Dialing up phone calls on Internet

05/12/2005, BY LORE CROGHAN


Blanka Dalezman uses the Internet to call her parents Dvorah and Chaim (pictured above her) in Prague and saves a bundle of money in the process.

Growing numbers of people are turning to the Internet - for phone service.

Voice over Internet Protocol has drawn 3.6 million subscribers nationwide, a staggering fourfold increase in the past year, according to TeleGeography Research.

To be sure, VoIP is dwarfed by the 93 million residential lines that traditional phone companies have. But it's going to keep growing, said Stephan Beckert, TeleGeography's director of research - because it's cheaper than regular phone service, especially if you make a lot of calls to other countries.

He predicts the number of Internet phone subscribers will rise to 18.9 million by 2010.

Currently, a disproportionately high number of users are in metro New York, Beckert said.

That's because two of the country's top three providers are cable companies with a presence here - Time Warner Cable, which has 854,000 total VoIP subscribers, and Cablevision, which has 601,000.

The company with the biggest number of U.S. subscribers is Edison, N.J.-based Vonage, which has one million customers - and a distinctive ad campaign featuring the tag line "People do stupid things, like pay too much for phone service."

VoIP - which is also called digital phone service or broadband phone service - has been around for a decade. But it didn't start getting popular until recently.

There were just a handful of companies offering it, and sometimes the sound quality of the calls was bad, said Eric Laughlin, CEO of VoipReview.org, an independent Web site where consumers comparison-shop for Internet phone service.

But now, it's more common for people to have high-speed Internet connections at home - which are needed for this type of phone service. Call quality has improved, and lots of big companies are marketing the service.

The very phone companies that VoIP is challenging are getting into the act - such as Verizon, which introduced a service called VoiceWing in July 2004.

VoiceWing has enabled Verizon to win back some former customers, as well as keep some customers who decided to switch from regular phones to Internet phones.

Internet phone service works a couple of different ways. If you buy it from Verizon or many other providers, you use a regular phone with a tiny adapter, and a high-speed Internet connection you get from a phone or cable company.

Vonage, for one, delivers phone service this way so it will seem familiar to customers.

With other companies - such as Skype, which eBay recently bought - your computer becomes your telephone. You plug a headset into it to talk, and click the numbers on your keyboard to dial the calls. (Skype also has a new version that works with a telephone.)

Either way, the point is to lower your phone bills - which you're going to do, as long as you have a high-speed Internet connection at home.

You can get the high-speed hook-up from Verizon for as little as $14.95 a month. The average bill for people with conventional phones is $72 a month for combined local and long-distance service, said Vonage spokesman Jamie Serino. A comparable plan from Vonage - which includes calls throughout the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico - costs $24.99 a month, he said.

Regular international phone service is 10 to 15 cents a minute. On Internet phone companies, it costs half as much.

On Verizon VoiceWing, for instance, calls are 3 cents per minute to the United Kingdom or Italy, 4 cents a minute to Israel, and 6 cents to 11 cents to Mexico, depending on which city you call.

Net2Phone offers one plan with unlimited calls to China, Hong Kong, the U.S. and Canada for $34.99 a month, and another with 150 minutes of calls to India for $29.99 a month.

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To find internet phone service that should save you money and fit your needs, you need to comparison-shop.

Shopping sites include www.VoipReview.org, and www.myvoipprovider.com - which focuses on international phone service.

Before you buy:

# Make sure you pick the right option based on your needs, said Eric Laughlin of VoipReview.org. Don't pick a plan that will cost extra for long distance and international service you might not use.

# Make sure the company you pick has enhanced 911 emergency calling where you live. The Federal Communications Commission set a deadline for the companies to provide it, and the deadline has passed - but some haven't fully complied.

# Make sure the company you pick is able to transfer your existing phone number, Laughlin said. Some can't.

# Be prepared to put up with service glitches, though things have improved since the early days of Internet phones.

Flushing resident Pam Williams said she has a problem at least once a week with her Time Warner Cable phone service.

People will call her cell phone and say, "Where are you? I've been calling you" - when she's been sitting in front of her Internet phone, and it hasn't rung. Or she'll be in the middle of a conversation on her Internet phone, and it will disconnect.

"It's not perfect," she warned.

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Getting it cheaper online

Every Sunday, Blanka Dalezman calls her parents in Prague. Now that she uses Internet phone service, it costs a lot less.

So much less that she's calling her brother, who also lives there, more often than before.

"Now I don't think twice about picking up the phone," said Dalezman, 43, who's got Verizon VoiceWing in her Borough Park, Brooklyn, home.

International calls had been costing her about $100 a month. Now, with VoiceWing, she spends around $10.

Handbag makers Allen and Lina Tsong are also saving money. The couple has Vonage phone service at home in Flushing, Queens, and at their office in Brooklyn.

They need to talk to their manufacturers - who are in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and various cities in China.

"If I called a friend in Nassau or Westchester on a regular phone, it would cost me more than a Vonage call to Hong Kong," said Allen Tsong, 34.

He pays 2 cents a minute for his Hong Kong calls.

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