Imagine the following scenario: You're using your computer, perhaps working with a database program or something, and you run into a snag. A program bug has bitten you, or you're trying to do something you just can't figure out because the manual is unclear. So you fire up your Web browser and go to your bookmarks menu to find the home page of the publisher of the software you're using. You browse through the site until you find the "Help" button, and you click it, whereupon a pleasant voice comes through your computer's speaker, saying, "How may I direct your call?" You lean near your computer's microphone and explain your problem, and the operator connects you with a consultant, who talks you through a solution to your problem.
Not long ago, such a scene might sound a bit far-fetched, but not today. In fact, I heard at a conference in Atlanta last week that there are some sites already using exactly such a mechanism to provide consulting to customers. It's called "voice-over-IP" or "Internet telephony" or any number of other things, but what it amounts to is this: You can use your computer for voice communication over the Internet.
This technology has been around for a while, in various forms. There are several different companies selling some kind of "Internet Phone" software, and many computers come equipped with everything you need for Internet telephony, right out of the box. If you're a PC user, you need a sound card, a microphone and speakers, and some software. If you're a Macintosh user, you probably only need the software, because most Macs come with sound hardware, speakers and a microphone built-in.
Voice-over-IP is not a difficult concept to understand. Computers on the Internet communicate by sending data to one another. In this case, "data" can be almost anything that can be converted into a stream of bits (1s and 0s). Numbers and letters are easily converted into digital data (bits), as are graphics. With the right hardware and software, sound is easily converted into bits, as well. In fact, if you listen to CDs on your stereo, you're listening to sound that has been converted to digital data, recorded on the CD, then converted back to sound again when you play it.
The truth is that most telephone calls are digitized today anyway, because the phone company networks, at least the bigger ones, are digital networks. (There are still some local companies using old analog equipment.) What makes voice-over-IP a new deal is the "IP" part. IP is an acronym that means "Internet protocol," and voice-over-IP means simply that we're sending digitized voice data over the Internet, instead of over the phone company networks. The Internet doesn't really care what kind of data it is; if it's in the form of bits, it can go across the 'Net.
When the various Internet phone applications began popping up a few years ago, it was a bit of a novelty. The audio quality left something to be desired, but even so there were some who were speculating about the potential impact of this technology on the long-distance telephone business. After all, with this technology, the only cost involved is the cost of your Internet access account. A "call" to the guy down the street costs the same as a "call" to someone in Japan.
But some new noise is being made now. Apparently there are several major networking companies that are beginning to see voice-over-IP as a viable option for long-distance telephony, and are building networks to provide it. The user interface would be the same -- you would use your telephone to make the call -- but instead of your voice going through phone company networks, it would go over the Internet.
So why all the fuss about voice on the Internet? About the best rate you can get from conventional long-distance carriers today is around 10 cents a minute. Some of the voice-over-IP companies are talking about rates that are half that, or less. Hence, much fuss.
But besides the cost issues, what this may all be about is alluded to in a statement attributed to Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission: "What we need is a data network that can easily carry voice, instead of what we have today, a voice network struggling to carry data."
If you're interested in learning more about the technological side of Internet-based telephony, check out the Voice on the Net page at http://www. von.com/, where you can get information about all the current technologies and applications for voice, digitized audio and video on the Internet.
-- Doug Heacock is director of the Kansas Research and Educational Network at Kansas University. You may address questions to him in care of the Lawrence Journal-World, 609 N.H., Lawrence 66044, or e-mail him at heacock