Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Here’s a look at some hardware and software that’s available:

Packet8 DV326 VideoPhone from 8x8 Inc., $99.99, requires broadband Internet connection with two-year phone-service commitment at $19.95 per month. The days of cheap long-distance visual communication have arrived, thanks to a combination of slick technology and the marvels of broadband Internet access.

Anyone considering tapping into the voice-over-Internet protocol — VoIP — revolution will appreciate 8x8’s ( modestly priced video-phone service.

VoIP means making telephone calls anywhere in the world using a high-speed (broadband) Internet connection.

Subscribers hook a paperback-size device from companies such as Packet8, Vonage ( or BroadVoice ( into their ethernet-based home network, which then is connected to a standard phone.

This telephony adapter box takes the analog voice, digitizes it and converts it into data packets, then sends it to Internet servers, which route the packets to an ending IP address (corresponding to a telephone number in a subscriber network) or to local information gateways, used by dial-up Internet service providers, to deliver a call.

The monthly service is cheap (ranging from $14.99 to $39.99 plus, usually, a $29.99 activation fee) because the network infrastructure is already in place and consumers already are paying for the majority of the transmission price via their monthly DSL or cable modem service.

8x8 Inc. came into the picture in the early 1990s by making a name for itself in audio and video compression. Taking advantage of the VoIP data-packet technology was a natural progression, especially in the area of video, and thus Packet8 was born.

Consumers purchasing the Packet8 video plan, tailored much like cellular phone service, receive a feature-rich phone for less than $100 (with rebates, it cost $249 only a month ago) and must commit to two years of the VoIP service to make unlimited calls anywhere in the United States and Canada. Packet8 video-phone subscribers also can call fellow video subscribers anywhere in the world for free.

Users can hook up the phone (all cables are included) in less than five minutes by first plugging it into the electrical outlet and then to their home network’s router to video conference on a 5-inch TFT-LCD, a tiltable color screen, via a CCD auto-focusing camera.

The quality of the video connection is excellent, with none of the jagged latency issues of past video phones, and it can run at 30 frames per second (when the broadband is mightily flowing), which is near television broadcast quality.

The phone features a speaker-phone option, 100-number phone book with 10-number speed dial, an auto-answer option (to visually check up on baby sitters) and a privacy function that sends a blank screen to the other party on days when looking good is way too much work.

More amazing options include hooking up the phone to a television with standard audio-video jack inputs to see a very large image of a loved one; using an external camera to send prerecorded video, such as a reporter filing a live broadcast; and using an external microphone (included) for groups to talk up to 6 feet away from the phone.

Standard functions to the Packet8 calling service resemble most regular phone plans, such as personalized voice mail, caller ID, call waiting and call forwarding.

Packet 8 also offers enhanced 911 service (for an extra $1.50 per month plus a $9.95 activation fee). This eliminates the problem of having 911 calls routed to non-emergency lines or sent to emergency dispatchers without the caller’s name and phone number automatically popping up on the operator’s screen.

Problems I encountered during my calls included intermittent service dropouts when my broadband connection was acting up, trouble using caller ID and realizing that another person could see me. Check out Packet8’s Web site for more lessons in video-phone etiquette ( VideophoneLessons.asp).

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002, or send e-mail jszadkowski@washington

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