Tags: internet | phone | online | call

Internet Phone: Services, Features, Caveats Abound for Online Calling

Wednesday, 30 Jan 2013 05:39 PM

By Richard Grigonis

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The quickest way to shrink a phone bill, in some cases all the way down to zero, is to use the Internet instead of a telecom carrier.

The capability to phone via Internet first came about in 1995 when an Israeli company, VocalTec, debuted a program called Internet Phone. It was the first “softphone” that enabled users to talk to each other from one PC to another over the Internet, using the computer's speakers and microphone. And the calls were free, aside from the monthly cost of the Internet connection.

Internet Phone led to an explosion of Internet phone software, services, and phone-like devices, all based on a technology called “VoIP,” or Voice over Internet Protocol.

Alert: End of America's Middle Class a Startling Reality. Read More Here.

Today, you can choose from among many services that enable voice and video calls over the Internet. There are even apps that let you use your desktop, smartphone, or tablet to make calls by bypassing your telecom carrier.

Software-based services continue to be the least expensive way to go. You download them, install them, and start calling. If you have a webcam and microphone you can use it to see and hear friends and colleagues.

User experiences can vary, however, depending on the quality of the Internet connection, the Internet Service Provider, and how the data traffic on the Internet happens to be that day. If you are running app versions of these on your WiFi-enabled mobile phone, you can conserve your mobile minutes. Skype and Google Voice fall into this category.

Device-based services, which sell you little boxes into which you plug your phone and Internet connection, tend to have higher quality, as there is more of a technical infrastructure supporting them. Instead of sending calls entirely over the open Internet, they have private networks that span continents or oceans.

Also, with such devices you generally don’t need to keep your computer running to place and receive calls. These services also offer apps for mobile devices.

Caveats with many of these types of products and services include the following: Calls ending when a power failure strikes (unless you have a battery backup); an inability to call 911 emergency services; security concerns, and some countries that try to block Internet phone calls — or Internet service entirely — by dissidents and their foreign supporters.

Following is a breakout of some of the most well-known services, both software-based and hardware-based:

Ooma. This device-based company supports free calls within the United States and low-rate international calls. The June 2012 issue of Consumer Reports placed Ooma’s phone service at the top of its rankings in terms of quality and support.

The Ooma Telo is a little black box with a speaker and various buttons that give you a shortcut to voicemail. Optional Wi-Fi and Bluetooth adapters are available.

Ooma is available through various retailers. The box costs $179, but is often discounted.

The company has spent considerable effort in providing high voice quality to customers. If you and the person you are calling both use an Ooma handset or HD compatible phone, your conversation will sound dramatically lifelike, as if you are both in the same room.

Alert: End of America's Middle Class a Startling Reality. Read More Here.

Since all Internet phone systems suffer from security concerns, Ooma has incorporated government-grade call encryption technology into their system to provide you with unprecedented privacy.

Unlike many such services, Ooma does provide 911 emergency calling and 911 email and text alerts. It offers an array of features, such as caller-ID and call-waiting, caller name, caller-ID blocking, call hold, call return, remote voicemail retrieval, online voicemail playback, online phonebook, selectable ring patterns, and fax mode. There is free worldwide Ooma-to-Ooma calling.

Ooma Premier service ($119.99 a year) includes free WiFi or Bluetooth adapter, free calling to Canada, a second line, 3-way conferencing, a backup number, call screening, call forwarding, multi-ring, free mobile minutes, and voicemail-to-email forwarding as an audio file.
voicemail transcription to text is available at a cost of $4.99 a month.

The Ooma Mobile HD App allows domestic and international calls from Android, iPhone, iPad or iTouch over WiFi or 3G networks. The app supports the Ooma PureVoice HD technology.

The Ooma Mobile app requires you to be an Ooma customer and costs $9.99. Any calls using it are charged starting at 1.4 cents per minute for U.S. calls or applicable rates for international calls. The Ooma Mobile calling plan, which allots 1,000 minutes for $4.99 per month.

Ooma Premier customer buying the app receive 250 free minutes of U.S. calling per month.

Vonage. This mature VoIP service provider was the first to present itself as a replacement for existing telecom companies. With Vonage Extensions, you can port existing numbers to Vonage lines.

Vonage has no initial cost. There’s an instant rebate on its little black $79.99 adapter box. You plug your cord or cordless phone into the box and then connect the box to an Internet source, such as a cable or DSL modem.

You don’t have to plug your computer into the box to use Vonage, and you don’t need a VoIP router either, as there’s one built into the little box. The box supports two Vonage phone lines and is small enough to be taken anywhere in the world where there’s a high-speed Internet connection.

Vonage offers a bevy of features, such as voicemail, caller ID, call waiting, 3-way-calling, anonymous call block, and many other standard features. Vonage offers unlimited transcriptions of voicemails, sent to you via text and email. A fax line costs $9.99 per month, plus taxes and fees.

Vonage offers several domestic (U.S. & Canada) and international dialing plans starting at $9.99 a month, such as the Vonage World Plan, that provides unlimited calls to more than 60 countries. There also is inexpensive per-minute pricing.

Alert: End of America's Middle Class a Startling Reality. Read More Here.

With the Vonage Extensions app for iPhone and Android, you can use Wi-Fi or 3G/4G to make calls over the Vonage network, not your carrier’s.

Google Voice. Google Voice, a software-based system, has a number of customizable features — one could devote an entire article to it. For example, if someone calls your Google Voice number, you can have all of your phones (work, home, mobile) ring, or some or none of them ring, depending on the time of day or the person calling. You can wait for a call to go to voicemail and then screen it in real time before answering — or not.

