Long-Distance Calling On the Internet: Is Anyone Out There?

Erich in Berlin was busy. So was Andre from Brazil. Alex answered to say hello in Italian (''Pronto. Pronto.'') but didn't speak any English. So I called Logan, who said:

''Hello. Is someone there?''

It was a historic moment. I struggled for something historic to say. ''This is Laurent from Pittsburgh.''

OK, so maybe it wasn't elegant. No matter. For four months I'd been reading that people could make telephone calls over the Internet. This was my first chance to try it.

Using a computer to make a phone call is a little involved. You have to load the $59 software, called Internet Phone. You have to plug in a microphone because that's what you speak through. You also need computer speakers to hear the other person.

Once hooked up, the system is fairly easy to use. After chatting with Logan in Oregon, I talked with people in Britain, Finland, and Sweden. Sometimes they came in loud and clear; sometimes there were delays, like an overseas call through a satellite link.

Because most computers have a single sound card that can't handle input and output at the same time, voices can't overlap. If I talk, you have to listen and vice versa. My best calls using the software were almost as good as long-distance service; my worst seemed like trying to reach New Caledonia through a cheap speakerphone.

What makes Internet Phone compelling is its price. For the cost of a local phone call, computer users can talk to other computer users all over the world. For example, an eight-minute call to France costs me a minimum $5.54 through the regular phone system. The same call using Internet Phone is 68 cents.

The savings are even greater going the other way. Oliver Groundstroem used Internet Phone to call me from Stockholm the other day. It cost him less than 17 cents a minute. Had he dialed through the Swedish phone system, he would have paid $2.20 a minute.

The calls are so cheap that Internet Phone users are finding new uses for it. A few months back, Jeff Pulver used the software to call a gathering of Toronto partygoers, who left the line open so they could receive greetings from around the world. Lior Haramaty, cofounder of Vocaltec Ltd., which makes Internet Phone, uses it on business trips to listen to his 2-1/2-year-old son play at home. Steve Schroeder of Richfield, Minn., reached a barber-shop quartet the other day, which offered to sing him a song. ''I couldn't think of one,'' Steve says. ''So they sang 'Rio Grande,' I think.''

This advance into voice communications is strategically important for the Internet. People who think of that vast network of computers as merely a way to send text and graphics forget that the Internet is also a serious contender in the race to create the so-called information superhighway. Internet Phone makes voice communications possible. Other entrepreneurs are working to make Internet video widely available.

Now ask yourself: If desktop computers allow people to send and receive live voice and video, why should telephone and cable TV companies spend billions doing the same thing? Their problem is not that Internet Phone is going to replace today's phone system. It's too primitive. You can't just dial up Aunt Minnie; she has to log into the service like you before you can reach one another. But such a service hints at a future Internet that could challenge a future telephone system carrying interactive video. Or a future cable service handling phone calls as well as TV.

Vocaltec has signed deals to get its technology built into Motorola modems, chips from Cirrus Logic, and perhaps some offering from Internet-service provider Netcom. Are the TV and telephone moguls paying attention?

* Send comments via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com) or to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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