Pete Roythorne gets on the phone for free

You can't fail to notice the growing tide of internet service providers (ISPs) offering free or cheap phone calls. You may even be aware of a free piece of software called Skype that seems to be taking the world by storm. So how is this deluge of cut-price telephony possible? Say a big thank you to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). Without getting too techie, this means that, instead of using standard phone lines to carry the voice signal, you are using data lines such as the internet or even your school network. If you are talking to someone who is also using VoIP, then you are completely bypassing the phone company, and you pay nothing on top of your normal internet connection fee. If the other person is on the standard phone network then you can connect at a reduced cost as you're bypassing standard line rental charges.

There are three different types of VoIP:

* ATA (analog telephone adaptor) - the most common way to use VoIP.

The ATA allows you to connect a standard phone to your computer or your internet connection. It takes the analog signal from this phone and converts it into digital data for transmission over the internet.

* IP phones - they may look like normal phones, but they connect directly to the internet via a special connector. They have all the hardware and software installed so all you do is make the call.

* Computer-to-computer - probably the easiest way to use VoIP. All you need is a computer, software, a microphone, speakers, a soundcard and an internet connection, preferably broadband. This method also means you can often simultaneously transfer files between the two computers while talking.

VoIP has major potential for cost reduction in schools, but you might also consider using it for anything from communicating with schools across the world for free, to broadcasting a presentation to the whole school in their individual rooms or allowing teachers to talk to each other without leaving their classrooms.

Also, if you're using a computer to access VoIP, you can record your call directly to a digital format, which can be used on any other device. PC users should check out a piece of software called Freecorder. Mac users should be able to do this through GarageBand. However, there are things you need to look out for: your network has to be fast, reliable and offer high quality of service; and there may be compatibility problems with existing firewalls (software that stops people attacking your network from outside) and security devices. Even so, VoIP looks certain to work its way into schools.



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