Communication 101

Talk It Up

Enter the amazing world of Internet telephony, and you'll quickly see big savings on your phone bills. Although numerous companies have launched Internet phone solutions, including ICQ (http://www.icq.com) and iChat (http://www.ichat.com), the most well-known of the group is VocalTec's Internet Phone. VocalTec launched Internet Phone, the first Internet Protocol (IP) telephony software, in 1995, and they've been steamrolling through the industry ever since.

Internet Phone is now in its fifth version and includes support not only for voice, but for video and data as well. A free two-week trial version can be downloaded from the company's Web site at http://www.vocaltec.com, or you can purchase the software at any major software retailer for $49.95. To run Internet Phone, you'll need a Pentium 75 MHz PC or higher, 16MB RAM, a sound card, and a microphone and speakers.

I downloaded the 8.5MB program from the VocalTec site, a process that took about 20 minutes, and then set to work talking over the Net. My first visit was to VocalTec's home page, where I discovered I could chat with people I've never met. Although there was no one available to chat with when I logged on, I learned that I could sign up for PC-to-phone service with an Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP). The remarkable thing here is that you're able to talk over the Internet to anyone almost anywhere in the world. The drawback is that PC-to-phone service isn't free, as are PC-to-PC telephone calls, because at the end of the line, your call is routed to a standard local telephone line. But it could still save you thousands of dollars, depending on where you call most.

For example, it costs more to dial the United Kingdom over an ITSP (16 cents per minute) than over my landline (12 cents per minute with MCI). But other destinations had incredible rates, including just 19 cents per minute to Australia (I pay more than 50 cents per minute with MCI).

Before signing up for PC-to-phone service, you'll want to compare rates to those of long-distance services. If you can indeed save significantly, it makes a lot of sense to embrace Internet telephony.

Scott Wharton, VocalTec's ITSP senior market manger, makes it clear that voice-only calling isn't the only benefit of Internet telephony. The future of this technology, he says, lies in the effective combination of audio and video. Using the Net for conference calls will be a no-brainer in the not-too-distant future, according to Wharton, and a shared whiteboard, along with the showing of presentations to clients anywhere in the world, will be a major benefit for small-business owners. With Internet Phone 5.0, users can already share documents over the Net, make changes to them in real time, show videos and more.

But as you might imagine, VocalTec's product line contains much more than the consumer-based Internet Phone. For example, VocalTec's Telephony Gateway Server, working with a PBX network, lets employees in the United States pick up their phones and dial an extension of a co-worker in Israel--directly connecting over the Net. Then there's Atrium with Internet Conference Professional, which lets users share data with up to 150 people over an IP network as well as do multipoint teleconferencing. (For more information on Internet telephony, see "Bytes," June.)

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This article was originally published in the August 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Communication 101.

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