VOIP comes of age

March 1, 2006

VOIP has improved and become more user-friendly, to the point where "ordinary" computer users rather than just the early adopters are installing and using VOIP software.

A couple of years ago, I used and wrote about Vonage, an early example of voice-over-Internet-protocol (VOIP).

Since then, the technology behind VOIP has improved and become more user-friendly, to the point where "ordinary" computer users rather than just the early adopters are installing and using VOIP software, mostly to make low-cost long-distance phone calls.

'Ugly prices'

Since I needed a high-speed Internet connection anyway, I decided to explore the possibility of using VOIP to make my long-distance calls. I had heard that Skype was one of the best of the VOIP services.

It took a few minutes to download and install Skype software from http://www.skype.com/ (available for Mac and PC). Skype is entirely software-based, so no adapter is required, and there is no contract to sign or basic fee to pay.

Because all I was interested in was the ability to make long-distance calls, I used my credit card to make a 10 Euro deposit for outgoing call credit (about $13 U.S. - at 2 cents a minute to the United States and most other First World countries, enough for more than 10 hours of talk-time. The cost of the call depends on where you are calling. If you are calling a cell phone in Afghanistan, the cost can be as high as 40 cents a minute - still quite a bargain, compared with other ways of making that call.)

I found that I could make acceptable calls using the built-in microphone on my laptop computer (a Mac) and could hear the other side of the conversation through a cheap pair of earphones. I spent $29 to purchase a Plantronics 250 USB headset with built-in microphone to improve sound quality, in particular on the teleconferences, and when calling my mom, whose hearing is not the best. I have found that before starting a call it is wise to go to the sound control panel and make sure that the system is set to use my USB headset as the sound input and output source.

Sound delay

Sound quality is good, but depending on the quality and speed of the Internet connection there can be a slight delay (perhaps 0.2 seconds) in the conversation - rather like talking over a satellite connection. For 2 cents a minute, this is a tiny inconvenience!

As word spread among my group in Cabo San Lucas, others installed Skype and used it for business and pleasure. One young mother who had spent $100 for a long conversation with her kids was delighted to switch over to Skype, at 2 cents a minute. She had no trouble downloading and installing the software on her laptop.

As I write this, I am in Zermatt, Switzerland, and have used Skype to call my office, business associates, a 1-800 number and friends in North America and the United Kingdom. The cost of making these calls using the hotel phone and phone cards would have been prohibitive.

For small additional fees, Skype offers an array of additional features like voice mail, incoming calls, and the ability to set up conference calls.

Considering the ease of use, high quality and trivial cost, Skype is a worthy addition to every traveler's laptop.

Kevin C. Smith, M.D., is a dermatologist in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He may be reached at ksmithderm@aol.com
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