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As a BT shareholder, I probably should not be saying this, but Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) seems pretty much a no-brainer in these straitened times.
We are already paying for broadband internet connections in our homes and offices, and slipping a sliver of audio into that bandwidth to make a phone call, rather than engaging the clunky and expensive mechanisms of traditional telephony, makes total sense.
This may be what is already happening if you are subscribing to an all-round internet service provider (ISP) such as Virgin Media, and BT itself was an early pioneer of the packet-switching technology that forms the basis of VoIP.
But unless you take matters into your own hands, your ISP is still probably billing you separately for each phone call. It is a nice little earner for them.
There is a set of open standards for VoIP called the Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions, a mouthful almost certainly devised solely to construct the acronym Simple. If I were setting up a business implementation of VoIP this would be my roadmap.
But on a personal basis I have lazily turned to the proprietary Skype because “it just works” – across Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, as well as a variety of mobiles and Skype-dedicated Wi-Fi phones.
It is not just laziness; I must confess that Skype’s cunning PR people included me in their Christmas list and sent me a Skype-certified wireless headset, manufactured by FreeTalk.
I had been put off Skype-phoning previously by the need to deal with acoustic howlround between my notebook’s mic and speakers. It was either that or tether myself to the machine with a wired headset.
The FreeTalk jobbie gives me clear audio with no physical cabling and complete freedom to move around, even to an adjacent room. It is based on technology from Avnera that claims to deliver CD quality audio over the 2.4GHz spectrum, monitoring the vicinity for interference and seamlessly switching channels to avoid conflict with any existing Wi-Fi.
Data transmission typically relies on being able to retransmit garbled packets. But this technique cannot keep up with a hi-fi audio stream, so Avnera’s approach uses quite different ways of correcting or concealing errors in real-time.
Another US company rewriting the 2.4GHz rules to provide CD-quality audio is Aerielle. Its first market offering transmitted over FM, so your car radio could play music from your iPod, but its latest product, the i2i Stream Pack, has a wider application.
It is a dinky pair of identical battery-powered 2.4GHz transmitter/receivers with a choice of 12 colour-coded channels.
You attach your own headphones or speakers to the unit acting as a receiver, plug the transmitter into any 3.5mm stereo source, and set both units’ LEDs to the same colour.
Like the FreeTalk it promises CD quality audio, and has a similar two-room range. I love this ability to wander wirelessly while I listen to music or work over Skype. Unless I am using Skype’s videophone capability, of course, which anchors you firmly in front of the webcam. One of the first recipients of my recent spate of FreeTalk-inspired Skype calls was the veteran IT journalist Barry Fox.
My otherwise interference-free reception was marred on this occasion by mysterious sloshing sounds on the line. Barry confessed I had caught him in the bath – happily, without a webcam. We agreed that there are times when the video aspect of Skype can be overkill.