Internet telephony has been around almost as long as the Web, but the technology hasn't taken off in the way of other Web-enabled applications such as text-based chatting, streaming video, and online banking. Even so, millions of people use the Web to make at least some of their telephone calls—to other PC users and to people with regular telephones.

Why would you want to make calls on your PC? The reasons include Internet telephony's flexibility, low cost, and definite coolness. Want to call someone on the other side of the country for a penny a minute (or free if they also have an Internet phone) or call Europe at a rate much cheaper than conventional phones offer? Want to add a second (or third, or fourth) phone line for peanuts or in places where you can't get more phone lines without significant cable stringing? An Internet phone lets you do all this. You can even avoid getting hit with hotel room phone charges when you travel (if your hotel room has a DSL line) by using an Internet telephone to call from your laptop.

Tiny Little Packets
According to the International Engineering Consortium (IEC), Internet telephony refers to communications services that traverse the Internet rather than the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). To originate an Internet telephone call, an Internet telephony system first converts the analog voice signal to digital format, then compresses and translates the signal into IP packets for transmission over the Internet. The process is reversed at the receiving end.

In 1995—long before people took high-speed Internet connections, fast processors, and other multimedia PC capabilities for granted—a handful of software providers created programs that let users make voice calls from one computer to another computer for free. Unfortunately, both parties had to have multimedia PCs and the same software, which translated voice signal into Internet protocols. Another stumbling block for Internet telephony was that in 1995, the average modem speed was an anemic 14.4Kbps to 33.3Kbps. And the slower the Internet connection, the funkier the call sounded.

The complexity of getting started with Internet telephony and its initially poor sound quality prevented the technology from taking off the way flashier (and lower-bandwidth) Web applications have. But as broadband Internet connections such as DSL, cable modem, and satellite continue to grow in popularity, Internet telephony looks more enticing for home and small-business use, especially because you can now use your PC to make calls to conventional telephones, too.

Making the Connection
Let's explore the equipment you need to make Internet calls and some options for prepackaged Internet phones. The basic setup includes a PC, an Internet connection, Internet telephony gear (speakers and a microphone), and Internet telephony software.

System requirements. Make sure your computer has a reasonably fast processor (at least 300MHz), a decent amount of RAM (64MB is the bare minimum for Internet telephony, and Microsoft recommends a minimum of 128MB for Windows XP), a sound card, speakers, and Windows 95 or later. XP includes Windows Messenger software, which you can use to make calls from your PC to any telephone in the world by using one of several available Internet telephony providers.

Internet connection. If you want high-quality Internet telephone calls, get the fastest modem connection you can. The ideal choice is a high-speed connection such as cable modem or DSL. Microsoft recommends at least a 28.8Kbps connection for Windows Messenger.

Internet telephony paraphernalia. To make Internet calls, you need PC speakers and a microphone. Or you can use a multimedia headset with earphones and a microphone.

You can also use an Internet telephony package. For example, Net2Phone's two YapGear Internet phones—the Yap Phone (a telephone handset) and the Yap Headset—simply plug into your computer. The Yap Phone plugs into a computer's USB port and sports an early 1960s George Jetson style. The Yap Headset plugs into a PC's sound card and looks like a typical multimedia PC headphone and microphone. The headset phone will replace a computer's external speakers, unless you also use a y-cable and a pair of speakers with an on/off button. Both YapGear phones come with Net2Phone software.

Actiontec Electronics makes internal and external InternetPhoneWizard applications that let you plug a conventional telephone into the Internet with any Win98 or later PC. If you have an unused PCI slot available on your PC, you can add the internal InternetPhoneWizard to a PC that uses either a 56Kbps modem or a broadband connection. Or if you have an unused USB port, you can plug in Actiontec's external InternetPhoneWizard, connect a phone, install the Actiontec software, and start chatting.

Internet telephony software. If you don't use a prepackaged Internet telephony system and you have a pre-XP version of Windows, you can download Internet telephony software from an Internet telephony service such as Net2Phone (http://net2phone.com), deltathree's iConnectHere (http://www.iconnecthere.com), or BuzMe (http://www.buzme.com). For information about configuring Internet telephony software to make calls, see the sidebar "Making the Call," page 85.

Internet Telephony vs. Real Phones
After you've connected your hardware to your PC and installed Internet telephony software, you can start making calls. One difference you'll notice between using regular phones and placing Internet calls is occasional tiny but noticeable delays during Internet calls because of the PC's processing limitations. The quality of your call will depend on the power of your system, the number of applications you have running, and the Internet traffic at the time of your call; you can expect lower quality during peak Internet traffic hours.

Most Internet phones can call out to Internet and regular phones. But most won't let you receive incoming calls from a conventional telephone. When vendors overcome this software limitation, Internet telephony use will likely soar.

But Internet telephony's low cost might outweigh any reduction in quality and lack of dial-in capabilities. You can use Internet telephony to call relatives on the other side of the world for much less money than a regular call would cost, to call for a pizza delivery when you're using your only phone line to surf the Internet, or to call your techno-savvy friends on their Internet phones for free. You can also use Internet telephony to add a second phone line for a small business without incurring installation or monthly fees beyond the usage charges.

You might soon be able to place calls through your cable provider by using a technology called Voice over Broadband (VoB—for information about VoB, see the sidebar "Alternative Telephony," page 85). Internet telephony technology also serves as the foundation for business collaboration solutions, such as the Microsoft NetMeeting program. For more information about NetMeeting, see the sidebar "Making the Call" and the Connected Home Online article "Videoconferencing on the Cheap" (http://www.connectedhomemag.com, InstantDoc ID 24754).

Although the technology still has some quirks, Internet telephony can make the entire planet a local—or free—phone call away. Who do you want to call today?