Free Speech At Christmas
Catching up with far-flung relatives and friends over
Christmas is as traditional as mince pies and The Queen’s Speech but it
generally involves expensive international phone calls, and keeping a close eye
on the clock.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could chat with Aunt Maud in
Australia for as long as you like, without worrying about the cost? Well, you can, all you need is a computer
and a broadband Internet connection. If the person you are calling is similarly
equipped it needn’t cost either of you a bean, and if you both have webcams you
can see as well as talk to each other.
So how is it done? In the same way that web pages and emails
travel around the Internet as ‘packets’ of data so too can your voice and
image. It’s called VOIP or Voice Over Internet Protocol and well as PC-to-PC
calls most services allow you to call landline and mobile phones from your
computer, usually for a faction of the cost of a normal call.
VOIP technology has a couple of drawbacks, you can’t make
emergency calls and both parties on a PC-to-PC connection have to use
compatible software. Otherwise it’s all good news, it’s easy to setup and use
and call quality can be as good, and sometimes even better than a regular phone
If you want to try it for yourself the best place to start
is Skype (www.skype.com). It’s free and you
can download the necessary software from the Internet or pick up a USB Skype
Phone or a starter pack (which usually contains a headset/microphone and an
installation disc). You can use your PC’s speakers and an external or built-in
microphone but a headset gives you privacy and they only cost £5.00 or so from
on-line sellers and stores like Curry’s Digital and Maplin. Dedicated VOIP
phones, with a proper keypad and display, start at under £10; shortlist models
with free Skype Out minutes, so you can call landline and mobile phones.
There’s even a Wi-Fi phone for Skype, made by Belkin (around £50 from Amazon),
that lets you make and take calls (using the Skype In service) when your PC is
switched off, or whilst out and about from wireless hotspots.
The software only takes a couple of minutes to install after
which you are ready to go. If the person you are calling also has a Skype
account add their name to your Contacts list and it tells you when they are on
line. If you have Skype Out minutes (purchased separately for around £5.00)
simply dial the landline or mobile number as you would on a normal phone.
There are plenty of alternatives to Skype, like Google Talk
is also free and there’s an option to connect through your browser, so there’s
no need to download any software. VoipBuster (http://www.voipbuster.com/en/) lets
you make free PC calls to landlines and mobiles in more than 30 countries, you
can also send SMS Text messages for just 0.035 pence. The latest Skype software
has a basic two-way video facility but for multi-way video calls have a look at
ooVoo (http://oovoo.com/), which lets up to 6
users share an audio and video link.
It will be a while before your PC replaces your normal phone
but give it time the technology is evolving fast! Meanwhile there’s probably
several people you haven’t spoken to lately, who would really appreciate
finding a USB VOIP phone in their stockings this Christmas.
© Rick Maybury 2007 1311