Have you heard of Skype? Would you like to make calls to people around the world for free? That's Skype. The name rhymes with "ripe" as in the time is ripe for free voice calls. Apparently 33 million Skype users agree, and 150,000 new users are joining every day.
Free calls? What type of phone service is that? Skype is actually a software program that you download to your computer. You can then make and receive calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world over your broadband service. There is no charge for the download and you can talk as much as you want with no phone charges. There's no monthly bill. It's only if you want to take or make calls to regular telephones or want voice mail that you need to pay a small fee.
Say you have a friend or family member overseas and your monthly telephone bills are too scary to even open. If they have a computer and access to a broadband Internet connection, you can both download Skype and talk back and forth easier than sending email. You can even have a conference call with up to 5 parties participating and nobody pays for the call.
So how to they do that? Skype is based on a networking technology known as P2P or peer-to-peer communications. There is a main website where you register and download the Skype software, but their equipment isn't involved in routing individual calls. The program is structured to route calls via other Skype users. Your computer may help to route someone else's call and other computers will help to route yours. By sharing the load, there is no need for a massive centralized call server and no need to charge for that service.
How about privacy? Skype calls are encrypted with 256 bit AES security, the best you're going to find for computer transmissions. No one but the party you are talking to can hear you, and you can't eavesdrop on other calls either.
So this is VoIP, right? Yes it is, but not what you might expect. First of all, most VoIP companies charge you a monthly fee to make and receive calls even to other users on the same system. They send you a special adaptor box that you connect to your broadband Internet service and regular telephone. You make and receive calls on your telephone.
Skype is a bit different. You don't use a regular telephone. You make and receive calls on your computer using either the built-in microphone and speakers that come with most computers, or an inexpensive headset that you can pick up at an office supply store. If you miss the "real telephone" experience, Skype will sell you a USB telephone handset that plugs into your computer and works much like a regular handset. Third party providers are also starting to offer adaptors for regular telephone sets.
How's the call quality? Many Skype users report that voice quality for most calls is more natural sounding and much better than you'd expect from a telephone call. Like anything on the Internet, voice calls are subject to occasional glitches when the network is congested.
Skype is quick to point out that their software product is not a "telephone line replacement" service. There are no provisions to make emergency calls. You need to keep your landline or cell phone readily available for those emergency situations. With the free service, you can only call computer to computer to one or more of those 33 million active users worldwide. If you want to connect to regular telephones to communicate with other people, you need to add additional services that are available for a low price.