There's no such thing as a free phone call


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May 24, 2005
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There's no such thing as a free phone call
Making telephone calls through the internet for almost nothing is now moving from geekdom to a high street near you, as Dixons and BT fight for control of what is expected to be a massive market that will eventually make the present telephone system redundant. Dixons has just launched Freetalk, its £79.99-a-year service that, unlike the hugely successful Skype, does not need your computer to be on all the time because it links via a small box directly to the modem/router. I was looking forward to it with visions of turning my home into an internet-only phone zone. I tried it out alongside a similar product, BT Broadband Voice, but with rather disappointing results.

The attraction is not the technology itself (who cares?) but the claim it will cut your phone bill. Yet Dixons' charge of £79.99 for a year's "free calls" is equivalent to making more than 1,400 off-peak hours of calling using a BT landline tariff of 5.5p an hour, so you would have to be a pretty heavy user to make it worthwhile. The same applies to BT's own Broadband Talk tariffs - £7 a month if you opt for the one offering free calls at all times of day.

Both were reasonably easy to install, though Dixons required several unscheduled resets before it started working. More worryingly, with both of them, but particularly the Dixons model, conversations frequently lapsed into monologues when my voice could not be heard at the other end. Whether it was due to the phone or my broadband connection I do not know, but it was not encouraging.

And don't delude yourself that you can say goodbye to the cost of that landline yet. BT's option requires broadband and a normal BT line - so it becomes a straight calculation whether you would make enough free calls to justify the extra cost. In theory you could use Freetalk as your sole phone service - but first you would have to find a broadband supplier or cable operator willing to allow that.

You will still need a landline if you want to be sure of making 999 calls with Freetalk, because internet phones don't tell the emergency services where the phone is located (though BT claims to have solved this problem). You may also need a traditional phone as an insurance against a power cut, loss of speed or even the spam associated with broadband. Dixons is currently marketing it as something additional to your normal phone rather than an alternative.

Internet telephony will turn out to be the most disruptive technology since the internet itself. But for the moment, it is best to stick to easily downloadable services requiring a computer, such as the pace-setting Skype, which added 9 million customers last week alone, BT Communicator, which is linked with Yahoo, or the less impressive Google Talk, which, like BT/Yahoo, also offers instant messaging. None is any use unless you know others on the network but Skype, which also has a paid-for service, SkypeOut, for calls outside the net, claims 200m downloads and is most likely to be the first to reach a critical mass.

The prospect of globally free calls, once the majority of people are on board, is fascinating. It will enable anyone in the world to speak to anyone for nothing if they are online, as most subscribers will eventually be. It will spawn countless new businesses and consumer applications, while giving poor nations a chance to leapfrog into a new era.
At present it is like the wild west. You can't talk to anyone on Communicator or Google if you are on the free Skype service and vice versa. The nirvana of free, easy-to-use net calls is not yet here, especially not in the UK, which is trailing behind other countries. But at least one gets a glimpse of what will happen once the wild west has been tamed. It is worth signing up now if only because it will be fun being part of the journey rather than waiting for the new era to arrive.

Victor Keegan
Thursday November 10, 2005

Guardian Unlimited ; Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005