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The Free Internet telephone
March 2006

The Internet is only a network of computers (including yours, when you are online), but it is the largest electronic network of any sort in the world. This presents huge and previously unconsidered opportunities for people with large brains to think of new ways of using it.

The latest one that is being actively promoted by all sorts of companies is VoIP. It stands for Voice over Internet Protocol; in English this means making telephone calls over the Internet.

Why is this a benefit to us? Mainly because it means that you can now call anyone in the world who is on the Internet for nothing. Yes, nothing. Not a sausage. Free.

It's all part of the massive rewriting of the rules that is taking place in the telecommunications world at the moment. Phone companies are finally having to admit that they have been massively overcharging us for years, as young companies step in with shiny new software that runs rings around the old stuff

It's just like Ryanair embarrassing the other airlines by showing how cheaply they could fly us around and still make a profit. But it's far worse for the telephone companies than it was for the airlines, because not only do they now have new competitors, but the technical ground is shifting fast beneath their feet. The VoIP system can completely bypass the telephone lines altogether.

This is how it works. First, you need to buy yourself a VoIP telephone or headset (like call centre people use), and plug it into your computer. It needn't cost too much, probably less than £30. Then you need to download a bit of free software from the provider of your choice. is probably the best known (eBay paid several billion dollars for it recently) but Yahoo and BT also offer something similar at Skype need you to be using Windows XP; Yahoo doesn't seem to be so fussy. They both work with Apple Macs, too.

Then you must get to grips with the pleasures of installing and registering it, with passwords, preferences, options, making sure it does not clash with your anti virus software or firewall and all the rest. Good luck with that; it's never as simple as you expect it will be.

Finally, make sure that the person you want to contact has installed the same software. You could ring them up on an old fashioned telephone to check, but it is more in the spirit of the thing to email them, I think. 

Now, provided you press the right buttons, and they are beside their computer when you call, and it is switched on and connected to the Internet, and the software is running, and they can work out how to answer you, then you can talk to each other for as long as you want. As with email, the only expense is whatever it costs you both to connect to the Internet.

The sound quality will, to some extent, be a function of the speed of your connections - broadband is best, by far. I have been using Skype to speak to someone in Kenya for a month or so now, and it sometimes falls over, but for the price it's a marvel, especially as the place I am calling does not have a telephone, just a satellite Internet connection.

It's still a bit of a technical struggle to get going (but that will soon improve) and no doubt they'll find a way of charging us something in due course (AOL are already talking about charging for "priority" emails, so watch out), but for the moment it's a great way of beating the system and thumbing your nose at BT.

I'm always pleased to hear from readers.


Webster’s Webwatch Online version of the 1869 "Chambers' Book of Days" filled with fascinating facts, anecdotes, curiosities, and biographies. Captivating. An excellent, and free, email filter that weeds out all the rubbish for you. A database of more than 6,000 collections in the UK's museums, galleries, archives and libraries. AVG - a well regarded, and free, anti virus software that protects your email.