For genealogists with families spread across the globe, the idea of making free phone calls certainly is appealing. Who wouldn’t like to call cousins in Italy, England or Russia without worrying about the cost? Well, now you can—through your computer.
A few years ago, dozens of companies offered software to make free long-distance phone calls through technology called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). All you needed was a sound card, a microphone and speakers or a headset, and an Internet connection, and you could call any other PC that was online and using the same software. VoIP worked by breaking up your voice into tiny data packets and carrying them over the Internet. When the packets arrived at Aunt Jane’s computer, she could hear your voice. Although the technology let you make free or close-to-free phone calls, the packets did not always reassemble perfectly, resulting in word dropouts or static.
Today, VoIP technology is so advanced that PC-to-PC calls sound almost as clear as those made on telephones. And thanks to companies such as Microsoft and Skype, they’re still free because they bypass long-distance carriers. Here’s how Microsoft’s and Skype’s VoIP applications work:
Microsoft Windows Messenger and NetMeeting
If your computer runs on Windows XP, you have a ready-made platform for making free PC-to-PC calls: the built-in Windows Messenger. To use Messenger, you and the person you’re calling must have a sound card, a microphone and speakers or a headset, and a Microsoft .NET Passport (a login name and password, which you can get for free at www.passport.net). Although you can use a dial-up connection, you’ll get far better results from a high-speed DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable-modem connection.
When you open Messenger for the first time, click Add a Contact to begin building a list of your phone buddies. You can even organize contacts into groups, such as family or genealogy friends.
To make a call, launch Messenger, sign in using your Passport ID, then double-click the name of the person on your contact list whom you want to call. Once your call is accepted, use your microphone and speakers (or headset) to start talking. If you and your relative have Web cameras, you can even see each other during the call. Once the conversation is finished (it can last as long as you want), just click Stop Talking.
Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0 and ME users can download a similar program called NetMeeting for free at www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting. (NetMeeting comes with Windows 2000—just click Start, then Programs, Accessories, Communications and NetMeeting.) With NetMeeting, you can share real-time video and audio with family and friends, plus swap pictures, draw diagrams on an electronic whiteboard and send text messages.
The brainchild of the Swedish company that introduced the popular file-sharing software KaZaA, Skype (rhymes with hype) offers free PC-to-PC calls with excellent sound quality. You can download the program, which runs on Windows 2000 or XP, for free at skype.net.
The first time you use Skype, you’ll need to choose a user name and password. Once the program is up and running, select the Find a Friend option from the Tools menu. A new window will open, and you’ll be able to search for friends and relatives who use Skype. To add a friend to your contact list, just right-click the username and select Add to Friends.
Making a call is as simple as right-clicking a name and selecting the call option. Once you’ve initiated the call, your relative will hear the sound of a ringing phone, and the Skype icon in her system tray will begin to flash. She can then answer or reject the incoming call by clicking a button. At any time during the conversation, either party can end the call by clicking the hang-up button.
Although developers plan to add—and charge for—features such as video conferencing and three-way calling, they plan to keep basic PC-to-PC calls free. Since privacy is a concern, Skype encrypts your calls end-to-end to ensure that no other party can eavesdrop on your conversations.
In addition to free PC-to-PC services, you also might consider PC-to-phone services, especially if your relatives across the pond don’t have computers. While these services aren’t free, they’re a lot cheaper than traditional long-distance phone calls. Companies such as iConnectHere, Net2Phone and DialPad charge as little as 1 cent per minute for domestic calls and 3 cents per minute for international calls. Others such as Vonage run voice traffic over the Internet for a monthly Internet-access fee. Through Vonage, you can make unlimited calls within the United States and Canada for $34.99 a month. Plus, call London, Paris, Moscow and other foreign cities for as little as 5 cents a minute.
How free is free?
Fortunately, almost any computer made in the past two to three years will come preloaded with the speakers, microphone and sound card needed to make free calls. But you’ll experience far better sound quality if you use a headset.
Good basic headsets run from $10 to $30; if you’re going to use VoIP for long calls, go for comfort. That means selecting a model with an adjustable headband, ear cushions and a flexible microphone. For $12.95, the Skype Store offers an Internet Handset for people who are more comfortable using something that feels like a real phone.
So the next time you feel like calling Uncle Mark in Houston or your third cousin in Cardiff, as long as he’s using the same software, talk as long as you want. It seems free really is free.