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Web Phones Hit The Road

I'm more than 7,000 miles from home but when I called my wife from my hotel, I didn't have to dial an area code and the hour-long call didn't cost a penny. Instead of paying more than $1 a minute to call long distance or $2.50 a minute to use my cell phone, I placed the call via the Internet. And, thanks to Vonage, neither Patti nor I had to sit in front of a computer to talk on the phone.

What's more, the service doesn't just let you make outside calls. You can receive calls as well. After Patti and I spoke, the phone in my hotel room rang with a call from a friend of mine who didn't even know I was out of the country. He called my regular home/office line, which rang here in Cairo.

I'm in Cairo to speak about Internet safety at a United Nations conference on violence against children.

I found out before I left that the hotel where I'm staying has a high-speed Ethernet port in the room. So, along with my clothes and toothbrush, I packed my Vonage Internet phone adapter - the same one I use to make and receive Internet calls from home. After plugging the adapter into the Ethernet port and a small phone into the adapter, I'm able to make and receive calls just as if I were home.

Anyone who calls my regular home/office number can reach me in Cairo without having to pay for an overseas call and every time I pick up the phone to make a call, I get my regular dial tone. If I'm calling people who live near where I do in California, I don't even have to punch in the area code.

Vonage is one of several companies that are not only making it cheaper to make calls from home, but dramatically improving communications for those of us who travel.

The company's basic service starts at $14.95 and includes 500 minutes anywhere in the U.S. and Canada as well as low-cost international calling from anywhere in the world. For $24.9 a month, you get unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada. Setting up the service requires that you plug in a free adapter into your wired network.

If you're traveling somewhere that has a wired Ethernet port, you can and take the adapter - and your home or office phone number with you. The Vonage service doesn't know or care that I'm in Egypt. All they know is that the adapter is connected to the Internet. Regular long-distance calls to and from the Middle East tend to be considerably more expensive than calls to many other regions of the world so I'm saving a considerable amount using Vonage from here.

Other companies that offer similar services include Lingo ($19.95 a month with unlimited free calling to USA, Canada and Western Europe) and AT&T CallVantage ($29.95 a month). In addition to providing outgoing and incoming calls, these services have advanced features such as free voice mail and Vonage's "Simulring" that can be programmed to simultaneously forward your calls to up to five phone numbers so that you never miss a call. If you don't pick up your regular line, you can take your calls on your cell phone, another phone in your home or office or even a hotel phone.

With all these services, the service requires a high speed Internet connection and the quality of the call can deteriorate if the connection gets too slow. In most situations, it sounds like a regular phone line.

The Vonage adapter is smaller than a video cassette and easy to transport but it does require wired Ethernet which is increasingly hard to find now that a lot of hotels (along with other public hotspots) are switching over to wireless "WiFi" technology.

Vonage this fall will introduce a portable phone that works over WiFi networks. The phone, which looks pretty much like a standard cordless phone, will place and receive calls as long as it near a WiFi adapter.

There are also ways to make free or low-cost calls from your PC regardless of whether it has a wired or wireless Internet connection.

If you have a laptop, you can either use Vonage "Softphone" ($10 a month) to make free calls or if you're not a Vonage subscriber you can easily buy time on the Skype service to make calls to North America, Western Europe and Australia for about 2 cents a minute with slightly higher rates to other countries.

You can speak directly into the laptop's built-in microphone and listen through the speakers, but for or best call quality; you should carry a small headset (starting at under $10) that plugs into the laptop's microphone and headphone jacks.

Skype requires that you place calls through your PC but you can call any phone in the world. You don't have to pay a monthly fee to use the service but you do need to prepay for the service. You can use a credit card to purchase Skype time but you pay in Euros, not dollars. A minimum order is $10 Euros (currently about $12) which buys you about 600 minutes of phone usage.

Skype has recently introduced a service for incoming calls. SkypeIn costs 10 Euros ($12) for 3 months or 30 Euros ($36) for a one year subscription. SkypeIn assigns you a telephone number in the area code of your choice and if your PC is turned on, connected to the Internet and running Skype software, it allows you to accept incoming calls.

Skype also has a free service that lets you call from PC to PC but the free service doesn't allow you to call regular phones.

In all but one way, having my home/office phone with me in Cairo is wonderful. I can save a great deal of money on calls, and friends and colleagues can reach me without having to even know where I am. There is one problem though. Cairo is 10 hours head of Pacific Daylight time. If you plan to give me a call, please don't do it at 6:00 PM local time. If I were home, the worst you'd do is interrupt my dinner. Here in Cairo you'd wake me up because it would be 4:00 in the morning.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid MV CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved
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