Save Money By Using Your Computer as a Phone

How choose among the various internet phone providers.

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Today's guest post comes from Julie Trade Levitch, a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

With consumers and businesses making more long distance phone calls than ever before, the need for reasonably, reliable phone service has never been in greater demand. Fortunately, voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology that enables phone calls to be made over the Internet has dramatically reduced the price for dialing long distance. However, with a growing number of VoIP service providers offering a variety of services, it can require a certain amount of research to determine which option is the right fit for your specific needs.

What Skype Offers

Owned by Ebay, Skype is certainly one of the most widely recognizable names in VoIP services. Introduced in 2004, Skype has grown rapidly in popularity because of its service offerings that include free PC-to-PC calls and discounted rates for PC-to-landlines and mobile phones. Their most popular and widely used service offering is free Skype-to-Skype calls. By downloading their software, Skype users can call anywhere in the world, anytime to other Skype users for free.

Of course, not everyone is a Skype user, and this is where the service can become more complicated. The company provides several different options for calling landline and mobile phones. Their “Pay As You Go” option requires users to add money to an account to pay for calls as they make them. Currently, they charge 2.1 cents per minute to over 30 locations plus an additional connection fee.

Besides “Pay As You Go”, users can alternatively choose one of Skype’s subscriptions that can be billed either monthly or annually. The least expensive plan allows unlimited calls to the United States and Canada landlines and cell phones. There are plans that enable users to call one designated country other than the United States or Canada and a plan that provides unlimited calls to over 40 countries worldwide.

While Skype’s calling plans are substantially less expensive than traditional phone providers, it’s important to read the small print before signing up and placing your first call. Connection fees that apply to “Pay As You Go” users can be somewhat difficult to determine from searching on Skype’s website. For those who choose a subscription, there are limitations for making international calls. In some countries, only landlines are covered under the plan, and in the case of Mexico, calls can only be made to three cities. There is also a fair usage policy for all Skype’s plans that can affect the overall cost of a call.

Along with long distance calling, Skype offers a variety of bundled services with their subscriptions including voicemail, call forwarding, text messaging, and an online number to allow others to call you from a regular phone to reach you on Skype.

Along with the somewhat complex billing structure, there are several drawbacks to Skype which are worth noting. Skype doesn’t offer some of the extra services that some of its competitors provide such as free international calls to fixed and mobile phones.

Vonage

Another of the leading VoIP providers is Vonage. Unlike with Skype where you dial directly from your computer, Vonage requires you to purchase a phone adapter that connects your phone to the Internet. This provider offers several calling plans that range from $17.99 to $34.99 per month for consumers. There are plans available for small businesses, as well.

The primary benefit to Vonage is that it works very similar to a typical landline. Plans feature voicemail, call forwarding, caller ID, and call waiting. You keep your existing phone number and continue to have 911 service. The phone adapter is also portable so that you can take it with you and plug it into any internet connection. This enables calls to be routed to you wherever you are located.

However, for these conveniences, you will pay more for Vonage than for Skype or other VoIP service providers’ services. As well, Vonage doesn’t offer features such as instant messaging, conferencing services, or file sharing.

Google Talk

In 2005, search engine giant Google released a beta version of Google Talk, their free Windows and web-based application for instant messaging and VoIP. The service provides users with the ability to chat for free, instant message, send and receive voicemails, transfer files, and receive email notifications. Users of Google Talk swear by its application, but there are some negatives that are worth noting.

Users of Google Talk must be signed up for Google’s email service (Gmail) to access the application. It also doesn’t offer many of the useful features that VoIP customers have come to expect such as voice mail, phone conferencing, and multi-chat features. It also doesn’t provide capabilities for pc-to-landline or pc-to-mobile phone calls. Therefore, international calls are limited to those placed between Google Talk users.

MediaRing Talk

Lesser known Media Ring has been around since the 1990’s and offers a range of VoIP services for consumers and small businesses. Their direct-to-consumer service “MediaRing Talk” currently offers computer and mobile VoIP services to over 2 million users. Like Skype, MediaRing Talk offers free PC-to-PC calls worldwide for users who download MediaRing Talk software. Where MediaRing exceeds Skype in their service is by offering free both PC-to-landline and free PC-to-mobile calls to the United States, Canada, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong, along with free PC-to-landline calls to the UK, Australia, and Taiwan. Their calling rates to other destinations are competitive with those offered by Skype.

MediaRing Talk also offers other additional features such as instant messaging with presence and multi-user voice conferencing which allows the setup of conference calls with up to five participants. These extras are particularly helpful to small business owners who conduct business with global clients.

Unlike Skype, MediaRing is able to offer more free services than Skype or Vonage because it uses an entirely different business model that derives income primarily through advertising. In contrast, Skype and Vonage are both dependent on paid subscriptions to generate their primary sources of income. MediaRing also offers a more clear-cut billing structure than what Skype provides.

Many industry analysts are predicting that MediaRing’s current ad revenue model is the wave of the future and will need to be adopted by most or all of its competitors if they are going to remain competitive in an environment where consumers and businesses are increasingly demanding free long distance calling capabilities along with other tools to maximize their communications capabilities.

While Skype, Vonage, MediaRing, and Google Talk are among the leading VoIP providers, there are a growing number of companies to choose from. Price is generally the first consideration when deciding on a company, but there are also other factors worth comparing. For example, many providers only offer voice calls and nothing more. These bare bones providers may not offer many of the important services like instant messaging, conferencing, and video.

There are, undoubtedly, many companies, prices, and plans to consider before choosing a VoIP provider. However, it is always advisable to choose a well-established company that has been around long enough to provide consistent, high quality service and has the capital to invest in continuing to expand their technological capabilities to offer its customers the most comprehensive and up-to-date services available.