From the October 2000 issue of Startups

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.

But It's Still Cheaper-Isn's It?

Meanwhile, on the same day the fiancée was hanging up on me, an offer came in from Sprint: seven cents a minute, anytime, anywhere in the United States with no monthly fee. I'm not sure what strings are attached because that deal didn't tempt me to move from Qwest, where I pay about the same. And it doesn't much matter either way because rarely do my long-distance phone bills top $100 a month.

Just three years ago, long-distance phone bills were a major expense for me-always more than $200 each month, sometimes much more. Flashback to 1978, the year I opened my home office, when a one-minute coast-to-coast phone call cost 35 cents, according to a fantastic price comparison recently assembled by BizTravel.com columnist Joe Brancatelli, another homebased worker. (See the complete chart here.) Now keep in mind that $1 in 1978 is worth around $2.67 today, according to the Inflation Calculator. And today we're paying less than a dime a minute for that same call. The point here is that we're earning much more today and paying much less for long distance service. And with e-mail replacing many phone calls and wireless handling more of my long distance, I'm making fewer conventional long-distance calls anyway.

So is it worth it to endure a wobbly, weak, disjointed phone connection-which is what voice over IP provides-just to save a few dollars? Not in business-related conversations, and certainly not by folks in home offices. Why is that injunction still stronger for us? Every day our challenge is to seem professional. A bias against our professionalism exists, and this means that in all our points of contact with customers, vendors and other business relationships, our challenge is to appear professional. And there's no place for voice over IP in that fragile equation.

Does that verdict mean we must never use this technology? Hardly. Go ahead-play with it. Call friends and relatives. Maybe they'll think it's cool, maybe they'll hang up on you, but there's no lasting harm. And believe this: Voice over IP will get better. Within a year or three, it may well be the technology we're all using. Just not yet, and not for business.


Site Seeing

Want to learn more about voice over IP? Check out this good reference site: www.nwfusion.com/research/voip.html.


Want to try out voice over IP for yourself? I won't recommend any service-they seem about equally flawed, in my opinion-but for the adventurous, you'll find lots of providers by searching for ITSPs on Yahoo! (here's a quick link). Before signing up, make sure the service works on your machine (some run only on Windows, not on Macs) and that the cost structures are clear (some services are free; others impose small charges).