Join 560 Million "Skypers" Making Free Calls

Service offers free Internet-based audio and video calls to other Skype users around the world.

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Using your Internet connection to make telephone calls has become commonplace. The dominant provider of this technology, a company named Skype, cites industry surveys that it has become the world's largest telecommunications company. According to TeleGeography Research, Skype alone accounted for an eighth of the world's total international calling volume last year -- an estimated 54 billion minutes.

[See 10 Steps to View the Internet on Your TV.] Those were just Skype calls to other Skype users. The company says it has 560 million registered users around the world. All calls among them are free. Calls from Skype to landlines and cell phones incur charges, but they're relatively modest. An unlimited global calling plan that lets a Skype user dial any accessible phone line in the world costs a little more than $12 a month for three months. There are also cheaper packages, especially if you're only calling people in a single country. "The calling plans start as low as $1.09 a month," says Skype spokesperson Jennifer Caukin, "The other benefits of our subscriptions is that there is no long-term contract, and there are no taxes or fees added, either."

There are several Internet phone services. Vonage, for example, uses the Internet to handle phone traffic like Skype. But whereas Skype users connect headsets to their computers (or use a microphone and speakers), Vonage users install an adapter that connects their computer to an ordinary telephone. It competes more with traditional phone companies.

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Internet telephoning does not fully replace normal telephone services, and you should carefully research available features before using an Internet calling company. For example, Skype does not handle 911 calls. Vonnage does handle such calls, but its system for doing so differs from a regular phone line.

Skype also offers the ability for landline and cell calls to a Skype account. Its SkypeIn service provides an online phone number, now available in 25 countries including the U.S. The SkypeIn service costs $18 for three months but that price can be reduced if the user also buys a subscription for making outbound calls from their Skype account to landlines and cell phones.

Skype has two huge advantages that have made it so popular. The first is that calls between Skype users are free, and the Skype software is free as well. The second advantage is that Skype permits video calling. A standard-quality headset and web camera together will cost $40 or less. Premium products will be more expensive but permit higher audio and picture quality. According to Skype, about 36 percent of Skype-to-Skype calls are video calls, Again, video calls between Skype users also are free.

Skype is also available on smart phones and other mobile devices, although video calling generally is not available. The company says it has also reached agreement with Panasonic, LG, and Samsung for Skype to be embedded in the companies' new television sets. "People have told us they want to be able to communicate in a more comfortable place, and on a big-screen TV," Caukin says. "These TVs are just starting to hit stores."

Skype deserves careful consideration for far-flung families who want to stay in close contact. By creating a network of family members using Skype, it is easy for grandparents, parents, and children to place free video calls whenever they want.

Skype also has become very attractive for people making a lot of international phone calls. Earlier this month, the company announced new pricing packages for landline and mobile calls to 170 countries.

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