I started phone service today with Packet8, a voice-over-IP phone company (for which I am not a shill, just a geekily excited customer). This means that my phone is connected to my high-speed internet connection instead of to a regular phone line, through a terminal adapter provided free by Packet8. My voice traffic is transported over the internet to Packet8′s equipment, where it’s connected to the public switched telephone network. The magic is this: Packet8 can put equipment in any geographic location and connect it to the internet. If it has equipment in Tel Aviv and equipment in Minneapolis, and both are connected to the internet, a call from a Packet8 subscriber in Minneapolis to a business in Tel Aviv becomes a local call from Packet8′s equipment in Tel Aviv to the business. All of the transport is done over the Internet; the call doesn’t hit the public switched telephone network until it’s local to the recipient. (That’s how it works in theory; I have no idea how many actual points-of-presence Packet8 has access to. For places they don’t have equipment, they can complete the call from their nearest point of presence.)
I have a real phone number in my area code that people can call, and I can call any phone number. The call quality has been very good, and the price is right: $19.95 per month for unlimited calling in the United States and Canada. The international rates are absurdly low too ($0.05 per minute to any first-world country), though I don’t do much international calling. This definitely beats paying Qwest $14 for a dial tone, plus extra for all sorts of things that come free with Packet8 (local calls, long distance, Caller ID, call forwarding, voice mail, etc.), which would quickly add up to well over $20. The only things I can’t do are call waiting, which is apparently going to be added in a software update next month, and calling 911, which I can do from my cell phone. I may leave an old, deactivated analog cell phone lying around my apartment just for calling 911, which even deactivated cell phones can do for free. And, of course, it requires that you have a broadband connection to the internet, but I find that I’m rarely anywhere for very long without one.
VoIP is neat! And, as John Dvorak mentioned in a recent guestblog post on BoingBoing, there’s an added perk when travelling. When I’m in a hotel with broadband, I can take my home phone with me and make all the calls I’d like, without paying the hotel’s exorbitant telephone charges.