- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

It's Internet telephony, a way to make phone calls over the Internet. Once marred by an inferior speech quality that couldn't compare with that on dedicated phone lines and also by a tendency for voices to drop away before reaching their destinations, the technology is about to come into its own.
Earlier this year, the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva estimated that up to 40 percent of international calls will be completed via Internet wires by 2004.
Jeff Pulver, chief executive officer and founder of Pulver.com in Melville, N.Y., says Internet telephony already has gained a foothold.
"I have much higher reliability on Internet telephony than I do on my cell phone," says Mr. Pulver, whose company promotes use of the technology through conferences, newsletters, mailing lists and analysis.
Traditional telephone calls are sent using circuit switches, with each call needing its own dedicated channel. Calls made through the Internet, by comparison, operate by turning voice data into digital bundles, or packets, and sending them along any available Internet line. The signals are then reassembled from digital packets back into analog voice on the other end.
This method, with its multitude of paths, is more efficient and therefore less expensive. The savings are passed along to the consumer.
Calls made through the services of Net2Phone of Newark, N.J., one of the key firms in the Internet telephony market, can cost as little as 2 cents a minute for domestic calls made from a computer.
At first, such calls were made only from one computer to another, using microphones and the computers' speakers to talk and hear. Now customers don't necessarily need to turn on their computers to take advantage of Internet telephony.
George Washington University telecommunications professor Gerald Brock says such calls can be conducted from computer to computer, by phone to phone using access codes, or via private Internet networks.
Computer-to-computer and phone-to-phone calls suffer from lesser quality. Private Internet networks often are used "transparently" by telephone companies with no change in quality.
A private network, referred to as Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, implies that a system is overseen by a particular company to ensure high-quality transmission of voice data.
Mr. Pulver says Internet-based calls held an advantage during September's terrorist attacks.
On September 11, Mr. Pulver had trouble making phone calls into New York while visiting Atlanta, so he turned to Internet telephony.
"I couldn't make any local phone calls into the New York area but the Internet worked," he says.
"There really are no drawbacks; it's a matter of implementation," Mr. Pulver says of the technology.

University of Maryland business professor Anand Anandalingam sounds a less enthusiastic note.
Voice quality over a dedicated line, the kind found on a regular phone call, is superior, he says. If a phone call is placed over congested Internet lines, bits and bytes may be "dumped," and the results are not what consumers expect.
"A few times, you don't sound like you," Mr. Anandalingam says.
That said, voice quality has improved with the emergence of higher-bandwidth passageways on the Internet.
"Most people who know about it are techies, but even techies don't necessarily use it a lot," Mr. Anandalingam says.
He blames inertia as one reason Internet telephony isn't a household application. He says his own phone bills aren't so costly that he would seek an alternative, but his sister, based in Malaysia, relies on Internet telephony as an inexpensive way to ring up their family members in Los Angeles.
Mr. Brock envisions the technology as offering broader services to Web sites, particularly those that serve the public. Internet telephony might, in a few years, allow a consumer browsing a company's Web site to click a button and talk with a service representative while viewing products online.
"Those are technologically feasible," he says.
Motorola,based in Schaumburg, Ill., has been involved with online dialing for more than five years, says Chris Crafton, vice president and director of broadband policy.
"It started picking up steam over the last three years," Miss Crafton says, but she adds that the calls don't measure up to ones made by existing methods.
"The Internet isn't engineered for voice quality; it's grainy scratchy," she contends. "It's not comparable to your primary line services."
Net2Phone, which began more than five years ago as what Miss Crafton says is the first company to embrace this technology, allows consumers to make Internet-based calls from one standard phone to another.
Sarah Hofstetter, vice president of corporate communications at Net2Phone, says the public's biggest consumer concerns regarding Internet telephony ease of use and quality are no longer issues.
"The public's reaction in the beginning was somewhat skeptical," she says. At the time, "the quality was kind of spotty. The speed of the Internet was much slower."
As the public continues its embrace of all things Internet, such as instant messaging technology, however, the acceptance level is expected to keep rising.
Net2Phone customers can download free software to make calls from their personal computers to phones. Those calls are free for the first five minutes, then 2 cents per minute domestic and as little as 2.9 cents per minute international.
Calls made from one phone to another using their access codes are slightly more expensive, 3.9 cents per minute for domestic calls, with rates varying for overseas calling. A call to Beijing, for example, would cost 8 cents a minute. All such rates are for any time of day.
To make a call from one phone to another phone, a person must dial an access code before punching in the required phone number. The access code puts the caller onto a private IP (Internet protocol) network owned and managed by Net2Phone.
"It's not the way you're used to making phone calls," Ms. Hofstetter says, but she adds that her 75-year-old grandmother uses the technology, in part, by having the access code inserted into the phone's speed-dialing service.
AT&T;, which could have viewed such communications as a threat, has invested $1.4 billion in Net2Phone, she says.
"It was either beat 'em or join 'em," she says.
The voice-services provider IBasis, of Burlington, Mass., makes 80 percent of its international phone connections over the Internet via VOIP.
"Because this is happening invisibly, no one asks what kind of equipment is being used for your phone calls," says Adam Banker, IBasis' director of corporate communications. He says his firm carries more than 15 percent of all calls made to China from the United States.
"We're able to go around some of the congestion points of a regular phone system," he says.
Mr. Pulver, for one, isn't surprised at how quickly Internet telephony has made inroads in the telecommunications industry.
"Every 18 months, every thing just gets better," Mr. Pulver says. "These technologies which were once science fiction are now taken for granted."

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