HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM 2007

  

 

Free Speech At Christmas

 

Catching up with far-flung relatives and friends over Christmas is as traditional as mince pies and The Queenís Speech but it generally involves expensive international phone calls, and keeping a close eye on the clock.

 

Wouldnít 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 neednít 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 Ďpacketsí of data so too can your voice and image. Itís 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 canít make emergency calls and both parties on a PC-to-PC connection have to use compatible software. Otherwise itís all good news, itís easy to setup and use and call quality can be as good, and sometimes even better than a regular phone call.

 

If you want to try it for yourself the best place to start is Skype (www.skype.com). Itís 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 PCís 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 Curryís 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. Thereís 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 (http://www.google.com/talk/); this is also free and thereís an option to connect through your browser, so thereís 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 thereís probably several people you havenít spoken to lately, who would really appreciate finding a USB VOIP phone in their stockings this Christmas.

 

 

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© Rick Maybury 2007 1311

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