VOIP and The Promise of Free Calls

Over the last several years I have been an active user of internet based phone services. Skype, Google Voice, Voice chat through Yahoo IM etc.  are the ones I have been using most frequently. There is no doubt that the ability to make calls over the Internet (free or at a low cost) has far reaching, powerful implications but these services (like most new technologies) have their share of challenges.  Here are some of my experiences with these services over the years.

The Good News

These services are great simply because they are free. They give you an opportunity to talk to people who you normally don’t speak to as often. They give you a chance to make and receive calls in places where regular phone calls can be very expensive. With increase in Internet access and computers around the globe these services serve as a terrific means of communication and will undoubtedly play a significant role in communication in the years to come. The learning curve in using these technologies is minimal. A five minute demo is sufficient even for the most novice users.

The Bad News

The free or low cost services can be unreliable. If you make a call using one of these services be prepared for random changes in voice quality, sudden dropped lines etc. If you are considering these services for business use, think again.  Its great to be able to make a phone call from your computer without having to change your headset etc. but its embarrassing to explain that its the phone connection and not the “wind” that the person at the other end is hearing. (Once I was forced to quip, “I hope its not President Obama’s plane!”) While it might be ok to be interrupted during a personal call to friends and family, the same is not true for business calls.

Paid VOIP services like Lingo, Vonage etc. are definitely far more reliable. The old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true for these services. These services do come with their share of headaches. Lingo for instance recommends that the cable modem (at home) feeds into the Lingo box. If you use a router this means that the Lingo box feeds into the Router rather than the other way around. The big downside to this is that if Lingo goes down for some reason, your internet access will go down as well. Its possible to set up the network such that the cable modem feeds into the router as opposed to the Lingo box. But this is no simple task even for the reasonably tech savvy.

What’s the best free service?

All the free services are equally good/bad in the sense they have their strengths and weaknesses. Skype has been around the longest and so one would imagine that it has probably ironed out many of the technology and service challenges. On the flip side it probably has more traffic to deal with than the other providers. Calls to India on Skype from the US in the mornings are almost always of poor quality. On the other hand, the calls at night are very reliable.

Google Voice is very, very high on the “coolness” factor. It has some very powerful features. If you like the Gmail interface you’ll love Google Voice. Where it falls flat is the idea of having a new number to act as a clearing house for all your calls. It might sound great in theory but in practice it doesn’t exactly work well because most people don’t want to change their phone number as far as possible. Besides, explaining to people (about a new number!) who ask you for your cell phone number is an arduous task in itself!

I find myself using Skype more often simply because it is always accessible on my desktop. Besides, Skype was the first to introduce Skype number and the ability to forward calls from Skype to other phone numbers. The ability to forward calls from Skype to a cell phone number is a handy feature especially when you are traveling. Among these services Skype is the only service (other than probably Google Voice) that I am aware off that works on Linux. If you are used to working on different operating systems, Skype becomes an automatic choice.

Google Voice requires no local install (which is great!) but it requires you to login to Google Voice when making calls from the computer. Google Voice loses out because of this extra step. Yahoo on the other hand loses out because I mostly use Meebo for IM. I don’t think there is way to call from within Meebo using Yahoo! voice (or maybe there is and I haven’t figured it out as yet).  In short, its hard to say which one is the best. It depends on a host of factors ranging from personal preference to OS to familiarity to UI etc.

p.s: There is a service dedicated to free conference calls (Sabsebolo.com or “Talk to Everyone”) that is also available for those who might be interested. The above mentioned services also support conference calls though I have only used the conference call facility in Skype.

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