Monday, April 30, 2007

Calling Cards vs. VOIP: Round One

It's easy to look at VOIP services like internet telephony, especially free ones, and get swept up in the high-tech appeal. So why would a gadget-loving gal like myself still recommend calling cards over something like, say, Skype?

1. Convenience
It's true, not all of us are at our computers 24/7. I've scheduled many international "calls" and waited patiently with my headset on while the other party booted up and tried to connect. On an especially frustrating night I ended up footing the bill for a 10 minute ($9 plus tax) call during which I played international tech support before giving up and discussing the details of the pending photo shoot over the phone.

2. Speaking of Headset...
My mom can barely handle turning the computer on. Getting her to speak audibly into the microphone? No dice. She has a phone. Most people have phones or know where to find one. It may seem like everyone has a computer and a decent internet connection (in addition to a microphone and speakers), but the real number in America is closer to 2/3 of all households.

3. Can you [static] now?
Call quality is subject to a variety of factors, but phone connections aren't nearly as variable as ones made through internet telephony. The VOIP danger: any time IP packets are lost or delayed at any point in the network between you and your call destination, the audio drops out momentarily. This is more common over long distances and congested networks. Echo and "jitter" (when you sound like a skipping CD while talking) are also common over VOIP calls.

4. Sorry, my payphone crashed.
That's right, if your power goes out or your computer craters for some reason, your call is gone. I can't recall ever having been accidentally booted off of a phone call. I don't like relying on computers for certain tasks (see also: my frustration at finding Windows error messages displayed on ATMs), and it will be a long time before I trust mine to handle my important calls.

Internet telephony isn't useless by any means, but it doesn't work in all situations. I used it as a broke grad student to stay in touch with my friends, and I have high hopes for its future in mobile applications. I even helped my nephew get set up to converse with his pen pal in Germany for free, because most high school freshmen would rather face computer delays than have to borrow money from mom and dad. For the calls that really matter, though, I still recommend sticking with the plain old telephone and its trusty sidekick, money-saving Calling Card.

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