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This article is for the newbies who’ve bided their time and are only now deciding whether to get with the VoIP program. If the prospect of switching over seems daunting, this brief tutorial should help.

Lately, it’s hard to have a conversation about computers, phones, and–especially–the convergence of the two without hearing the phrase Voice-over Internet Protocol, aka Internet telephony. For the uninitiated, VoIP allows users to make telephone calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of via a regular analog phone line. Its adherents love VoIP because it tends to cost less, sometimes lots less, than traditional phone service (especially when it comes to long-distance calls). Plus, it’s convenient, it’s efficient, and it’s poised to be the wave of telephony’s future. Skeptics are reluctant to adopt it because some VoIP services don’t work during power outages; others don’t work when the Internet connection goes down; thanks to its work-in-progress regulatory status, some services have a hard time connecting with 911 (kind of a biggie, that one), and some folks simply aren’t disenchanted enough with their traditional phone service to make the switch. If you were an early VoIP adopter, you needn’t read any further. This article is for the newbies who’ve bided their time and are only now deciding whether to get with the program. If the prospect of switching over seems daunting, this brief tutorial should help.

Step 1: you make the call

According to a recent Forrester Research survey, not even half of telephone owners have so much as heard of VoIP, and only four percent use it. The truth is, you might not even need VoIP. If you’re content with your current phone service and the size of your long-distance bills, it won’t kill you to stand pat. However, you might sing a different tune if you own a small business that makes lots of international calls, or if you wouldn’t mind doing away with your multiple phone networks, or if you just want to save a few bucks and try something new. It’s not hard to find a VoIP package that covers all calls–anywhere, anytime–for less than $20 per month. Throw in the idea of calls to Europe at 3 cents per minute, and it’s hard to resist VoIP’s siren song. So don’t let VoIP’s relatively slow rate of adoption fool you–after all, it wasn’t that long ago that less than half the population had heard of the Internet.

Step 2: get equipped

First, make sure you have a phone and a reliable broadband Internet connection. Obvious, sure, but that’s an important step, because if your ISP service has a habit of flaking out, so will your phone service if you use VoIP. You’ll also either need an IP phone (which works directly with your computer, and should run between $200 and $300) or the more commonly used alternative, a telephony adapter. That’s a box that acts as a liaison between your phone and your broadband modem, translating the electrical pulses from your phone into IP packets that travel over the Internet. You can either buy one on your own or get from your provider. The adapter you can get with your service will probably cost about $150, but you can usually get by cheaper by purchasing one on your own. And thanks to these little gadgets, VoIP travels well. Bringing your adapter on the road (easily done–most are no bigger than a portable CD player) means that you can have access to your VoIP carrier, including calls coming in to your home or business line, anywhere there’s an Internet connection and a touchtone phone.

Step 3: pick a plan, not just any plan

After that, it’s time to choose a provider. Goodness knows there’s no shortage of them, so you’ll want to shop carefully to find the one that suits your needs and budget the closest. Some of the bigger providers can offer you phone service, Internet, VoIP, and even cable TV service all under one service plan. Having all those services on one monthly bill is certainly convenient, but you might save some money if you take the a la carte approach. (A separate article in this ComputerUser breaks down the service plans of many of the top VoIP players; if the article isn’t in this issue, look for it on our Web site >www.computeruser.com

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