payment schemes and charges vary widely, from a flat monthly subscription for unlimited use to per-minute charges based on the time of day and caller’s location, so shop around for the deal that best suits your needs.






Skype, one of the first and most popular VOIP services is absolutely free when used to make PC-to-PC calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world. Premium services for making outgoing and taking incoming calls to and from landlines and mobiles are available by buying Skype Credit or taking out a subscription. Outgoing calls start at 0.017 pence per minute, subscriptions for taking incoming calls from landlines cost from £10 for 3 months. 


Free or very low rate incoming and outgoing VOIP calls can be arranged by registering with services like VOIP User, (see Contacts for details), though this is best suited to advanced users. 





A growing number of ISPs and telecomm companies are now offering VOIP services and the prices vary widely. For example the recently launched Tesco package costs £20 for a handset with a phone number for non-VOIP and this also includes a £5.00 call voucher. Calls to UK landlines cost 2 pence per minute and calls to mobiles are 10 pence a minute 


Some major ISPs, including BT and Orange (formerly Wanadoo) now bundle VOIP messaging with new broadband packages or offer them as an upgrade but read the small print carefully as the tariffs, call charges and allowances can be fiendishly complicated. 




Most VOIP systems operate through a PC with a broadband connection and this has to be left running on order to make outgoing and take incoming calls. However a number of top-end VOIP phones have all of the necessary hardware and software built-in and only need to be connected to a network or Ethernet type broadband modem. Consequently they are a lot dearer, prices start at around £70 to £80 and this type of VOIP phone is better suited to companies and businesses operating large-scale networks. 





VOIP Headset

Hama CS-499, £9.99

Basic neckband headphone with boom microphone. Fitted with standard 3.5mm minijack plugs, compatible with most PCs and laptops, widely available from PC vendors and accessory stores.




SKYPE Cyberphone W, £30.00

Two-piece phone handset designed specifically for use with Skype (software included). Fitted with USB plug, simple to install and setup, selectable ringtones, missed calls display, conference calling, and voicemail indicator.




GrandStream BudgeTone 102, £70.00

A conventional looking desktop phone, pitched at home and business users. Plugs directly into broadband/LAN router so no need for PC to be left switched on. Built-in caller ID display, alarm clock, music on hold and downloadable ringtones. Open standard so compatible with a wide range of services.








Type of broadband modem that operates independently of a PC



Set of technical standards for sending ‘packets’ of data to specific locations or IP ‘addresses’ in a computer network or through the Internet



Internet Service Provider -- a company providing access to the Internet along with other services such as sending and delivering email etc.



Local Area Network -- a network of connected computers, usually within a small geographic area (office, building etc).



Device in a network that transfers data between computers





BT Communicator



FREETALK (formerly Dixons Freetalk)






TESCO Internet Phone




VOIP Price Comparison











BT Communicator

BT’s VOIP offering can be difficult to find in amongst all of its other services but it’s reasonably easy to setup and use, and charges are fed through to your normal phone bill. The software is free to download and with this you can talk free, PC-to-PC, to other Yahoo Messenger users. Extra optional features let you call landline numbers from your PC (Clic2Call, calls charged at normal BT rates) and take incoming calls (Clic2Connect, calls charged at normal outgoing call rates plus 1p per connection)






Freetalk was one of the first VOIP packages to be backed by a well-known high-street name, in this case Dixons. It is designed to be simple to understand and use and works with any normal phone, which plugs into an adaptor box that connects to broadband modem (preferably Ethernet type). Freetalk costs £80 a year, or £8.00 per month and this includes unlimited UK and local calls, international calls and calls to mobiles are competitively priced, from 2 pence per minute; a number is provided for incoming calls.





Of particular interest to International Callers Gossiptel’s packages include a free pay as you go tariff with a rate of 2.5pence per minute for calling 35 countries. The World 500 tariff costs £9.95 per month which pays for up to 500 minutes call time to landlines in 35 countries and mobiles in the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore and China. The World Unlimited plan costs £14.99 and provides unlimited international calls to landlines and mobiles. Gossiptel works with any broadband connected  PC based (free software download), or ordinary phones using an optional adaptor for £88, or a hardware VOIP phones costing £120.   





© Rick Maybury 2006 2606














Normal BT Rates

The devil you know and simple to setup but fiendishly complicated rates


£7mth or £80annual




Easy setup -- uses existing phone & no PC but requires Ethernet broadband modem






Excellent intro to free PC to PC VOIP but dial-out services not terribly competitive


£10 (includes phone &  £5 call voucher)




Buy starter pack online or in-store. Windows PCs only, straightforward call charge structure


£10 setup/£8.00mth (£6pm first 6 months)




Good value for heavy users, no PC needed but Ethernet modem required


ppm = pence per minute


* Freetalk & Vonage merge on September 19th

** Gossiptel site down -- suspicious… Could be iffy.,  I would leave them out


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