Skype's the limit for callers who want to chat for free
(The Irish Times)Free phone calls sounds to good to be true - but 67 million users of a new telephony software can't be wrong, writes Karlin Lillington
Right now, someone, somewhere in Ireland is Skyping. That is, they are talking, either for free or at a tiny cost, to someone else using the ultra-cheap platform of Skype's free telephony software, a computer, and the internet.
With 67 million users worldwide, and up to three million people using it around the world at any given moment, Skype is widely seen as the hot, hot, hot side of telephony right now - so much so that internet giant eBay was willing to dig deep into its pockets earlier this year and lay out around 3 billion for the upstart company, founded in the Netherlands by two Scandinavians and now based in Luxembourg.
A key reason why Skype has grown at hyperspeed and was sexy enough to attract the eye of eBay is ease of use. It started out as a word-of-mouth phenomenon spread by the geek community, but it's no longer just your long-haired software developer brother who is using it. It's your mum.
How can calls, or at least some of them, be free? Basically, for the same reason e-mail is free, if you have some way of accessing the internet. Skype uses a technology called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which means it takes your voice call, converts it into digital form, and sends it out over the internet, where it is converted back into sound at the call receiver's end. Transport over the internet is free, making it easy for Skype to offer free or very low-cost calls and still make money.
How does it work? You download the free Skype software program onto your home computer which creates a virtual phone dialer panel on your PC desktop. The process is incredibly easy and takes minutes. You use this panel to dial others, and use a set of headphones plugged into your PC to make the call.
Alternatively a wide range of stand-alone phone devices is coming on to the market too, so you can use one of those (Skype has launched a new range just in time for the Christmas market, but many makers offer handsets).
You do need a broadband connection - which means Skype can't be used in those areas of the country still without any broadband connections.
If you make a call to another person who has Skype, the call is free. If you call someone who doesn't have Skype - because yes, you can also call a landline phone or a mobile - there's a small charge; you buy credit online, and your call charge is deducted from that. Costs range from about 5 cent a minute to South Africa, 10 cent a minute to Romania, about 2 cent a minute to the US and 16 cent to the Philippines - you can see why Skype is especially beloved of immigrant workers here and features at many internet cafes.
Skype also has a package that, for about 30 a year, gives you a phone number which can be accessed anywhere in the world at Skype call rates. You can also forward calls to any landline or mobile at Skype rates.
The latest version of the Skype software integrates with desktop messaging programs and includes free videoconferencing software, so you can show off the new baby or those new Christmas gifts to friends and relatives around the country or around the world.
HOW POPULAR IS Skype in Ireland? While figures aren't officially available, the large number of immigrants and those working for technology companies would indicate that it has a sizeable number of customers already. Anecdotal information is that growth has been very fast here.
More concrete evidence comes in the form of Skype Zones - designated locations where, for a monthly fee of 6.50, you can make unlimited calls using a software download from a company called Boingo. Ireland has 56 such zones already and the service is still only in test phase. Sites include the Statoil service station in Oranmore, the upmarket Expresso Bar in Ballsbridge, Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel in Killiney, the Bord Iascaigh Mhara office in Dun Laoghaire and nightclubs such as Dublin's Renards and the Odessa Club.
Skype isn't alone in the market, however. Vonage offers a similar service and is very popular in the US, while both BT and Yahoo have announced VoIP services that will undercut Skype in cost.
Ian Fogg, broadband and VoIP analyst at JupiterResearch, recently told tech news website vnunews.com: "This is a very dynamic market and there is an acceptance that using the internet and the PC to make phone calls is going mainstream."
So don't be surprised to find someone you know Skyping, Vonaging or VoIPing in one form or another in the new year. It might even be you.
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