On computers: Skype offers free phone service — with a hitch

Jim Hillibish

So your grandmother lives in San Diego and your uncle in Orlando. That’s a recipe for a huge phone bill.

How about zero, free, no charge? Now we’re talking. It takes some coordination, but is revolutionizing the way we phone.

This is VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol). It started with the free consumer Internet Phone a decade ago. That one flopped due to low bandwidth. In this era of greatly expanded Internet data delivery, VOIP is on a comeback and this time, it works.

Internet phoning removes phones from POT, the plain-old telephone system, meaning copper wires. Your voice is digitized and delivered by the Web the same way you receive Web sites. Removing your call from POT vastly decreases the cost.

Utilities are offering Internet phone service where you may call free all over but must pay a monthly connection charge of $20 to $50. Skype makes free truly free with no monthly charge.

You download the free software on its Web site. Now here’s the organizing part. If you want to call or instant message somebody for free, they must also be on Skype. Your computer rings like a phone when they call.

If you make a call to a number not on Skype, you pay connection charges. This is how the company makes money. International calls to non-Skype phones are on the meter, such as 21 cents per minute for Mexico City.

You can call cell phones, hold video and conference calls and send unlimited-size photos and videos.

The hooker is to be free, both caller and receiver must have Skype running and the computers must be online. This may not be that big a deal as a lot of folks keep their systems on all the time.

The average phone user calls the same numbers 85 percent of the time. That makes Skype manageable, as it’s easy to set up.

The voice quality is very good, similar to CD music. The only extra gear you’ll need is a phone headset with built-in microphone. You could use the cheap mic that possibly came with your computer, but a headset (about $25) is much better.

If you find yourself making a lot of pay calls to non-Skype numbers, the company offers unlimited monthly deals for $2.95 to the U.S. or Canada and $5.95 to certain countries. Worldwide unlimited service is $12.95. Yearlong subscriptions save 15 percent. This compares with $40 a month for unlimited cable phone service.

Compatible mobile phones run Skype, enabling wireless access to your account. Some Skype-specific phones allow Wi-Fi access.

Skype also offers some rudimentary social-interaction features, including an optional public-profile directory.

Due to its limitations, including no 911 service, Skype is not sold as a replacement for regular phone service. Its main selling point is cost.

The Repository (Canton, Ohio)