Switching telephone providers used to be the only way homeowners could save money on their telephone bills. Now, thanks to new technology, consumers have another option – making phone calls over the internet. And this can be completely free if you call another person with an internet phone set-up.
The technology is called voice over internet protocol, or VoIP. In 2005, consumer demand for VoIP dramatically grew. In the US, where popularity has grown faster than here in the UK, 8.4 million are predicted to subscribe this year.
For the past couple years, VoIP pioneers such as Skype have accounted for the majority of internet phone subscribers. Now, companies including Sipgate and Babble.net are offering their services to consumers. Internet service companies such as MSN, Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk are also getting in on the act with services that let PC users make calls from their computers to regular phones.
VoIP is attractive to consumers because it’s cheaper than traditional phone services. With the basic equipment of PC, microphone and headset, and VoIP software and broadband internet for optimum voice quality, consumers can save a fortune chatting for free to other internet phone owners and save money calling regular landlines.
But, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Many of these services suffer from intermittent lapses in quality. While some users may tolerate echoes or a dropped call, analysts say improved quality is needed to attract more mainstream customers.
Computing Which? has examined the benefits of using a PC as a telephone with VoIP. Services are free to other PC users with the same software, and some providers give the option to upgrade to a paid service to make cheap calls to standard landlines.
Jessica Ross, editor, Computing Which?, says: “Using your PC as a phone can be so cheap, often even free, that pricy landline and mobile bills could be in danger of becoming extinct.
“With mobile phone services entering the broadband market, VoIP looks set to be the choice of the future.”
In an assessment of six free VoIP services, Computing Which? evaluated how easy they were to set up, how effective they were and the range of their features.
Skype (www.skype.com) came top for its fuss-free approach, easy set-up and exceptional voice clarity.
Sipgate (www.sipgate.co.uk), MSN (www.messenger.msn.co.uk) and Yahoo! Messenger (uk.messenger.yahoo.com) provide an audio “wizard” that optimises sound levels.
Google Talk (www.google.com/talk) was less helpful, with audio level indicators only kicking in once the call had been initiated.
Yahoo! Messenger provides some of the best features, including the option of landline calls, webcam chats, instant messaging, voicemail and conference calls.
Babble.net, (www.babble.net) was let down by its poor help files and software bugs.