VoIP: How Free Can It Be?

Updated: April 30, 2009

VoIP initially promised free calls everywhere, but somebody has to write the software, run the servers and pay the telcos to complete calls to landlines and mobiles, while users need to pay for a phone or a laptop and broadband .

Still, there are many providers of free PC-to-PC calls — Skype , obviously, is the best-known — and they keep coming up with new ways to get users closer to that holy grail of VoIP: free calling. There are enough services that allow free calling at least some of the time — whether via laptop, landline or mobile — that an energetic user should be able to duck paying for a phone call for months by switching services as those services' restrictions dictate.

Ccube Inc. allows you to make and receive calls without anyone knowing your number. Post a Ccube widget or username on your Facebook, LinkedIn or other social-networking page, viewers click it, your phone rings, their phone rings and you're connected — all without the caller knowing your phone number or whereabouts, since their Caller ID shows you only as a Ccube number. Ccube also promises 60 minutes of free nationwide (U.S. and Canada) calls per month and an additional 30 minutes for each person you refer to Ccube. This referral business is important to Ccube, which is primarily in the social-networking business. The service matches you with other people based on your (and their) stated preferences, and allows you to meet one another via VoIP. This also means that Ccube lets you block callers and edit feedback that others post about you, to prevent abuses.

Interestingly, Ccube also features voiceKey, a word you speak to authenticate yourself to the Ccube system. (This is not, apparently, voice recognition so much as word recognition.)

SMS software is also handy for making free cell calls, since the same protocols that allow instant text messaging can also carry voice traffic. Click4Me performs this trick nicely. You and whoever you want to call sign up with Click4Me and get Click4Me IDs; then you text Click4Me with "CALL" plus the recipient's Click4Me ID, and the call connects. Click4Me also allows blocking of certain numbers or IDs and lets users get email or SMS messages showing missed calls.

ComBOTS AG connects your PC or landline phone with others around the world for free, or at least for nothing extra on top of your current broadband charge. ComBOTS' Web site is unclear about whether you can originate calls using your mobile, but you can certainly use it to call mobile numbers from your PC or landline. Additional communication options from your mobile include file transfer, chat, text messaging and emoticons.

Damaka Inc. turns your Windows Mobile 1.0 smartphone or Pocket PC into a wifi-enabled phone, allowing you to make free peer-to-peer calls or call PSTN (public switched telephone network) or mobile numbers for cheap. Damaka Mobile also enables users to share video and text messages, transfer files with virus scanning, listen to voice mail and view call logs. Damaka also makes an enterprise version of its product that adds recording, videoconferencing and enhanced security and Quality of Service.

Gizmo Project is the best-known open-standards softphone project. It enables free or cheap calls worldwide — and its spinoff, SIPphone Inc., offers more complex, business-oriented tools using Gizmo's protocols, including PSTN gateways, voice mail and SIP /PSTN network peering. Gizmo features Call In and Call Out (similar to SkypeIn and SkypeOut) typically for 1.9 cents per minute, plus IM, conversation recording and mapping of caller and receiver locations.

Google Talk comes in two flavors: a gadget to use from a Google site (with Flash 8.0) and a 1.5MB download. It integrates directly with a user's Google Personalized Homepage, and the Google Talk application speeds setup by automatically loading contacts from your Gmail account. Unfortunately, the Google Talk client currently only works with Windows and with BlackBerry devices, although Mountain View promises Linux and Mac OS X versions in the future. Note that Google Talk does not connect with landline phones or mobiles.

If you're on a Mac, iChat shares many of Skype's features without using so much bandwidth, has excellent voice quality and integrates automatically with iSight video cameras. The new version for Mac OS X 10.5 adds more bells and whistles, which you can see in a demo here .

Jajah lets users make free PC-to-PC VoIP calls and a limited number of free calls to and from landline phones. You visit Jajah's Web site, enter your phone number and the number you want to call. Your phone rings and you answer, after which the phone of the person you're calling rings to complete the call.

Jajah operates on an honor system that allows you about 1,000 minutes per month of free calls, thanks to other Jajah users paying for premium services (business accounts, calls to non-Jajah users, some foreign calls). Exceed that limit and Jajah will ask you to buy some premium services; if you don't, you may be cut off. (Think you can just sign up again? Wrong: They have your phone number.) Works on Macs and with Microsoft Outlook .

Other companies are building applications that ride on top of Skype technology, including Mobivox . Register your Skype account with Mobivox and the company will list your Skype contacts as people you can call. You can then use local-access numbers to call them for free from your mobile (presumably connecting with them at their laptops). That said, if you and your callee are both in the Mobivox network, mobile-to-mobile calls are not only possible, but free up to 250 minutes per week. As with Jajah, it appears that those 250 minutes are underwritten by others' purchase of premium Mobivox services, in this case international calling minutes. However, Mobivox's operator app, VoxGirl, actually tells you whether a call is free before you're connected.

PhoneGnome is similar to Jajah, in that Web-initiated mobile or landline calls to other PhoneGnome members are free within the U.S. and Canada. Calls are free regardless when both caller and receiver have a $60 PhoneGnome box , a wallet-size switching gizmo that automatically finds the cheapest way to route a given call (landline, VoIP, Skype or others). So if calls to non-PhoneGnome users aren't actually free, it's a good bet they're traveling the lowest-cost route available at a given moment.

If you do a lot of international calling, you can use RocketVoIP for unlimited dialing to other RocketVoIP members for $19.95 per month (up from $10 per month not so long ago). This is the plan for heavy users, since the more calls you make, the cheaper they become per minute.

In addition, since it will usually be evening or the weekend on either the caller's or the receiver's continent (think U.S.-Asia, U.S.-Europe, Asia-Europe), wait until you're on your mobile plan's free night-and-weekend minutes, dial the RocketVoIP access number, dial the overseas number you want, and presto: free international calling from your cell with no charge against your mobile plan's monthly total.

SightSpeed Inc. touts free PC-to-PC voice calling and videoconferencing, while a $4.95 per month Pro service adds video-mail recording and multiparty videoconferencing. It's available for Windows and Mac, and its MySightSpeed feature allows browser-based voice and videoconferencing with non-SightSpeed members (note that both parties will need at least Internet Explorer 6; see demo here ).

Ontario-based Softroute Corp.'s Vbuzzer allows free PC-to-PC VoIP-based calling, faxing and videoconferencing with low rates to complete calls to landlines and mobiles (typically 1.5 cents per minute to the U.S., Canada and China; 1.7 cents per minute to other countries). Unfortunately, Vbuzzer currently works only with Microsoft's outdated Windows 2000 and XP operating systems.

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