TALK IS CHEAP AND GETTING CHEAPER

We’ve been using a new Skype WiFi phone from Netgear that’s just like a cell phone but cheaper to use. If you’re in a location with good wireless Internet access, the calls are as clear as any land line phone. Joy called London and theWiFi Phone conversation was “clear as a bell,” she says. The other good news is Internet calls are free or nearly so.

This Netgear Skype phone is one of several we’ve seen for making calls through the Internet. Setup is automatic. Once you’ve registered for a Skype account (Skype.com), you’re logged in automatically, as soon as you turn on the phone.

The phone sells for $170, after rebate, at NewEgg.com. Skype software is free and comes already installed on the phone. You can call landline or cell phones with a “Skype Out” account, and receive calls on your Skype phone with a “Skype In” account. International calls typically cost 2 to 3 cents a minute and are free to other Skype users.

A similar WiFI phone from Belkin is designed to work with “Boingo,” a wireless Internet service with 60,000 locations, including nearly every large hotel and airport. You have to sign up with Boingo (Boingo.com), but it’s only $8 a month if you have this phone, which is $180 from Belkin.com/Skype. For that you get unlimited Internet phone service to anywhere in the world.

A major technological shift is in progress. Several years ago, traditional phone companies paid little attention to the growing competition from aggregators. These bought huge blocks of line time and resold phone services at big discounts. Everybody’s bill shrank. Now the sellers of cell phone services face the same horizon. Why pay high charges for each minute of call time and sign up for long-term contracts if you can take an Internet phone into a cafe or hotel and make calls for free?

Since most phone calls originate in cities and large towns, these tiny four-ounce phones are poisted to use WiFi– the short designation for wireless Internet service — as the new commuincations highway. Several city governments have said they would likte to establish city-wide WiFi for free. The expansion of free and ultra-low-cost Internet phone service appears inevitable. With it will come video along with voice. The so-called “Internet 2” high-speed service now being used by many universities and other institutions transmits data at a stunning 100 gigabits per second. That’s fast enough to watch movies transmitted in real time and can easily handle simultaneous voice and video. Tens of thousands of students use it every day and will soon move on from college expecting similar service in their homes and jobs.

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