BOSTON — Imagine being able to almost wipe out your long-distance phone bill. Say, pay 5 cents a minute to call Hong Kong. What if doing this was as easy as turning on your computer, pushing one button. Or better yet, don't bother to use the computer at all, and still talk to a friend overseas for an hour and pay, oh, a buck.
Yeah, right, I can hear you say. When pigs can fly.
Well, pigs are winging their way around the world these days, thanks to Internet telephony. Here are a few ways to use the Net "to reach out and touch someone:"
1. Cable-based Internet Telephony.
The idea that people can use the Internet to make free phone calls is making traditional phone companies very nervous. But some, like AT&T, are chanting, "If you can't beat them, join them." Several national cable companies now provide cheap long distance (often as little as 5 to 8 cents a minute anywhere) as part of the overall cable service. Internet telephony was one reason AT&T was so eager to purchase the East Coast-based MediaOne cable operation.
2. PC-to-PC or PC-to-phone Internet telephony.
Several companies are competing for this market, with VocalTec (www.vocaltec.com) the best known. To make a PC-to-PC call, each computer needs to have a program that allows one person to "call" another. You can call a PC anywhere in the world - using video as well as audio - completely free. The only drawback is that you need to schedule the call with the other party since PC-to-PC calling doesn't yet allow you to "ring up" someone else's computer.
But VocalTec also offers free software that allows PC-to-phone calling. Their InternetPhone Lite allows you to use your computer to call cheaply any regular phone in the world via the Net. This idea works more like the traditional phone company idea - you need to subscribe to an ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider) which operates a gateway that turns phone calls into digital packets for the Net, and vice versa.
3. Appliance-based Internet telephony.
This is the future - appliances that use the Internet without using a PC. And two companies in particular are showing the way - Aplio (www.aplio.com) and InnoMedia (www.innomedia.com).
I've been using the Aplio/Phone, a device a little bigger than a portable CD player. It plugs directly into your phone. No computer is needed. First, make a normal call. Once a connection is completed, you push the Aplio button on the device and the Net takes over. You'll be prompted by a computer voice to hang up. About a minute later, the phone will ring and you'll be talking on the Internet - for free.
The Aplio/Phone requires that you have an Internet account, but with most providers offering $20 for all you can eat Internet service, anyone who makes a lot of overseas calls will save a bundle. The downside? Both parties need an Aplio phone to use the Net, and they cost $200 each. But market history has shown that this price will probably come down.
Is it too good to be true? Maybe. The telephone companies don't like the idea of their phone lines being used to avoid their services. Also, more than a few states want to tax the service. Currently, the whole issue is being studied by a federal panel that is due to report in April next year.
But the telephone companies are just sticking their finger in the dike of a changing world. Ten years from now, we'll probably all be using the Internet to call friends around the world, in the same way we now use e-mail. And we'll be doing it for pennies not dollars.
* Tom Regan is associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. Email Tom@csmonitor.com