By THOMAS J. FITZGERALD
Internet telephone service is well on its way into the mainstream.
Companies like Vonage, using a technology called voice over Internet
protocol, or VoIP, offer cheap long-distance rates and features not
found with conventional phone service. Cable giants, too, are taking
Internet phones to the masses.
Now a subset of VoIP services, called PC-to-phone service, is gaining
momentum. With these services, users can make calls to and receive
calls from regular phones on their PC's as long they have a broadband
connection, VoIP software downloaded from the Web and a headset.
One advantage of such services is the ability to make calls through an
Internet-connected laptop when cellular service is unreliable. Many
people also prefer the convenience of talking while working on a PC;
the services can operate while you are doing other tasks on the
computer. Another advantage is price. PC-to-phone VoIP rates are less
expensive than conventional phone calls and in many cases cheaper than
phone-to-phone VoIP services, which route calls through broadband
modems to regular phones.
Early versions of these services have been around since the late
1990's, but the rise of Skype, a mostly free VoIP service using
file-sharing technology, has increased competition in the field.
Yahoo, America Online and Microsoft have each announced plans to add
new phone services to future versions of their instant messaging
programs. And last week, Google introduced Google Talk, a free service
that enables users to talk through their computers and could be a
first step toward a PC-to-phone service.
PC-to-phone services available today from companies like Skype,
SIPphone, i2Telecom and Dialpad Communications offer many features
like free PC-to-PC calling, conference calls, voice mail, choice of
phone numbers, call forwarding and reduced long-distance rates,
especially for international calls. But as with phone-to-phone VoIP
services, call quality is not always perfect.