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Internet Phone Service Doesn't Replace Conventional Telephone Lines....Yet

In the beginning a telephone call was connected over a pair of wires between two callers, one call, one pair of wires. Today, so-called early adapters are making phone calls over the Internet, transmitting digitized audio on the same computer infrastructure they use for e-mail or surfing the Web.

Ryan Naraine expects that 5 to 7 years down the line, you'll be replacing your traditional telephone service with a VOIP Service.

VOIP - which stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol - allows a user to place telephone calls using a high speed Internet connection instead of the phone company's wires. Ryan Naraine says the market has great potential. Take a company like U.S. based Vonage, which recently signed up its 500,000th subscriber. "They're the market leaders today," he says. "But there are about 10 to 15 smaller Vonages out there signing up hundreds of thousands of subscribers"

Ryan Naraine says the major attraction for business and home users is cost. "Low cost per call, even free calls, especially for long distance," he says, adding there are low infrastructure costs for businesses. "On the consumer side there are things like forwarding all of your telephone calls straight to your cell phone (and) forwarding your voice mail to e-mail," he says. "You can sit at work, have an e-mail pop in with a link to a website to listen to your voice mail. There are all kinds of small, neat little advance features that it offers."

Freelance writer Jon Kohl first tried Internet calling a decade ago when he had dial-up service, but dropped it because the quality was bad. A friend in Germany told him about Skype, a VOIP service, which uses high-speed broadband Internet connections and offers free calls among Skype subscribers.

Now Jon, who works from his home in Washington, DC, has a long list of friends and family who use Skype. Among them is his brother Brian, a computer analyst in Houston, Texas.

On this day Jon sends an instant computer message to see if Brian is awake and online. "He is saying good morning to us," Jon says. "We will just tell him we are going to call him in a second. Now in order to use this you have to have a microphone and a speaker, which most people have these days."

Jon clicks on an icon on his computer and the phone rings. Brian answers from his computer in Huston. "The service has been very useful as an alternative to the traditional phone communications we have had in the past and certainly economic," Brian says, adding that he likes keeping in touch with his brother for free.

Other VOIP systems allow you to use a conventional telephone plugged into an adapter. But VOIP - while improving - has its downsides. A power failure knocks out service, something that doesn't happen with conventional phones. VOIP users may not be able to make full use of emergency call services. And writer Ryan Naraine says the service can also be a security risk.

"The problem is that you leave that data open to hackers who have their own tools to sniff into Internet works and eavesdrop on phone calls and steal voice mails," he says. "When businesses start adopting VOIP, for competitive reasons, you don't want your voice mails and voice data out there for any and anyone to pick up."

Other experts say the security risks are no greater than with conventional phone calls, which can be intercepted in other ways. But Ryan Naraine says that until the industry can resolve these issues, Internet phoning will likely remain an inexpensive long-distance service supplementing - but not replacing - a traditional telephone line.