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Tin Can Vs. Voice Over IP

Yes, Internet telephony is neat, but is it ready for prime time? Read on to find out why.

She hung up on me, my fiancée did, and that pretty well capped my experiment with free Internet telephony, or "voice over IP," as wonks like to call it. "Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?" she had said, with increasing loudness, and while I heard her perfectly over my computer's speakers, she couldn't hear a word I spoke into the computer's microphone. So she clanged down her handset and probably muttered something about getting crank calls.

This result didn't surprise me. A year ago, the CEO of a Net telephony company decided to convince the skeptical me that his service really worked by calling me. It was a bizarre conversation, leaving me feeling as though I had failing hearing because throughout the call, his voice quality and volume rose. . . and fell. . . rose. . . and fell. Then I remembered: This is exactly what old-fashioned analog cell phones sounded like 10 years ago, which was why I never bought one. Who needs to sound as though they're talking into a tin can that's on a string?

So I hung up on that CEO and let a year pass before I revisited voice over IP (Internet Protocol). Press releases had piled up in my inbox-"You Have To Cover This Cool, Cheap, Amazing, Revolutionary New Service!!!!"-and I figured that, maybe by now, voice over IP really worked.

Theoretically it should. I've long been a loud advocate for fax over IP-sign up with Jfax and find out why you truly can throw out your fax machine, retrieve faxes via e-mail wherever you go, and do it all less expensively and more conveniently over the Net. And if complex images (that is, faxes) can be transmitted over phone lines, why not voice?

Plus, Internet telephony comes with a powerful draw: Voice over IP can deliver absolutely free phone calls. . . and "free" remains a magic word, especially to homebased entrepreneurs who foot their own long-distance charges. Write that monthly check, and when somebody promises "free" phone service, you bet you'll be asking, "Well, why not try voice over IP?"

Well, I'll tell you why not: The reason lurks in a technical notion called latency. Two factors shape our perception of a phone conversation: the voice quality (do you sound like you?) and latency, which is the wonk term for pacing. Nowadays, voice quality with voice over IP is usually adequate, roughly equal to the quality we get with wireless digital. Sometimes the voice quality is a total bust (as in my call to the fiancée) but much of the time, quality is at least so-so.

Latency, though, is the bummer because due to the ebb and flow of data traffic over the Internet, traffic jams at routers and so forth, there are small delays in a conversation, pauses the speakers didn't insert themselves. At best, the conversation sounds like one you might have using a phone on a cruise ship or an airplane, where signals are bounced off satellites before they reach the other side.

Latency will drive you nuts because it destroys the flow of conversation. Conversations twist, wobble, weave and burp in your ear. In the end, you may hear words, but what do they mean?


Robert McGarvey covers the Web-and plays with the latest cool gadgets-from his home office in Santa Rosa, California. Visit his Web page at www.mcgarvey.net.

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