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Wednesday 30 June 2004

VOIP is coming [lurks]

You've all heard of VOIP, I assume. A hideous technical name which some lab-dwelling cocknut gave to Voice Over IP, or - for everyone else - the concept of making a telephone call over the Internet. The buzz has been building in the industry for some time and on the corporate front, there's many established providers and firms which make use of the technology so they avoid being the drastically higher charges which our telecoms companies charge for regular plain old telephone service (the lab-dweller called that POTS).

The question is, will this shit ever actually mean anything to you and I? Actually, yes and here's why.

Quietly and without fuss, Plantronics have launched a retail promotion of headsets across Europe which offers 120 minutes of free calls to 25 countries worldwide via this thing called Skype. I'd never heard of it but I was interested enough to look into it.

Skype is basically an instant messenger client which is free, check it out here. So what, you say. Indeed, it doesn't look like much and basically the only difference between it and, say, MSN Messenger, is that it's predominantly aimed at voice. It does text too but basically it's a P2P client which manages contact lists and you can place an audio call to any of your buddies. They hear a ringing, pop on their headset and have a chat. There's conference call stuff too. Me, Slim and Skeeve tried it out last night. It works, it's dead easy and it sounds excellent too.

But you've been able to do this stuff in Messenger anyway, right? Well, yes and no. Firstly, it sounds terrible in Messenger - try it. Secondly, like the file transfer stuff in Messenger, this shit just doesn't work via a firewall, even a basic NAT one. You have to map ports and faff about. Of course you can do that but it's not really the sort of mass market thing which you're going to be able to get your Mum on right?

So Skype is a good voice-based IM client. Jolly good. Where things get interesting is the fact that you can place telephone calls land lines and mobile phones around the world via the SkypeOut service. Now, this is in Beta now but it's working. If you buy a Plantronics headset, you get a little voucher for 120 credits which you can apply to your Skype account. Yet if you're just a punter who has downloaded Skype, you can't buy credits yet. It's coming 'soon' apparently.

Look, I'm giving you a taster of the future here - quit bleating!

So anyway, what's it all cost. Well, the 25 countries covered by the Skype Global Rate cost 1.2 Eurocents. We gotta pay VAT on that, their site says 15 percent but I guess they mean 17.5 for us? So that puts it at 1.41 Eurocents or 0.93 pence in Sterling. That's fuck all.

What's notably missing from the global rate are UK mobiles, unsurprising since our mobile operators are rip-off merchants and have recently been ordered to cut their termination charges by a good whack by Ofcom. Also South Africa, which is a key point for me. My wife calls South Africa all the time. Her family have computers but on modem and I really don't think that's going to work so she'll stick to SMS and Messenger unless this brings some to the table.

So anyway, let's take a look at the cost per minute to use Skype to call a UK mobile phone first. Here's the full pricelist and that says that puts UK mobiles at 16 Eurocents and 18 Eurocents if it's an Orange number because the frog are even bigger wankers than the Brit mobile operators. I'll save you the math, it works out that Skype calling a UK mobile phone will cost you 12.5p a minute and 14p a minute for Orange.

Now comparing that with calling from a BT landline, it can cost you as much as 20p or as little as 16.8p. So worst case scenario, Skype is cheaper to call UK mobile phones than a BT landline is and obviously a hell of a lot cheaper than another mobile unless you've got some funky tariff that makes it cheap to call the same network.

Oh yes and South Africa. That's gonna cost me 3.9p a minute.

So Skype very clearly has a massive price advantage to traditional telephony which is bound to get people installing the little applet and then as a knock on, a good many will use it as a regular phone service between themselves and pay precisely zero for it.

Did I mention the fact there's a PocketPC client for it? Now think about PDA/notebooks with WiFi access. You go to your coffee shop hotspot and log on, bingo all your contacts can see that they can call you and you can call out. Now the importance of VOIP is starting to become clear.

BT recently announced that they're moving their entire telephone network to a private VOIP network, which may not be startling news for us but BT does have a secret little ace up its sleeve which its in the process of trialing now called Project Bluephone.

The Project Bluephone concept is that a handheld device will happily use a WiFi hotspot to receive and place VOIP calls and the regular GSM/3G networks when a hotspot isn't available. It's due to go into more widespread trials this summer. Apparently it actually works.

Whether or not you think that you'd ever use Skype yourself, it seems clear that the public will increasingly pick up on VOIP and this will harm the traditional telephone system. With luck, the competition will see them drop prices to realistic levels.

Perhaps at some stage, Skype or maybe others like it will force such a radical rethink of telecoms that our local mobile operators will be forced to reconsider the highway robbery of charging 15p for a 170 character text message. We live in hope.


  1. If Skypes prices are really that good when they fully launch the break out service, then I'm buying.

    The bluephone sounds superb, but of course it'll be locked into BT's service. What we need is some kind of voip wireless standard now.

    Anyway, first trial of skype last night was impressive. It's enough like a regular phone not to put newbies off too, I reckon.


  2. I think the app needs a bit of a tweak really. After installing, it just chucks you online and doesn't go through any stage of checking to see if your headset is working or anything. It's easy enought to sort, this sort of thing is absolutely perfect for a USB headset because you just select that device and you don't have to muck about with the microphone in and the audio output on a sound card etc. They just need to make it run a little wizard the first time you run it, like Roger Wilco used to do - remember that?

