Time to say 'hello' to a computer phone?

Several years ago, in my ongoing crusade to save money, I bought an Aplio. In fact, I bought two. One for me, and one for my mother-in-law, who lives in Turkey. The idea behind the Aplio - a little black box about half the size of a shoe box - was that by plugging it into my phone and my Internet connection, I could call my M.I.L., as I call her, for nothing.

Well, it was a little more complicated than that. She had to punch in a special set of numbers, and I had to do the same. We both had to arrange to be at home when we called. And since we had to use a dial-up connection to the Internet, the transmission quality was questionable. Sometimes it just disappeared, or had this weird echo.

After about five tries, I consigned the Aplio to the list of cool gadgets I'd tried that didn't live up to their billing.

Now I see that Aplio was an early form of VoIP - Voice over Internet Protocol. And boy, we've come a long way, baby. A recent study by Forrester Research predicts that by the end of 2006, more than 5 million Americans will be using VoIP. Not to mention nonindividuals, like the town offices in Milton, Mass., where I live. They switched in October to VoIP from POTS (Plain Old Telephone System - hey, I don't make this stuff up).

What makes VoIP so attractive is the price. But more on that later. First, it's time for Phone Science 101.

When you make a call on a regular phone, you open a circuit between you and the person you call. That circuit remains open the entire time you talk. As a result, there is a certain amount of "data spoilage." One person talks while the other listens (most of the time), so while the circuit is always open, data flows only one way. It's like you're only using half the line.

With VoIP, all that changes. When you pick up the VoIP phone, it's a lot like sending e-mail. Your voice is broken up into packets of information that is sent over the Internet. The network sends those packets along the least-congested and cheapest lines. It cuts out that data spoilage, since it only sends information when someone actually talks. This means three or four calls can fit in the same space needed to make one call using POTS. (To save space and money, many traditional phone companies switch calls to the Internet at some point in the transmission before converting them back to the circuit-switching model.)

VoIP comes in three forms:

1. An analog telephone adapter that attaches to your phone. It takes analog signals and turns them into digital ones.

2. IP phones, which look like regular phones, but have a special Ethernet connector that you can plug into a computer or a home router.

3. Computer-to-computer, where you download software onto your computer that allows you to talk to a friend who has also downloaded the software to his computer. Often, this kind of VoIP is free. (Though you need microphones and speakers for your computers, plus the software.)

VoIP's two main advantages are price and flexibility. Some Internet telephony providers charge about half, or even a quarter, of what traditional landline phone companies charge. Since the price includes call waiting, three-way calling, call forwarding, and other features that normally cost extra with a traditional phone system, you can save a bundle.

In addition, you can take your home phone number with you wherever you go, as long as you can access a broadband Internet connection in your new location. This feature makes it very attractive for people who run home businesses but travel a lot.

But not all is rosy in the land of Internet telephony. If the power goes out, so does your phone. Traditional phones keep working in blackouts as long as they are not cordless. (The Town of Milton has kept one analog line in each department, just in case.) Although broadband has improved sound quality, you still get occasional echoes and dropped calls, especially if the Internet is busy. Worms and computer viruses can also find their way into your phone, although this is very rare.

Of most concern are emergency 911 calls. VoIP systems use something called "IP addressed" phone numbers. But since these numbers are not geographically based, the 911 system can't tell where you are calling from, as they can with a POTS number.

VoIP companies like Vonage have developed ways to circumvent this problem, but they're not available in all areas yet. And if you're traveling, you have to fill out a form each time you move the phone. If the power is out or the Internet is down, you won't have access to 911 services. And, of course, you need a broadband connection to the Web, which costs money.

It comes down to what you want. You can save money with VoIP, and the flexibility is a nice feature. But some people are willing to pay more for the comfort of knowing their phone will work regardless of power loss.

Ultimately, it's your call - if you'll pardon the pun.

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