For quite a long time now, computer nerds have been phoning each other all over the world for free. They have been doing it via the Internet, using downloaded software and headphone/microphone sets plugged into their computers. At first it was a bit of an adventure because 56Kbps modems were really too slow to cope adequately with voices. The phone companies were a bit grumpy, but there were so relatively few of these instant or Internet messaging (IM) callers that it was hardly worth bothering, and they were paying for the modem connection anyway.
That was then. In the last year, the massive take-up of fast ADSL (broadband) by Internet users has removed the adventure factor and improved the quality to commercial levels of reliability. So now pundits have started to ask how long the ordinary telephone system has before computer phoning, or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), becomes the norm.
The big boys have woken up to the threat towards their age-old revenues, and BT itself has just announced that it has integrated its own VOIP software, BT Communicator, into its current Internet system (www.
btbroadbandvoice. co. uk). This comes in response to a threat from a number of VOIP start-ups and especially from rival Skype (at www. skype. com), which is offering free Internet calls.
BT's service is free if you want to talk to someone who also has the service installed - that is, to another BT customer. But, like other Internet telephony companies, BT extracts revenue from subscribers who make calls from their computers to landline phones or mobiles.
How it works Don't be blinded by science, this is really simple technology. You call up the software (which you download from the Internet or from a service provider such as BT or Skype), enter the address of your friend, client, engineer, whoever, and put on the headset or pick up the handset.
Once you have made contact, you talk away just as you would on an ordinary phone. What happens is that your voice signals are digitised and passed back and forth across the Internet. Think of websites that send you music or sounds - it's a kind of twoway version of that. This is called peer-to-peer - or computer-to-computer - telephony and your Internet service provider (unless it has also provided the software) probably has no means of knowing whether you are downloading pictures or having a gossip with your mum.
This is far too limited for a practice that needs to talk to the whole outside world, although there would be obvious financial advantages in setting up your Hong Kong office's computers with the software, and maybe in doing the same with everybody in the design and construction team for the duration of a building project.
But in order to communicate with anyone in the phone book, you need a gateway to cellnet and public telephone networks (PSTN). Providing and metering this gateway service is where Internet telephony operations hope to make their money.
The kit There are three main ways of connecting to VOIP. One is to use a headset plugged into either your computer's sound port or USB port, depending on the software. The obvious alternative is a phone-like handset plugged into the same ports. Firms like Ipspeak, Pipemedia and Skype offer soft phones.
Robert Proops of CallsCalls, who was at the Architectural Association in the 1960s, is one of the few independent VOIP specialists at www. calls-calls. com. He sells handsets, homegrown VOIP-tolandline software and a service that costs a tenth of the price of BT's. He is a great supporter of Skype's free computer-to-computer service. He says that at the moment the soft phone is the most popular among VOIP users. 'It's cheap because the computer call to the Internet is free and you only pay from the edge of the Internet closest to the landline, ' he explains. 'But you would use Skype for phone-to-phone. It's better than landline quality.' Another way is to buy an adapter to which you connect your existing phone and which is connected to your ADSL modem/router. Gossiptel makes such an adapter, called the Sipura, and manufacturers have integrated the two. The resulting handset, which plugs into your ADSL connection, is called an IP phone, which Calls-Calls sells as a ToIP Ethernet phone.
'The advantages are faster speeds and better quality, and the fact that it effectively has a phone number, rather than a computer address. The disadvantage is that you can't use Skype and its high-quality calls, ' says Proops.
Some little hitches The quality of VOIP is, of necessity, on a par with the quality of your Internet communications, which is mostly very good. But as dialling currently involves entering quite long alphanumerical addresses, it can be a pain, so some new handsets now incorporate small QWERTY keyboards. There is a move to simplify VOIP addresses, but it hasn't happened yet.
The next big thing You may have noticed those recent mobilephone adverts offering free mobile phone calls for everyone in your company, providing they are made only to other people in the same firm.
Everybody wins. Your staff can be in constant telephonic touch for nothing, and the mobile people have suddenly acquired all your staff as passive subscribers.
Oddly enough, this deal comes at a time when VOIP has begun to spawn Voice Over Wireless Local Area Network (VoWLAN). Many big firms already run wireless networks and save cabling costs, but there is still a need for telephone cables.
That is no longer true if you take the simple step of adapting Internet messaging to run over your wireless local area network. The big companies will doubtless try, but there is no good reason why these calls should attract any charge at all. Since the broad tendency in the hand-held arena is for convergence, pundits have already called for cellphones that can deal seamlessly between mobile (and, in the office environs, possibly free) calls and VoWLAN (completely free) calls, and do the usual photography and emailing as well. The possibilities are fascinating.
Why do it?
The obvious motive for getting involved with increasingly complicated Internet telephone systems is that they are cheaper - possibly massively cheaper - than current telephone systems, especially when your practice has international work. Observers have viewed BT's apparently active involvement with what looks like the end of massively profitable leased lines, and the revenue from business and domestic calls, with cynicism. But in October it is participating in a series of international tests of the Multiservice Switching Forum (MSF), which will allow makers of kit to demonstrate the commercial readiness of next-generation IP services across the range from local to international VOIP. BT says that VOIP will be at the heart of its future business transformation, but even without BT, VOIP looks set for a big future. The predictions are that in five years' time, Internet telephony will account for 12 per cent of all telephony revenues.