Voicemail is automatically transcribed into text for free, so if you’re in a meeting or a theater, you can read messages instead of listening to them. You can also send text messages for free. There’s even free group conferencing.

You can call any U.S. or Canada phone for free, and there are low international rates. If you get a Google Voice number you’ll be able to receive calls from within Gmail in your browser. (You can also port your present phone number if you like.) Video chat is also possible on your computer right from Gmail and iGoogle by downloading a plug-in.

Apps are available so you can access your Google Voice account from your Android, Blackberry, Nokia S60, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, etc. Sprint mobile phone customers can get Google Voice up and running without having to get a new number, or display their Google Voice number when making calls from their mobile phone.

Like many Internet phone services, you can’t place 911 emergency calls. For a full range of features you need a phone plan from a telco, but you can use Google Voice and Video Chat for free via a WiFi connection. (If you’re a serious video conferencing addict and want to schmooze with up to nine friends, use Google+ from your browser, which also offers an app for the Android.)

Skype. Of the software-based services, Skype is the best known and most popular for video calls, or audio-only chats if you are camera shy or are suffering from a bad hair day. (Microsoft acquired Skype for $8.5 billion in May 2005.) Desktop versions of Skype run on Windows (XP, Vista or 7), Linux and Macintosh computers. Skype can be used on your current landline and phone if you buy their Freetalk Phone Adapter ($59.99 on Amazon).

By using this adapter with your Internet connection, you can make phone calls using your landline phone without a computer. Instead of buying an adapter, you could opt for a Skype-ready cordless phone.

Skype apps exist for the iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and Symbian mobile phones (just visit skype.com/m from your phone). Skype has also invaded the tablet world: Windows 8, iPads and Android Tablets are now covered.

Alert: End of America's Middle Class a Startling Reality. Read More Here.

If the person you are calling has Skype installed on their device, you can make free Skype-to-Skype voice/video calls worldwide as well as send and receive photos, videos and other files. Instant messages too. With a premium account (starting at $4.99 a month) Skype will even let you set up a video call with up to 10 people simultaneously.

It is also possible to video call and instant message people you know on Facebook directly from Skype.

Upscale users can use three ways to make Skype video calls from the comfort of a living room using a big screen TV. First, you can adapt your existing HDTV by plugging a TV cam (made by Logitech or Tely Labs) into your TV’s HDMI port. Second, you can buy one of the many Skype-ready TVs on the market, in which case you simply need a webcam that’s compatible with your particular model (shop.skype.com lists them all). Finally, some Blu-ray players have Skype built in, which means you can just plug that into your existing TV and start impressing your friends.

Skype can’t be used for emergency 911 calling.

magicJack Plus. magicJack Plus, from MagicJack VocalTec Ltd., is an improvement on the original magicJack in that it can bypass your computer to make phone calls if you wish.

To do so, you plug one end of the included cable into your router — and its all-important high speed Internet connection — and the other end into a port on the little magicJack Plus box, which sells for about $70 online. Then you plug your regular or cordless phone into another port on the box. Connect the included AC power adapter to the magicJack Plus’ USB connector and then plug the Power Adapter into your wall. After about a minute you’ll be enjoying always-on phone service.

Alternatively, you can plug the unit’s USB connector into your computer if, for example, a WiFi-only connection is available to the Internet.

However, magicJack Plus is a proprietary device. You can only make calls using its little adapter box. MagicJack Plus also doesn’t have all the features of a Google Voice or Skype, but it is a small, innocuous device — not much bigger than a deck of playing cards.

Since magicJack Plus is so portable, it is popular among world travelers. The service supports free international calls back to U.S and Canadian phone numbers. There is per minute pricing when calling to foreign countries.

You can move your existing phone number over to your magicJack Plus account and purchase a “vanity number” if you like. To port your phone number costs $19.99 and $9.95 annually thereafter to maintain the number in the magicJack Plus system. However, if you decide to move to another phone service provider, you will be charged $30.00 to transfer your telephone.

magicJack Plus offers a 30-day trial, then you pay $19.95 a year for the service.

magicJack Plus, like the original magicJack, includes free voicemail, call waiting, caller ID, call forwarding, directory assistance and emergency 911 service.

There’s also a free magicJack app for the Android, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

Consumer Reports in June 2012 gave the company lackluster scores regarding call quality, reliability, and customer service. There are mixed reviews on Amazon and users posting online on consumer forums either love it or hate it.

Yahoo! Voice. This was never a super-sophisticated offering, but the Yahoo! Phone Out service enabled you to make PC-to-landline and PC-to-mobile phone calls for a fee.

Alert: End of America's Middle Class a Startling Reality. Read More Here.

In July 2012, however, a hacker group calling itself D33DS stole and posted online a file of 453,492 Yahoo! Voice user passwords. Yahoo urged their users to change their passwords immediately. But the damage had been done.

The hacker brouhaha was followed by this statement from the Yahoo!: “As of January 30, 2013, Yahoo! will no longer offer Phone In and Phone Out services to our users, although free Messenger-to-Messenger calls will still be available through your Yahoo! Messenger service. Until January 30, 2013, you will be able to call landlines and mobile phones using your remaining Phone Out credit. You will also be able to keep your Phone In account active during this period. However, you will no longer be able to add new funds to your Yahoo! Voice account as of today, December 10, 2012.”

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