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banner Monday, 8 April, 2002, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Talk is cheap (over the net)
Chinese man taking phone call
Rest easy: Cheap long-distance calls
E-mail is all very good, but there's nothing like a good old chin wag. Cheap call charges mean the trend for talking over the net is growing.

The cost of broadband net access may be falling, but for some it is still a little pricey. Yet subscribing to a fast net service could save you money, on your phone calls.

A broadband net connection means you can make long-distance and international phone calls via the internet rather than the old-fashioned telephone system.

Your new telephone keypad?
The difference in cost can be substantial.

For example, a one-minute call to Uzbekistan with BT costs 79 pence per minute (this is before any discount package). Via the net the cost is likely to be a quarter of that, possibly less.

And the price won't change if you make the call from the US instead of the UK.

The technology that makes it possible to convert your dulcet tones into packets of data and spew them out in intelligible form at the other end is called Voip - Voice Over IP - and pronounced like "void".

Think of packets

The "voice over" describes what is involved, and "IP" refers to the Internet Protocol - the technical standard for how data moves across the net.

Information goes out in packets, and must be reassembled
When you do anything on the net such as send an e-mail or download music, the data involved is split into small pieces, or packets.

The packets are labelled so the machines that pass them on know where they are going and which ones belong together. This helps their intended destination work out if all the packets for a particular music file or message have arrived.

They have to work out if all the parts have arrived because data packets don't necessarily travel together as they traverse the net's highways and byways.

The fact they take different routes helps the net cope with congestion.

But this makes it hard to guarantee a particular packet of data will get to where it is needed in a predictable amount of time.

Frustrated user
Don't wait for the computer to ring - Voip cannot receive calls, yet
If you are downloading music this doesn't matter. All you care about is that all the packets arrive, eventually.

But with a conversation it's vital that the words and phrases arrive in order and in a timely fashion.

Hence the need for broadband to ensure the data arrives quickly and in the right order. Dial-up is just too slow to support a phone call of a quality comparable with a fixed phone.

So far, the biggest fans of Voip have been businesses. But now consumers are starting to take advantage of it.

To use a Voip service you have to download some call-making software, get a headset or USB handset for your PC, sign up with a Voip provider, and buy some call time with a credit card.

Why it's cheaper
Voip is cheaper because your phone call piggybacks on the network that is the internet. All you pay for is the local call at the far end
For anyone owning a PC running Microsoft's Windows XP program it is even easier.

A Voip program is bundled in with XP's Messenger software and lets people use any one of four Voip providers to make calls via the net. One of the four is British consumer Voip company Callserve.

Paul Duffy, managing director of Callserve, said since January of the number of call minutes made per month via its service has grown by 25%.

One measure of its growing importance was evident last week when Oftel issued guidance for any company thinking about using Voip to replace existing phone services.

The 05 prefix

Oftel is even thinking about reserving numbers beginning 05 for IP phones to get over Voips current biggest problem: the fact that you can only call out on Voip - other people cannot call you at your PC. Instead they have to use the old-fashioned dog and bone.

Woman with headset laughing
"5p for international calls - you're having a laugh"
Mr Duffy believes Voip could help release the stranglehold some telephone companies have on the local loop that connects customers to their local exchange.

"Historically it has been that last mile of wire that the telecoms operators have been interested in to get their products to customers," said Mr Duffy.

But with Voip they don't have to take over the local loop, instead they have another way to reach consumers.

Mr Duffy predicts that as Voip becomes more widespread, call charges will tumble. Within a decade he believes the most expensive international call will be 5p per minute.

And if that happens then it will be the old fashioned phone firms who will be counting the cost.

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