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Mr. Internet Come Here, I Want You!: Bob Reconsiders Internet Telephony

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Lately, the universe has been sending me signals of a significant change taking place in the way we communicate. The first hint came in a conversation with my friend Janis, who works in public relations and represents a number of interesting startup companies.

"Fax it over to me," I said.

"Fax? Who sends faxes anymore?" asked Janis.

Who indeed? Reviewing the log on my fax machine showed me that my primary use for the device is now for sending signed contracts and messages screaming at people who either don't return my phone calls or don't answer my e-mail. Incoming use of the fax is dominated by the same signed contracts coming back to me and by offers to sell me toner cartridges at discount prices. Janis is right, my fax machine has become almost inconsequential in my life.

But it was a good run. I bought my first fax machine in 1989 and am now on number five, a delightful plain paper number from HP that also serves as a light duty printer. That first fax machine changed my professional life, allowing me to barge-in on people all over the world. Back then, people actually read their faxes before anything else. Getting a fax machine made a guy with a home office (that's me) look pretty much the same as an Intel or Microsoft (that's them). It's an effect we have subsequently seen replayed with Web sites.

But these days most of what would have been faxed comes into my life as e-mail file attachments. It is quicker, uses less paper for everyone, and I can retrieve the material from anywhere in the world.

The other change in my life as a communicator took place when I looked at my last phone bill. Yikes! What at first appeared to be some form of phone fraud proved to be me making calls to France.

John Gau, my hero and TV executive producer, had bought a summer home in the south of France and was unable to get his e-mail there. The light is different in France, you know, and apparently the electrons are, too, because John, who normally lives in London, couldn't get his notebook computer to work with the French phone system. That took him off e-mail for a month, driving me insane in the process. Let's admit up front that Bob's a little bit compulsive.

So I replaced our regular e-mails with regular phone calls, each averaging $30-60 according to my phone bill from Hell. Like Everett Dirksen said, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you are talking about real money."

The logical thing to do at this point was to find a better phone deal. This time, though, rather than just switch from Company A to Company B, I decided to investigate the much more dramatic switch to IP telephony.

IP telephony is making phone calls over the Internet, something I have tried before with little satisfaction. For one thing, the Internet wasn't really designed with the idea of carrying phone calls. The Internet was designed for the reliable transfer of binary files. Files need to be transferred perfectly bit-for-bit, but it usually doesn't matter much how long this takes, whether retransmissions are required, or even the order in which the bits arrive at their destination. TCP/IP makes sure the packets get there no matter what. But phone calls are different. It is much more important for the voice signal to get to the other end of the line quickly and in the correct order than it is to avoid dropped packets.

So the Internet wasn't built for phone calls, but if we apply enough computing power to the task, it is possible to do. We have to overcome the limitations of half-duplex sound cards and having to hold a microphone to talk to your Mom. But this is all small stuff compared to the big issues of how to use the Internet to make calls to regular phones, not just to computers, and how to call computers when they might not be connected to the Internet.

The latter problem seems to be solved by DSL connections and cable modems. My little IDSL connection from the wilds of Sonoma County is always on, so any IP phone user who knows my number should be able to reach me anytime. The really big problem, though, is reaching out from the Internet to regular phones. The last time I looked at Internet telephony, a couple years ago, this particular problem seemed to be a deal killer.

That earlier IP telephony experience came about because, on a whim, I bought a little video camera to attach to my PC and sent another one just like it to a group of programmers who were doing some work for me in another city. Rather than fly back and forth I thought we could have videoconferences. But in that H.323 conferencing system the only way to reliably reach another party was by advertising your presence on some central site. The first time my boys in Cleveland tried to connect to me they instead found themselves looking at a very fat naked man who was apparently trolling for video dates. That was the end of our video conferencing experiment.

Faced with my giant phone bill, it was time to try again, and this time, there were very different results. A lot has changed in the world of IP telephony. There are now devices like Aplio, for example, that eliminate the need for a computer at all and let you plug a regular telephone into a little box that handles all the Internet parts of the call. You still need an ISP, of course, but that costs less than one call to France.

And there are now pretty sophisticated systems for interconnecting IP telephony devices to the regular phone system, typically for a fee, but one that is dramatically less than regular long distance. Two outfits in particular, Net2phone and Deltathree, offer what appears to be pretty much universal interconnection capability with calls to the U.S. and Canada being free and foreign calls greatly discounted.

So here is the set-up I chose after quite a bit of research. I bought an Internet Phone Jack card from Quicknet Technologies. This is a sound card that is optimized for Internet Telephony rather than for playing games or music CDs. As far as I can tell, it is unique. There seem to be no competing cards that aren't also made by Quicknet. The Internet Phone Jack is a $159 PCI card that works just fine in a system that already has another sound card. You can plug a regular phone into the Internet Phone Jack, turning your PC into the world's most expensive telephone. In my case, I used an old 486/66 Linux PC that was sitting around, plugging it into my local area network where it could reach my IDSL router. Then into the Internet Phone Jack card I plugged one line from the base station of my two-line Seimens wireless phone system. Line two is my regular office number and line one is the Internet Phone Jack. This way all my outbound calls go over the Internet leaving my regular line free for inbound calls and voicemail.

The Internet Phone Jack board comes with an application called the Internet Switchboard that does a number of useful things, including polling both the Net2phone and Deltathree systems for available connections. This is important because you don't get something for nothing, and both systems are subject to overloading. Having both to choose from (automatically!) makes it much likelier you'll get an outbound connection to a regular phone.

Quicknet makes another card called the Internet Line Jack that has all the same features plus the ability to connect to the regular phone system. This would allow you to connect from the road using your notebook computer and call out over your home phone line. It's clever but I couldn't see myself needing the feature, which doubles the cost of the card.

Now that things are up and running, the results are pretty darned good. I have, for the most part, forgotten that a computer is involved since I am using a regular telephone. No, it doesn't sound as good as a normal phone call, but I would say the connections are comparable with most cell phones and better than I expected. Nobody has yet complained about the connection. All my domestic long distance is now free, calls to France cost eight cents per minute, and my long distance saving more than covers my IDSL bill.

My fear, of course, is that everyone will use this system and there will suddenly be no available outbound connections. But assuming the systems can keep pace, it leads to another interesting idea. As we acquire broadband capability, it should be possible for us to use that one line to replace several existing lines. Fax numbers will be the first to go, followed by lines for kids' phones and eventually even the main number. Adding extra lines is just a matter of putting more phone cards in the same PC. In time we'll be using ICQ and other identifying numbers to make and receive calls from almost anywhere. The only fixed numbers we will need are for the broadband connection, itself (unless you have a cable modem) and for a cell phone. Then maybe, just maybe, this insane proliferation of area codes will finally end.

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