    Also, I reckon what you really need for this is a headset with a little answer button and major a basic caller id LCD. Imagine answering a call on your headset while you were playing a game or, maybe it's a lounge server and the screen is off?


  3. They sell one on their site, it's even got a little screen that'll show your contacts list and let you call someone from it


  4. Whilst in Japan last year, I used Callserve which came with my Viao laptop, all I had to do was buy a headset which probably cost me 100 yen or so and I was calling home at 3p per min and also some mobile numbers at around 15p.

    The downside of Callserve is that they now charge at 30second intervals and not minutes (not sure when they changed that but it must have been recent.) And they also close accounts after 6 months, after 12 months they delete the account and keep any funds sitting there!

    However, this Skype does look pretty good on the cost front so I'll look in to using this.

    Cheers for the info


  5. That little Skype specific handset is ÃÂ�£40 delivered from a UK shop.


  6. A mate and I looked at using Skype as a purely computery solution, we used Yahoo Messenger for the Superweb cam vidoey and skype for the talking. Worked well.

    However, wouldn't an ace product be a VOIP USB cordless phone that just y'know, plugs n go like a webcam does? Your auntie in Oz gets it plugged in and you get plugged in, and you can call them from your sofa/bog etc. ZERO CALL COST.

    If these loons can manage to plug a webcam in, they can manage on these non-existant phones.

    The trouble is, Skype have this ace software, but they are more interested in becoming a pay-per-use telecoms provider, rather than giving us free calls. Which is fair enough, you ain't going to make money on free software that allows free voice chat.


  7. LOL!

    A telephone kind of like the one Lurks linked to as I was writing my shit!

    Can you get two of these and then use them for completely free calls then, between two computers?


  8. It's actually IPT, not VoIP. There's only a a subtle difference but enough to make one right and one wrong.


  9. Homer: yes. I'd prefer something that doesn't need the pc to be switched on though. Either way, it roxors potentially.


  10. A smell another convergence, VOIP is mentioned in this recent I, Cringely article about hacked firmwares for the Linksys wifi router and how VOIP is a great application for it.

    Well, lickle Linux-based router like the Linksys, running the voip application, got a usb slot like the Asus Mat has, plug in your CORDLESS Voip handset and bingo bingo. No PC needed. No jacket required, as the King, Phil Collins said.


  11. evil_homer: Skype is and will always be free when connecting between to PCs via the Internet. Sure they're interested in making money by charging for putting through calls to POTS but the way they plan to hook people in is free telephone calls between PCs.

    I'm looking to switch job to one which will see me effectively running a virtual office for a form. Having a really easy way to talk to the bosses in Germany and the States and not paying for it, is absolutely superb.

    Slim's right though, the mass market wants boxes you plug in that just work. What you need is a little box with an Ethernet connection which just jacks into your broadband router while being a DECT telephone base station. Of course you'll also want a real inbound number as well and this too is coming.

    It could have been done ages ago but have a think about the telecoms infrastructure today. The people you're getting Internet off, also do a sideline in offering up regular POTS telephone systems. So they've not been in a hurry to cut off that source of revenue and make it easy for the mass market.

    It wont make much difference though. Shortly Zoom-Hayes is to launch a product pretty much like I describe...

    Update 26-June-2004: Looks like Skypeout has been launched, so everyone can get in! Oh, I got the missus on it today as well. She made a 1 hour 15 minute call to South Africa. I went to BT's web site and priced that to use our landline, it would have cost ÃÂ�£50.60. On Skype it cost ÃÂ�£2.76. No shit.


  12. Hmmm, I've been giving this a go, to get the wife cheap calls to the motherland. Stuck 10 euros into an account and started messing around with it.

    It doesn't seem terribly reliable at the moment. I managed to get two connected calls to our landline in about 20 minutes of clicking connect/disconnect. Most of the time it gives a 'beep beep beep' then hangs up.

    Good in theory, but letting the missus lose on this at the moment would be a recipe for a bad lughole.


  13. Yeah, trouble with Skype is that it relies on some sort of agent in each country placing the call and it's only as good as that. It's definately a suck it and see job. We're ecstatic on the cost savings to South Africa though, and it's been spot on otherwise. However when I called some UK mobiles I had a bit of weirdness.

  14. Lurks, you mentioned on ukgamer that Skype was now kinda broken. Is it still tempremental?This is another good idea, a usb thingy for your computa that hooks into a DECT telephone system for real phone to voip goodness. Seems to be a small selection of Siemens phones/basestations at the moment but it's getting


  15. Skype remains essential for those who need to make International calls. The cost isn't just highly affordable, it's goddamn cheap.

    It is also handy as a conference call tool (with integrated IM) and is much more suitable for the job than TS.


  16. I use Skype. It's awesome and has saved me a bomb with calls from the UK to Russia and the States. I am about to use it with my PDA so we will see how it goes.


  17. Will you be talking into your PDA then? Y'know... like someone fat from Star Trek. How cool is that?!


  18. Skype to dialup South african (via mweb) users works well - clearer than most mobile calls


  19. Does it work over dial-up? They're fairly clear it's for broadband but I can't really see why since it's just audio. We could save a bomb if the missus got it installed on her old man's PC in SA.


  20. works like a charm to my folks in SA who are on Mweb dialup.... have diddled Telskum out of over R1000 so far ;)