Back in the Web's early days some enterprising techies jury-rigged personal computers so they could be used to place free phone calls around the world.
Beyond the considerable expertise required to make these computer phones work, a big drawback was the sound quality: with the low-speed connections common at the time, most calls sounded about as clear as a bad mobile phone call.
But recently, Internet-based phone calls have become more of a mainstream phenomenon in large part because the call quality has improved and the technology has become easier to sue.
VOA's Rosanne Skirble discussed the trend with New York based technology writer Peter Meyers. She first asked Mr. Meyers to explain what is Internet-based phone service and how it works.
Peter Meyers: "The way phone calls have traditionally been made over the past 100 years is through the dedicated connection between two callers wherever they are in the world of a circuit. And what that boils down to means that one line is used up every time two people were on the phone. Once the Internet arrived, a new technology became available and the technical term for it was 'packet switching.' Some people are familiar with that the way e-mail is sent, where the [e-mail messages] get broken up into little tiny chunks and then sent along their way on the Internet and reassembled at the last moment so the reader is reading a normal e-mail. [The same thing is true] with an Internet-based phone call. The audio that somebody is speaking into a microphone gets broken up, sent along the Internet and then reassembled at the last minute so it sounds more or less like a phone conversation. The technical term for this is 'voice over IP."
Rosanne Skirble: "I remember it was popular a few years ago? What happened?"
Peter Meyers: "It was popular back then because people were fascinated with the idea of making a phone call anywhere in the world with their computer with the considerable advantage being that it was for free. The problem was that back then - we are talking about the mid to late 1990s - most people connected to the Internet via a dial-up connection and the connection was consequently very slow. What has happened in the last year or so is that high speed, broad-band connections to the Internet have taken off. The technology for having a phone call over the Internet has improved. It has become easier to use. So, that more people have tried it again and more companies have gotten into this business and it is really starting to skyrocket in popularity."
Rosanne Skirble: "When I tried it, I used my own microphone and connected it to my computer for better sound quality. Is that still necessary?"
Peter Meyers: "There are really two ways to make an Internet-based phone call. One is the way you used to do it and many people still do, which is to use a very high quality microphone or cheap microphone and just attach it to your computer and use it in conjunction with an internet phone call program. The second way - and the one that is a little more popular because it resembles the way people have traditionally made phone calls - is to buy a specially made Internet phone that plugs into a broad band Internet connection and then you just dial right on the phone as though you were making a phone call. The phone call itself gets delivered over the Internet, but the user's experience is very much like making a phone call."
Rosanne Skirble: "I remember it was cheap. Actually it didn't cost us anything!"
Peter Meyers: "That is how things started and that was a huge reason for its popularity in the early days. That for the most part has gone away as companies for the most part have dedicated time and energy to make this technology easier to use. Now they are beginning to charge. But the charges are still considerable cheaper than using a traditional phone call plan. Just one example, I was recently reading about Honduras that calls to the United States run in the $1.00 to $1.50 a minute range. Using an Internet-based phone it is more like 10 cents a minute."
Rosanne Skirble: "Big telephone companies must not be real happy about this!"
Peter Meyers: "They are not. They are starting to look at the number of people who are starting to use this technology and starting to become concern. Right now it is still fairly small. Just to give you one measurement, [for example] in the Asian Pacific region in 1999 there were 325 million minutes of phone calls made on the Internet. By 2006 the prediction is that number will increase to 600 billion minutes. So, [it will become] very, very popular in the next few years, and I think once the spread of broad band becomes even greater we are going to see video phone calls, where people not only have an audio phone conversation, but they [will] also stick a small video camera on top of their computer to see what is going on the other end."
Rosanne Skirble: "So, I'll have to go down to my basement computer room and try it again."
Peter Meyers: "And make sure you brush your hair!"