- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

Like most 18-month-olds, Serena DeMille plays peekaboo with her father, sings him songs and kisses him goodnight. But unlike most, she does it through her family computer and an Internet video phone.

The technology allows Serena and her mother, Kat, to keep in touch with Staff Sgt. Jeffrey DeMille at Good Fellow Air Force Base in West Texas — to hear and even see each other — without the high cost of long-distance phone calls.

On Father’s Day, they plan to talk two or three times, just as they do most days.

Internet video phone calls allow users to have an audio or video and audio conversation. Users need a high-speed Internet connection as well as a Web camera and a microphone.

Instant-messaging providers are the strongest players in the Internet video phone market because consumers are already familiar with the text part of the programs, said Su Li Walker, an analyst for Yankee Group, a technology communications firm.

But other companies have entered in the market, including Texas’ EyeNx Inc., which offers SeeNx, ITave in Vancouver and Berkeley, Calif.-based SightSpeed, which the DeMilles use.

Serena’s parents were worried about how she would adjust to her father’s absence. Shortly before he left last month, they found an Internet video phone that allowed Serena to still see her father without breaking the bank.

“When he got his computer hooked up and she saw him, she had a glow on her face, ‘this is my da-da,’ ” Mrs. DeMille said. “It’s had an impact on her adjusting” to his absence.

Like the DeMilles, most Internet video phone users are families keeping in touch with loved ones far away. At SightSpeed, about 60 percent of users are over 40 years old and use the technology to talk to family members.

Almost half of SightSpeed’s users are outside the United States, in 158 countries, according to Brad Treat, co-founder and chief executive officer of SightSpeed. Internet video phones are popular in Europe and South America, Ms. Walker said.

Another quarter of SightSpeed users are businesses that are interested largely in multiparty conferencing and sending video messages to clients, who can view the program without downloading the software.

“They find it’s much more personal than something cut and pasted from a template,” Mr. Treat said. “People really like the personal element of it.”

Internet video phone providers are battling to overcome perceptions of poor quality, Ms. Walker said.

When instant messaging arrived in 1997, consumers tried webcams but were disappointed by their simple, grainy pictures and slow speed.

Now, providers are able to offer better pictures and high-quality connections through fast broadband cable and easy-to-use software, she said.

Instant-messaging providers offer free video conversations. SightSpeed offers unlimited audio calls and up to 15 minutes of free video each day, as well as 10 video messages per month. For $5 per month and $50 per year, users get unlimited audio and video calls, 100 video messages and access to multiparty conferences.

While Internet video phones are growing in popularity and costs are often significantly less than landline long-distance phone calls, they haven’t had a strong enough impact to threaten landline phone use, Ms. Walker said.

Voice over Internet protocol, also known as VoIP, services are more common than video phones. VoIP allows users to make audio-only calls over the Internet for the cost of an Internet connection.

Yahoo Inc. bought DialPad, a VoIP service Tuesday, bringing the technology further into the mainstream.

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