VOIP 101: How to Make Free Phone Calls

It should have been a video game that pegged a platoon of starving Space Marines lost on a craggy planet just south of the Crab Nebula against a ferocious, if somewhat flabby, horde of alien lizard space creatures fighting to protect the last bastion of lunar cheese in the known galaxy.

Instead, it’s a way to make phone calls over the internet.

Boooring.

VOIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, is a method of, well, making phone calls on the internet.

And you don’t need a phone company to do it.

VOIP, in its generic state, takes many forms.

iChat can do it.

AOL Instant Messenger can do it.

MSN Messenger can, too.

But Skype is perhaps the most recognized brand of consumer-grade VOIP there is.

With any of these pieces of software you can send and receive voice or video calls between computers (and many mobile devices) anywhere in the world for nothing.

Yeah, that’s right.

Nada.

So that 5-dollar-per-minute-long-distance-fee-to-call-Mayotte your friendly neighbourhood telephone company charges you (notice, I’m not naming any names here) is a complete waste of money.

No, serious, I’m not engaging in hyperbole here.

It’s a waste of your money.

You can do the same thing for nothing with a piece of software like Skype.

Honest, I kid you not. In 2008, the very concept of long distance rates is prehistoric.

If you’re still paying them, you’re getting ripped off.

Nobody, nowhere, should be paying anything to place voice calls to anywhere on earth.

Honest, if the Beatles were more than a marketing concept these days, they’d be writing a new song and it would be called All You Need is ‘Net.

Because the internet is the perfect platform for every form of telecommunications there is.

And voice is no exception.

The internet is flexible. It can do anything.

(This side of ironing my undergarments, of course.)

Voice telephone calls are just one many ways you can communicate online.

Personally, I’m inclined to do video calls these days.

I have family all over the globe and video chatting is much more satisfying than that old-fashioned voice stuff.

Really. How am I supposed to show my son’s latest artwork to his grandparents on the phone?

So what does it take to engage in the basics of VOIP?

Download some VOIP software like Skype.

(If you use a Mac, you’re already enabled: just launch iChat.)

Tell you friends and family to do the same.

Set up a free account.

And get to it. Call. Talk. Enjoy.

No monthly fees. No connection surcharges. No system access fees.

Heck, no worries.

Just pay your flat-rate internet bill and talk till your face turns blue.

It’s like I said last week, so much of what the traditional telephone company sells us these days is just smoke and mirrors.

Like bottled water.

The prettier the plastic tube, the higher the price tag.

But in the end, you could just hit the river and have it for free.

(Free of unexpected hormones, too.)

In the case of VOIP, the river is the internet.

But don’t get the idea that this is a secret to the telephone companies.

Copper, the age-old standard conduit for your analogue voice is on the way out, to be replaced by endless kilometres of hair-thin glass strands called fibre-optics, so much better for carrying the internet’s multi-faceted data streams.

But the telcos don’t want you to notice their sleight-of-hand as they transition.

Because, culturally, we have come to attach a certain value to the service of voice telecommunications.

And, even though it’s cheaper these days, the telcos have their marketing machine running at a fever pitch to make sure we don’t lose our sense of that value.

They want to reinvent themselves in the spirit of VOIP, without letting us know they ever turfed old fashioned analogue.

And they, of course, want to prevent us from circumventing the system they build.

But, really, the Costco, bulk-buy quality of internet bandwidth is a cost saver that we should all be able to reap the benefits of on our own terms.

In this spirit, the internet and VOIP should be left open and unregulated.

The telephone companies, of course, are welcome to offer us voice services online that might replace what they’ve sold us for decades.

But as citizens of the internet, we should also have the right and the ability to engage in VOIP on our own terms, without penalty. And without the telephone companies involvement, if we so choose.

So get on iChat or Skype or whatever, and at least stop making long distance calls on your phone.

You’ll save a pile of money on your phone bill. And you’ll send a message to the telephone companies that they’re not so much the essential service they once were.

Unfortunately, VOIP isn’t the exciting video game it could have been.

But it is a cool way to save significant cash.

(Assuming I made deadline) this column originally appeared in the Yukon News on Friday, August 1, 2008.