High-speed internet telephony has never been so accessible
As we bid a fond farewell to the 56.6 kb/s dial-up connections of our past and forge forward into the high-speed broadband that lies ahead of us; the once difficult mechanics of using your internet connection to stay in touch are infinitely more usable.
Increasingly gone are the days when, to get ahold of someone from your computer, you’d send her email and wait for her reply. Now you can literally tell if she’s online – whether on the likes of MSN Messenger or, way back, the historical ground-breakers back in the 90s like ICQ – and now only type a message to them right away, but develop a written interactive conversation right there, with no waiting.
And if it weren’t enough to type in real-time, the technology bounded on to transmitting voices through the same systems. Some of the newcomers jumped right to expertise in voice, like Skype or Google Talk. Skype in particular was set up (by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, the same guys who invented downloading legend Kazaa) to take advantage of this computer-enabled ability to transmit voice, known in technical terms as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.
With microphone headsets, webcams, and – most importantly – broandband internet, more and more people are realizing that calling can be easier, you can actually see via your webcam the person you’re talking to, and as a gesture to our pocketbooks, long-distance calling can be had for a song. When surfing the web at home, I can bump into my British friends online, pop on my headset, and voice-chat with them to catch up for that fabulous cost of zero cents per minute on top of my regular broadband charges. Skype has already started to penetrate Egyptian businesses as a way to lower the long-distance calling aspect of operational costs.
Basically, VoIP is a technology that enables voice to be transmitted over the Internet even though speaking is captured in analog, not digital as the web requires. What VoIP does is convert analog voice signals into digital data packets – little pieces of digital information – just like the transmission of any other data since the beginning of networking. This inherently means that different pieces arrive at different times, and sometimes out of order, and must then be reassembled back into the correct sequence at the destination. And this is where the need for high bandwidth comes in: the signal needs to be sent and reassembled quickly enough so that the human users on both ends of the call don t notice any delay.
As if there weren’t already enough amazing evolution of computer-based communication from email to type-chatting to voice-chatting all at our computers, Skype started several years ago to enable something they call Skype Out, or the ability to initiate a phone call from your computer that literally jumps out of the computer networks into the phone networks, and ends up ringing the actual telephone of the person you’re calling. The fact that the computer network is involved for the majority of the call means it costs a mere fraction of what it would cost telephone-to-telephone. The PC-to-phone approach is handy when a technophile, say me, is calling a technophobe, say my grandmother, because at her end it’s just a regular phone call as she’s always known it.
So how does computer-to-phone work? Well, when a call is dialed over your Internet connection – with the MSN Messenger, Yahoo or Skype networks, let’s say – the system takes the phone number and connects via your local computer network to whichever of the commercial computer networks you’re using. They see if the request needs to go to a standard telephone and, if so, switch it to a gateway that connects the call over the traditional phone network.
The spread of wireless Internet has seen many services developed for portable, handheld devices. What this means is that to use VoIP, now neither of you has to be sitting at a computer. VoIP phones can be purchased for about half the price of a luxury mobile phone. They eliminate the need for a computer and will work anywhere where you can find wireless Internet connections. High-end toys like Deutche Telekom’s Sidekick 3 and the Sony Mylo offer the full multimedia package to go with the VoIP functionality.
So if you are in a Wi-Fi café in Egypt and your mate is in a Wi-Fi city in Switzerland, you could voice-chat on your handheld devices – looking pretty well the same as if you were talking on your mobile – but for free. Until your batteries die, that is.
Dropped calls, failed connections, bad audio quality, and poor service have given telecom providers a shady image. And though technology may have once been a big and bad monster; there have never been better choices to stay in touch.