What is 'VoIP'?
Simply put, VoIP refers to the carriage of voice signals over the Internet. PC to Phone VoIP refers to using your 'Internet-connected' computer to make calls to conventional telephones around the world. Whereas traditional telephone calls take place over fixed line 'circuit switched' networks, VoIP calls are routed through the Internet using a far more efficient method known as 'packet switching'. Whilst carrying voice data more efficiently via the Internet is a benefit, the main advantage that VoIP has is one of cost. For example, a typical PC to Phone VoIP call to a telephone in the United States from anywhere in the world generally runs at just a few cents per minute. Keep in mind, the clarity/quality of PC to Phone calls is usually as good and in many cases better than that of a comparable Phone to Phone call.
How can it be so cheap?
Herein lies the beauty of PC to Phone calls. By using the Internet to route your calls, long-distance charges imposed upon you by the major telecommunications companies (Bell, Sprint, AT&T, etc) are all but eliminated. Furthermore, many of the governmental levies and fees associated with using the highly regulated 'traditional' telephone networks are also avoided. The result? Extremely cheap, long distance calling to conventional telephones around the world with little or no loss of call quality.
So how does it work?
In a typical PC to Phone call, your computer receives your voice input via a microphone and then translates your voice into a 'data packet'. This packet of data is then transmitted via the Internet to as close as possible to the physical destination of the telephone you're calling. Your voice 'data packet' is then switched to the conventional telephone network and routed to the phone that you are calling. All of this data transmission, translation and switching takes place transparently and extremely quickly. Chances are that the person whom you're calling would have no idea that you're talking to them using your computer.
So what do you need?
In order to start making long-distance telephone calls using your computer, you'll need a computer that's connected to the Internet, a microphone and speakers (a headset with a boom microphone is ideal). It's worth mentioning that although there are several companies that support both the Linux and Macintosh platforms (e.g., www.skype.com), the vast majority of PC to Phone software is designed for use on Windows' compatible PCs. As far as your Internet connection goes, the faster the better (e.g., high speed Cable or ADSL). However, PC to Phone does also work on dial-up Internet connections (the way I access the Internet).
The next thing to do is choose a PC to Phone Service Provider. These are the companies that provide the software and infrastructure necessary for you to make calls to conventional telephones via the Internet. There are many Service Providers and each have their own benefits and rates so it's a good idea to shop around. Almost all of them allow for pay-as-you-go usage (i.e., on a per minute basis) however some also offer unlimited calling plans to certain destinations for a low monthly fee. Some of the better known Providers include
Once you've chosen a Service Provider, you'll need to open an account and deposit funds into that account. If you're reluctant to use your credit card online, many of the PC to Phone companies offer alternative forms of payment (e.g., PayPal, direct deposit, wire transfer, etc.). Next, you'll need to download the 'softphone' application from your service provider. A softphone is merely the interface program through which you dial the number of the person you're calling and usually only takes a few minutes to download on even the slowest 'dial-up' Internet connections. Softphones generally resemble the keypad on conventional telephones and work in much the same way. Depending on your service provider, the manner in which you 'dial out' will vary. Typically, the softphone will take into account where you are in the world and adjust the dialing settings accordingly. In other words, you'd dial the exact same series of numbers into the softphone that you would if you were using a conventional telephone.
Once you've made a few calls to friends and family around the world using your computer, you'll quickly realize the fantastic cost advantages of making 'PC to Phone' calls versus 'Phone to Phone' calls.
So what's the catch?
Whilst PC to Phone is terrific, it isn't perfect. There are some disadvantages that you should be aware of and these include:
a) Quality: If you access the Internet via a 'dial-up' connection (i.e., through a normal telephone line), you may experience call quality degradation if you are surfing the web and talking to someone via PC to Phone at the same time. In other words, the 'bandwidth' or 'capacity of your Internet connection' may be limited and this could affect your calling ability.
b) Echo: If you're using computer speakers to hear the person you're talking to, that person may hear an 'echo' of their own voice. This happens for reasons similar to that encountered with the 'speakerphone' function on conventional telephones. At the same time as you hear that person's voice coming through your computer speakers, your microphone will also detect the voice and re-transmit the signal back to the person you're talking to. This 'echo' can easily be avoided by using either a computer headset or by turning your speaker volume down so as to minimize the chance of your microphone picking up and retransmitting the incoming voice signals.
c) Cost: If you're calling relatively small and/or remote countries, you should check the rates of the PC to Phone Service Providers' to those countries before signing up for their PC to Phone service. For example, calling a country like Fiji in the Pacific Ocean is almost as expensive using PC to Phone as it is using a conventional telephone. The reason for these high rates to certain countries is usually due to the PC to Phone Service Provider not having the necessary switching equipment (required for switching your call back to the traditional telephone network from the Internet) physically located in that country. In these scenarios, your calls are routed through the traditional telephone network for a good proportion of the distance they travel and as such they attract many of the long-distance charges that the traditional networks impose. If you'd like to call one country in particular, it's definitely worth shopping around to find out whether prospective PC to Phone companies have the necessary switching equipment located in that country (and hence, can pass on the savings to you in the form of cheaper rates).
So give PC to Phone a try. You've really nothing to lose and have the potential to save yourself a lot of money.
Nathan is the operator of http://www.netphonedirectory.com - a directory of PC to Phone and free PC to PC VoIP Service Providers. Nathan currently resides in New Brunswick, Canada