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.
Skype (www.skype.com), a popular VoIP network based in Luxembourg, has
had 51 million users register worldwide since its inception, with five
million in the United States and an average of three million users
logged on at any one time. To make free calls to other PC's, users
simply download the Skype software from the Web site; the PC receiving
the Skype call also has to be connected to the Skype network. For
PC-to-phone calling, the company has added SkypeOut and SkypeIn. With
SkypeOut, introduced last year and now having more than two million
users, PC's with the Skype software are able to call conventional
phones. Minutes are purchased in advance, and the price depends on the
destination. Calls within the continental United States, for example,
are 2.1 cents a minute; calls to New Delhi are 15.4 cents; Sao Paulo,
Brazil, 2.5 cents; and Beijing, 2.1 cents.
Those international rates are below what Vonage charges for VoIP calls
from the United States to those cities, at 17 cents, 6 cents and 6
With SkypeIn, introduced in March and still in the test stage, a phone
number can be attached to a Skype account, enabling callers using
regular phones to call you at your computer or leave messages in your
Skype voice mail. You can choose a phone number from many area codes
in the United States and also from several other countries. The
service costs $12 for three months or $38 for a year.
Another new option, Skype Zones, allows access to Skype from Wi-Fi
hotspots operated by Boingo (www.boingo.com), which has 20,000
locations; the Skype Zones unlimited access plan costs $7.95 a month.
A competing PC-to-phone service, called Gizmo Project
(www.gizmoproject.com) from SIPphone, was introduced in July. Like
Skype, Gizmo Project offers free PC-to-PC calls. It also offers Call
Out, a service that allows calls to regular phones from your PC, and
Call In, which enables a PC to receive calls from regular phones. Call
Out costs 1.8 cents a minute for calls in the United States; the Call
In plan costs $15 for three months or $30 for six months.
A PC-to-phone service from i2Telecom, called VoiceStick
http://www.voicestick.com , was introduced in March. Outbound and
inbound calling can be controlled using VoiceStick's downloadable
software or with an optional U.S.B. flash drive for portable access to
the service. The drive, which costs an additional $34.99 and includes
a mobile headset, comes with the VoiceStick software installed; it
plugs into available U.S.B. ports on Windows-based computers, and a
menu asks if you would like to begin using the service from the drive.
The company offers several calling plans, including an unlimited
global option, for $24.99 a month, which includes your own phone
number and unlimited calling to points in the United States, Canada
and hundreds of cities in 38 other countries and territories. Another
feature, called i2Bridge, enables you to make calls to any
destination, including international locations, from your cellphone or
home phone at VoiceStick rates.
Dialpad http://www.dialpad.com , another PC-to-phone service, offers
monthly calling plans as well as prepaid minutes for outgoing
calls. Subscribers can get 300 minutes a month for $7.50, 500 minutes
for $9.99 and an unlimited option for $11.99, covering calls in the
United States and Canada, with international calls costing
extra. Prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans can be purchased for $15 and
$25. Dialpad does not offer a service that allows PC's to accept
incoming calls from regular phones.
Dialpad was acquired by Yahoo in June, and its PC-to-phone abilities
are expected to be added to a new version of Yahoo Messenger in the
coming months, a Yahoo spokeswoman said. The Yahoo Messenger program
was recently updated to include free PC-to-PC calling and free voice
mail, and is now called Yahoo Messenger With Voice.
Microsoft announced this week that it had acquired Teleo
http://www.teleo.com , a PC-to-phone service with features that work with
Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook, and plans to start adding
components of Teleo's technology to MSN Messenger later this year. And
AOL, using a partnership with Net2Phone http://www.net2phone.com ,
introduced a PC-to-phone service in 1999 called AIM Phone. The company
has plans to supplant that service with a more full-featured VoIP
service in a new version of its instant messaging program, which is
likely to be available by the end of the year, according to an AOL
Net2Phone, the first company to offer PC-to-phone service in 1996, has
expanded its services. With its software, downloadable from the Web, users
can call regular phones worldwide. Most calls within the United States are 2
cents a minute, for example, and the service lets you fax documents from
Several other PC-to-phone services are available, including
iConnectHere http://www.iconnecthere.com , operated by Deltathree,
which has a pay-as-you-go option in addition to monthly calling plans
($5.95 a month for 400 minutes within the United States and Canada,
and $14.95 a month with 1,000 minutes in the United States and Canada
and 250 minutes to selected countries overseas).
With the number of PC-to-phone services growing quickly, the features and
choices available to consumers are certain to expand.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
To read the New York Times on line each day with no registration or
login requirements, go to: http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/nytimes.html