Although it really wasn't designed for these uses, the Internet is being used more and more to replace certain communication services that have traditionally been the exclusive domain of the telephone companies and long-distance carriers.
I'm not talking about the fact that many people now use relatively inexpensive electronic mail to communicate worldwide instead of the relatively expensive conventional long-distance voice communication via telephone. It is true -- many people have discovered that it is far less expensive to reach out and touch someone with the computer and modem than by picking up the phone to call, but the fact is that a growing number of Internet users are using their computers and their Internet connections to replace normal voice phone calls and even fax transmissions.
If you've perused the magazine racks at the local bookstore or supermarket lately, you've probably seen the recent spate of Internet magazines with cover stories on Internet phone applications. The Yahoo! index lists no fewer than 15 different companies marketing Internet voice products. Many computers being sold today are sold as "multimedia systems," which usually means they come with CD-ROM drives and sound cards, and those systems often come bundled with one brand of Internet phone software or another. All you need to use this technology is a reasonably fast computer, a reasonably fast modem, a sound card, speakers, a microphone and some kind of Internet phone software. Many Macintosh systems come with all the required hardware built in.
The technology isn't that hard to understand -- our voices produce analog signals, that is, sound waves that are caused by vibrations in our vocal chords. In the old days of telephony, these sound waves were simply converted into fluctuating electrical voltages by the microphone in our telephone handset, and those voltages were sent out over the copper wires of the phone company's telephone network. The signals were amplified along the way and switched from place to place, but they essentially were still just wiggling voltages from one phone to another.
Most of us still use analog phones, but today, by the time your voice gets into the phone company's network, it is converted into a digital signal. That means that the phone company uses sophisticated electronic equipment to change the wiggling voltage levels into numbers, or more specifically, into ones and zeros that can be rapidly transmitted between computers. The wires and optical fibers that are used to carry computer data all over the world are essentially the same wires and fibers that are used to carry digital voice data all over the world.
The first paragraph of this column is somewhat misleading -- the fact is that the Internet is largely built on communication lines that belong to the phone companies anyway, but when you use your computer to place an "Internet phone call," the phone company can't charge you the usual rate for conventional long-distance phone calls. For this reason, Internet phone calls are often thought of as free long-distance calls. You may pay for your Internet connection, but a single long-distance phone call to an overseas location can cost more than a month of Internet connectivity, which is often obtained through a local phone call with your modem.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this technology is that you can do it even with a 14.4 kilobits-per-second modem connection. Faster modems or higher-speed net connections can bring improved sound quality, but even the most humble multimedia computer system today can put this technology into your hands.
The products you'll be most likely to use have names like Internet Phone, NetPhone, Maven, SpeakFreely, WebTalk, CyberPhone and others. Some are commercial products, some are shareware or freeware. And you can find all the information you need by pointing your Web browser at the Internet Telephony page (http://rpcp.mit.edu/~asears/main.html).
These same kinds of technologies also make possible the use of fax (facsimile) transmission over the Internet, and there are many sites popping up around the world to which you can send faxes via the Internet, many of them at no cost. A FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions list) for Internet fax technology is available from Kevin Savetz's page at http://www.northcoast.com/savetz/fax-faq.html).
-- Doug Heacock, is acting director of the Kansas Research and Education Network Kansas University, Lawrence, Kansas. He can be e-mailed at heacock