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Q: I've heard that it's now possible to make free phone calls over the Internet, even to foreign countries. How can I make use of this technology?

Name withheld

A: Yes, making "free" phone calls, even videophone calls, over the Internet is a reality. But the technology's not quite ready for use by small businesses. It's evolving at warp speed, though, so keep an eye out for new developments. Experts agree the telephone network will look more like today's all-digital Internet than the traditional analog-based setup we've been using for the past 125 years.

For now, Internet telephony is probably best left to hobbyists willing to put up with its rather serious limitations. For example, the sound quality is not as good as that of standard phones. And, for the most part, calls can be placed only between two PCs and only if both machines are running the same brand of telephony software.

If all that's OK with you, you can certainly talk for as long as you like, paying only your regular monthly Internet connection fee. Net telephony won't work over AOL's circuits, by the way; you'll need an account with a true ISP such as EarthLink, Mindspring, or any of the hundreds of local firms now operating.

As for hardware, you'll need a fairly powerful PC (90 MHz Pentium-based at least), a 28.8 Kbps modem, a sound card and a microphone. Then you'll have to choose a software package. Leading brands include VocalTec, NetSpeak and VoxWare. All work pretty much as well as the others. Trial copies and lots of information are available at each company's Web site, with even more information at the independently run site, http://www.von.com

This year we'll see Internet calling reach standard telephones--not for free, but at extremely low prices. Networks Telephony Corp. of El Segundo, California, for instance, is signing up ISPs around the world to help create a worldwide long-distance telephone company. Each ISP will help transfer calls back and forth between the Net and their local phone circuits. The savings: as much as 70 percent off standard international calling rates. For more information, check out its Web site at http://www.networkstelephony.com

Don't expect to get truly free calling. But at the same time, don't underestimate the power of Internet technology to change how you communicate.

John Verity is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered the computer industry for 21 years. Send your computer questions to John at http://www.networkstelephony.com

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