What is "long distance"? I would define a long distance as something that takes a long time to cover; e.g. flying to Singapore requires going a long distance. It takes more than 24 hours to get there. When it comes to telecommunications, however, the term "long distance" has little meaning. Packets of ones and zeroes travel over the Internet at nearly the speed of light. It takes a quarter of a second or less to send a packet of one thousand zeroes and ones from New York to California. To send the packet to Singapore might take a half of a second. In both cases, depending on conditions, the time might be different by plus or minus a quarter of a second. In other words there isn’t much difference. So why is the cost of a telephone call different by one or more orders of magnitude? The answer lies in part in the fact that people have not had an alternative to expensive long distance services. That is no longer the case.
There are many choices available if you want to use your cable or DSL Internet connection to make long distance calls. I previously wrote about my experience with Net2Phone. A "full service" choice would be something like Vonage. I decided to try a service called Packet8. Packet8 charges $19.95 per month for unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada. The rates for International calling are a fraction of what "normal" long distance providers charge. After enrolling on-line, Packet8 sends you a small "appliance" which you plug into your home network. There is no charge for the device and there are no contract commitments. My device arrived on Friday. I plugged it into my home LAN, plugged a Radio Shack phone into the device, and called my brother in upstate New York. No setup. So far the quality has been quite good. You can go to the Packet8 website and see a real-time record of all your calls.
Packet8 uses a standard voice-over-IP protocol called "SIP" and proprietary software that allows Packet8 endpoints to work on home networks even if they have firewalls (which they all should). The Packet8 "Desktop Terminal Adapter" uses an advanced voice compression protocol to maximize voice quality and minimize delays that may be introduced as a result of using the Internet. The company claims that in many instances Packet8’s voice quality exceeds that available on the normal telephone network or cell phone networks. I can not say that I have noticed that, although the quality has certainly been acceptable.
One feature of Packet8 that I like is that you can choose your own area code and you actually get assigned a real phone number so that people can call you on your Packet8 number if you want. Other nice features include…
- Real time billing
- Online account management
- Unlimited calling between Packet8 subscribers
- Personalized voicemail
- Low international rates
- No long term commitments required
- Toll free telephone support and email support
- Programmable Call forwarding with online access
- Caller ID
- Caller ID blocking
- Plug and Play installation
As services such as Packet8 proliferate, we will have a lot to think about. The main issue is whether you want a service that uses a different phone number than the one you already have and are accusomted to? Number portability will change this factor but it is not yet available in some states. Will the quality be acceptable? I am still testing my new SIP phone. The quality is ok but not great. I have to experiment some more to discover why. I have no doubt that as the quality will be adequate as time moves forward. Regular long distance rates are coming down. I have a plan with SBC/SNET that gives me 300 minutes per month for $18 and I get a credit of $5 for using their DSL service. That is a very good rate but the international rates are extremely high. The good news is that "Adam Smith’s invisible hand" is at work on bandwidth and we will continue to see more speed and lower prices.