The Ottawa Sun
Friday, January 30, 1998

Voice travels far on Info Highways

by Rob Hall, rob@echelon.ca

Making a long distance call over the Internet is getting a ton of media attention these days. But is it all that it's cracked up to be? In a word: Yes.

Large companies are starting to look at it as an alternative method of placing calls, and that has the traditional telephone companies scared stiff, and desperately trying to head them off.

There are basically two ways a long distance call can be made over the Internet.

Traditionally, it was between two computers on the Internet, and used the sound cards found in most computers. You installed a piece of software on both computers, and were able to talk to each other.

The leader in this software was a company known as VocalTec with a product called iPhone. The first versions of iPhone allowed for voice communications of a quality typically compared to CB radio. One person at a time could speak, and it sounded a little like you were talking in a tunnel.

As iPhone underwent several revisions, and the bandwidth of the Internet improved, the quality of voice communication is much clearer. Other software programs also have appeared to compete with iPhone.

It is not possible to carry on a two way (full duplex) conversation (that is where both parties can speak at exactly the same time and still hear one another, just like on a regular phone). However, you still require a computer on each end.

The second method of using the Internet is to call through what is known as a PSTN gateway. PSTN stands for the Publicly Switched Telephone Network, and basically refers to what is commonly known as the "Bell Network". The PSTN is what connects the phone in your house to the house next door.

Now, gateways exist between the Internet and the PSTN. What that means, is that you can pick up your regular house phone, and dial a local number where you will be prompted for the long distance number you wish to call.

Then, your voice is digitized by the gateway, and transmitted over the Internet to a remote gateway, where it is returned to the PSTN, and the person you are calling simply answers their normal house phone.

The advantage to this is obvious. You can now use the Internet, and obtain its cost savings, without having to have a computer. You simply use a regular phone as usual. Your voice is being transmitted over the Internet, but frankly, who cares? The end result is the same as a normal long distance call.

Vienna Systems, a local company which is a Newbridge spin-off, is leading the way worldwide in this new gateway technology. I was able to obtain a demo of their system, and the quality is surprisingly good.

My staff have described it best with "Better than a cellular, but not quite as good as normal phone lines."

What is not the same, is the cost of that call. A large Bell company in the U.S. has started to offer calls to anywhere in the U.S. for 7c a minute. As these gateways become more common, prices should decrease even further.

Perhaps the best way to sum up this technology, is with the quote "For 7c a minute, who cares if you can hear a pin drop."

Copyright © 1998 by The Ottawa Sun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.