With the cost of everything else going up, it is worth noting that the cost of voice communications has come down drastically in the past 10 years. This is due in part to the fact that voice transmissions no longer travel exclusively through telephone wires. They now make at least part of their journey through the Internet, where distance doesn’t matter and capacity is practically unlimited.
VoIP, or voice over internet protocol, is the technology that instantly turns sound into little packets of data and back into sound again. The term VoIP is also used to mean Internet telephony. You are probably already making long-distance phone calls over the Internet without realizing it. But you could save more money by using the Internet directly, if you aren’t already.
The easiest and cheapest way to use VoIP is via your computer. Once set up, you may use it to call another computer, a mobile phone, or a land line. Rates are much lower than those charged by traditional phone companies – it now costs only pennies per minute to phone any number in virtually any country. It can be free, depending on the service you choose and which number you are dialing.
VoIP can also be used from a mobile phone or other hand-held device. Many VoIP providers enable one to send documents and instant messages. Skype even offers a phone that operates anywhere there is a wireless Internet connection. But let’s start with the basics.
Most computers come equipped with speakers, and the cost of microphones or headsets start at just $15 or so, so it’s easy to turn your broadband-connected computer into a phone by downloading VoIP software. You will also need a credit card; billing is either pay-as-you-go or by monthly subscription. The most well-known of the Internet-based VoIPs are Skype, Gizmo5, Google Talk, Yahoo! Messenger, and Windows Messenger, but the list of providers is long. There are some variations in sound quality, the operating system on which they will run (Windows, Mac, or Linux), and the security of the line. If you are concerned about security, look for an encryption feature, which will block eavesdroppers from tapping into your calls. For a dizzyingly long list of providers and their features, go to Wikipedia.com and search for “Comparison of VoIP Software.”
The most popular of them are simple to use, and VoIP-to-VoIP calls are usually free, but “soft phones” have a few limitations. The sound quality is usually good, but not always. A few countries limit the use of VoIP or require the rates to be the same as those of traditional long-distance providers (Japan), but most do not. VoIP connections do not transmit faxes very well. They may not work at all when they are routed through certain satellite or digital-video recording TV systems, and if you are on a university campus, you may be restricted from using Skype. But it is worth a try to find out because VoIP can bring the cost of long distance calls down to nothing or close to it. If using VoIP from your home, you may be tempted to cancel your land line, and many have. But first, a caution: Internet telephony does not usually allow Enhanced 911, which links your phone number to your address. So in an emergency call, emergency services may not be able to tell where you are—you will have to tell them.
One benefit of removing geography as a factor is that you can choose the area code in which your account is located—it need not be where you are. So if you are serving a group located in another part of your state (or the world), you can make it free for them to phone you, and make billing simpler, if you locate your VoIP phone number in their area. Skype, for example, sells phone numbers in 21 countries and numerous US cities. Or, if you know your office will be moving to a city in another area code, you could buy a Skype number in either the new or the old location, then program it to forward calls to any other number, where you will receive them. In this case, you will pay $18 every three months for the number itself plus any long-distance charges between the number dialed and the number where the call is forwarded. These rates are the low rates offered by VoIP providers.
You may be tempted to eliminate the calling plan on your Internet-enabled mobile phone and download Skype instead, but it probably won’t work. Most US mobile phone providers block VoIP access on their internet-enabled phones, or charge fees for allowing it. They would rather that you use their own long-distance services. But VoIP mobiles are on the way, and are already sold in Britain and a few other countries. These will be great for technophobes who don’t want to use a computer to save money on long distance charges.
These technologies are constantly changing, and the number of features offered is growing. It is possible to have an Internet chat on a mobile phone or to share files while talking through your computer. In many areas now, you can sign up for VoIP phone service at your home or business with low long-distance calling rates and keep the same phone number, but the costs approach those of traditional landline service.