I still recall the arrival of my parents' first telephone a few decades ago - a ponderous object cast from the best of British brown Bakelite, it often seemed to hick and snicker rather than ring. However, it worked and suddenly the country became smaller and my family nearer. Luckily, both technology and I have moved on. I now spend most of my life in distant parts of the world, wondering how things are at home and inevitably confronted with wallet-emptying phone bills when it's time to find out. My recent discovery that it's possible to make Internet-based phone calls to normal telephones anywhere in the world sent me into a flurry of activity. After some work, I've finally been able to make a usable system work for a reasonable cost.
The first important fact to note about Internet phone calls is that, unless you talk from one computer to another, they are not free. Even so, they are cheap, especially for the likes of myself whilst in more distant corners of the world. By now your questions must be bubbling to the surface. How does it work? What must you do? How much does it cost? How well does it work?
Software & Service -- VocalTec recently released Internet Phone version 3.5 for the Mac, featuring the capability to make phone calls from the Internet to the normal phone network. The program also enables you to talk directly to other users of the VocalTec's software who happen to be online at the same time - regardless of the type of computer they have.
To use Internet Phone 3.5 you must have a PowerPC-based Macintosh (at least an 80 MHz PowerPC 601 CPU, or a 120 MHz PowerPC 603 or 604), Mac OS 7.6.1 or higher, at least 16 MB of RAM, an external PlainTalk microphone (even if your Mac has one built in), and preferably a set of headphones. (Internet Phone 3.1 is available for 68040-based Macs, but as far as I am aware it is only capable of calls between computers.) Internet Phone 3.5 is available as a free, time-limited download from VocalTec; after 14 days its functionality decreases unless you purchase a full license for $50.
It takes more than just Internet Phone to make calls. VocalTec only writes the software; telephony services come from dedicated ITSPs (Internet Telephone Service Providers) who take your call from the Internet, connect you to the phone number you requested, and charge you (life's like that!). VocalTec has partnership agreements with a small selection of ITSP companies such as Delta Three, all of whom can be easily contacted through VocalTec's Web pages. Do some research before opening an account with an ITSP to make sure that they are the cheapest for the areas you expect to call. Prices vary between 10 and 15 percent among ITSPs, and some provide access only to limited geographic areas. Delta Three is global and through them it should be possible to call any telephone in the world. Opening an account with an ITSP (it must be prepaid with a credit card) provides you with a validation code for your copy of Internet Phone.
The Benefits of Patience -- How well does Internet Phone work? Although VocalTec claims Internet Phone is compatible with virtual memory, "compatible" must be loosely defined since, in my experience, the person you call can't hear anything sounding remotely human if you use virtual memory. It's also a good idea to disable all extensions and control panels that can monitor your Mac's modem port, such as Global Village's GlobalFax and TelePort software. You must also be absolutely certain that the computer is listening to the microphone - Mac OS 8.1 seems to switch away from an external microphone at every opportunity.
After all that, making a call is a simple as making a PPP connection, launching Internet Phone, filling in the recipient's phone number, clicking the call button, and being patient. The patience part is important: although sound quality is quite acceptable, there is a huge time lag in the system (probably only a second or so, but it seems like ages) reminiscent of a 1960's international phone call. The lag could be due to my distant calling location (Mozambique, in eastern Africa) - more localized calls (between the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance) might be significantly better. Once you have the hang of it, the system is certainly adequate for keeping in touch, though it wouldn't be up to serious business usage. Call quality, as expected, depends on Internet traffic and the country you try to contact; I have had good connections to the U.S. and the U.K., and Japan was reasonable, but Kenya was difficult, and India might as well have been on Mars.
The Costs of Conversation -- Now the important bit: how much does it actually cost? Although the cost of Internet phone calls varies according to destination country and ITSP, you'll typically find per-minute charges in the neighborhood of: U.S. $0.13, U.K. $0.16, Japan $0.27, Australia $0.20, and Russia (Moscow) $0.27. Call charges are not affected by where you call from, since all calls originate on the Internet.
I'm unfamiliar with standard international call charges in the U.S., but I guess that for U.S. residents these rates may not be significantly below normal; however, for people further afield, these represent serious savings. From my current location in Mozambique, the normal charge to call the U.K. or U.S. is about $4 per minute. Using the Internet, I was recently endured a grueling 21-minute wait on Apple's U.S. technical assistance line without too much pain or financial suffering... but that's another story.
[James Wilson is an errant fisheries economist. He is particularly interested in hearing from anyone who can get a G3 PowerBook modem to pulse dial.]