The talking Internet is here. The question is: Can anybody stand to listen?
Technology exists to enable telephone calls to travel over the Internet or other data networks, instead of the traditional public telephone system. That should make a multitude of ''smart'' services, including cheap conference calling and video calling, accessible to the average consumer for the first time.
In fact, many such features already are being made available by a host of start-up companies that use voice capabilities to enhance Web sites -- or Web functions to enhance phone calls. Many of these services still are in the fledgling stages, although most are dramatically improving month by month. Almost all have one gratifying characteristic: They're cheap, and often free. Internet telephony services today fall into three main categories.
Dialpad.com, Phonefree.com, DeltaThree.com and others allow customers to use their personal computers and an Internet connection to dial through to telephones or to other PCs. Calls within the United States and Canada are generally free and international calls are usually cheaper than conventional connections.
There are several wrinkles, however. As with most other free communication services on the Web, users must put up with advertising windows or boxes on their computer screens. The windows typically cannot be closed as long as the call remains connected, although they can be ignored if the user is not surfing the Web during a call.
Voice quality on PC-originated calls is often a poor substitute for the clarity of land lines. Not only are they subject to echoes and delays because of the technology of compressing sound to travel over the Internet, but computer audio equipment -- often a microphone and speakers rather than a handset or headset -- is typically of poor quality, degrading the sound. The experience is even worse if the user is on a slow connection to the Internet such as a dial-up modem.
In part to counter that phenomenon, Internet phone companies encourage customers to use headsets and other specialized equipment. Net2Phone is introducing a product line called ''YAP'' for ''Your Alternative Phone,'' which includes a phone-like handset that can be plugged directly into a PC.
Some companies allow users to take advantage of the convergence of the telephone and the Internet by bringing voice to the Web. Fire-talk.com provides a Web plug-in, a self-contained program that gives users conference calling, instant messaging and voice-chat features, all for free. Visitalk.com, meanwhile, allows users to conduct video calls -- assuming they have video cameras attached to their PCs.
The catch with these PC-to-PC services is that users who want to be connected must download the same plug-in and arrange to be online together. That can be tough without an always-on Internet connection, such as a cable modem, DSL line or an office connection.
Other companies use the Web to let customers manage their ordi nary phone service. EVoice.com provides free voicemail, which subscribers can check by dialing their home number, logging on to the EVoice Web site or having messages forwarded to their e-mail. The messages arrive as audio files that can be played back just like music files -- but they're accompanied by advertising messages up to 15 seconds long (which is how the service can remain free).
Numerous companies are using data networks to provide domestic and international phone-to-phone service at a discount, which varies by country. DeltaThree, for example, bills calls to Mexico at 25 cents a minute vs. the 60 cents charged by AT&T and to Zambia at 77 cents a minute vs. AT&T's 85 cents. Rates on calls to France and elsewhere in Europe are closer: 16 cents for DeltaThree and 17 cents for AT&T. Other Internet phone services match or improve on DeltaThree's rates.
These services generally work by calling card. Customers pay in advance and draw on their balances according to how long they talk and with whom. The services therefore can be used from any phone. But they have the disadvantage of any ''staged'' dialing system: Users must first dial in to the service, then punch in a password or user code and the phone number, even if calling from home.
For many people, that long string of digits is a major hassle. ''Stage dialing (is) an ineffective means in striving for mass-market success,'' observed industry analyst Edward R. Jackson of Piper Jaffray Equity Research in a report last year. If such services are to catch on, he said, they'll have to allow customers to simply dial the number they're calling.
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