Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has been around for a few years but, until recently, disappointed most people who experimented with it. Two people having a conversation using cheap microphones and speakers (or earphones) were frustrated by slow Internet connection speeds, inefficient software and computers that couldn't keep up with digitizing and transmitting two-way audio signals.
Fortunately, that's not what it's like any more. Conversations over VoIP are now indistinguishable from those held over traditional circuit-switched phone networks.
To maintain sound quality and manage variations between computer types and speeds, most VoIP services now use hardware solutions instead of software. A "black box" voice gateway sits between a high-speed modem and a computer, and your existing phone gets plugged into it. Your computer doesn't need to be on all the time; as long as your DSL or cable modem is on, your phone will work.
Once your account is configured, your black box and a phone can be used anywhere you have Net access (home, work, school, café, hotel, etc). If you're travelling in Bangladesh and can locate a high-speed Internet connection, you can make and receive local calls to and from Toronto.
VoIP used to be strictly for making calls from computer to computer but has now been integrated with the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) to provide universal access to and from the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). You can use VoIP to make a call from your computer to any phone, and the signal gets routed through the Internet.
Instead of having to build expensive infrastructure, new phone providers can offer their services over any broadband connection. Formidable barriers to entry for home telephone provision, gigantic dams holding back a tsunami of pent-up consumer demand, are going to break wide open.
The Primus TalkBroadband ( www. primustel. ca/en/residential/talkbroadband/ ) basic package starts at $15.95 a month with $139.95 Voice Gateway hardware purchase, or $19.95 a month if you rent it, which is about 20 per cent cheaper than Bell's offer.
Another option is Vonage ( www. vonage.ca ), a New Jersey-based VoIP provider that already has 125,000 subscribers in the U.S. It launched across Canada in late April and offers subscribers the choice of Canadian or U.S. area codes (or toll-free numbers).
The Vonage basic plan costs $19.99 a month and includes 500 minutes anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. For $45.99 a month, Vonage gives you unlimited calls anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. All the add-on features that the incumbent gouges people for (voice mail, caller ID with name, call waiting and call forwarding) are included in all their packages.
But don't replace your existing phone plans without understanding the negative side of buying into the current technology. Because of how VoIP works, 911 service doesn't. If you dial 911 and scream for help before the fire engulfs you, the operator won't know whether you're calling from Bangladesh or Toronto.
Also, just as cellphones were useless in last summer's blackout, VoIP phones have the same power dependency, while the land-line network has proven it can withstand almost anything. Pick up a pay phone and you get a dial tone. No questions asked.
And then there's the hidden cost of still having to pay for broadband. It's a non-issue for those to whom broadband is plumbing, but it means cost comparisons aren't necessarily fair.
There are also CRTC regulations to consider. A preliminary "non-binding" decision in April states that existing telephone rules apply to most Internet phone calls - in respect to tariffs, privacy safeguards and 911 service. If the providers abide by the ruling, the implication is that VoIP services may cost a few extra dollars a month. The CRTC, however, is currently re-evaluating the situation, and there's no ETA for a binding decision.
By the time the CRTC makes up its mind, other countries' services may have made an end run around our own companies through clever marketing, competitive pricing and establishing customer bases. Ma Bell should watch out, because this isn't a one-horse town any more.