Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    The Internet offers the tasty little benefit of long-distance calling at virtually no cost--for now, at least

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #337 April 9, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    Since the CRTC gave consumers the op-
    portunity to make long-distance phone calls through providers other than BC Tel, we've all had the pleasure of trying to figure out whose plan makes the most sense for home and business calls. Now the Internet is providing long-distance competition with a twist: according to software providers like Vancouver's Telescape Communications, you can make long-distance calls for free.

    Telescape is just one of several companies which figure they can make a profit while providing a way for you to make your calls at no cost, other than the normal fee for your Internet connection. You'll need a computer with an Internet connection, a sound card (built into Macintosh computers, but an add-on for many PCs) and a microphone. You'll also need special software--Telescape provides its TS Intercom software free at its Web site (http:// And, of course, the person at the other end will need the same setup. Telescape's product is competing with others such as Quarterdeck's WebTalk (about $75), but Telescape founder Geoffrey Hansen says his company has had a strong response since posting the pre-release, beta version of its software in November.

    To share a long-distance call, both parties have to be on the Internet at the same time, and in contact with Telescape's "operator"; users can see who has contacted the operator, and request a connection. With the free version of the software, only one party can speak at a time, as with CB-radio, but the commercial version is voice-activated: as soon as you begin speaking, the other party can hear you.

    This is obviously not a full alternative to BC Tel or Sprint: you can't simply type in someone's Internet address and make their computer ring. Nevertheless, this sort of connection could prove valuable for many businesses. If you're on the road, you could arrange with the folks back in the office to report in every morning at 10, for example, knowing that you can take as long as you need without racking up large long-distance charges. And you can use TS Intercom to transmit data--computer files, photos, and the like--at the same time that you're talking. Future enhancements from Telescape and its competitors include shared whiteboards: a chart or table displayed on one user's computer will appear on the other end as well.

    A little further off, perhaps, is video conferencing. This is already here in a limited fashion, using free software for Macs and Windows called CUSeeMe (get it?), and Connectix, makers of the $140 black-and-white still-and-video QuickCam, is already selling VideoPhone software for an additional $99 or so. It's workable over networks or ISDN phone lines, but the limited bandwidth of a standard modem on a phone line makes it little more than a toy for now.

    * * *

    Late-breaking update... If you plan to get that long-distance feeling over the 'Net, you should know that a trade association of U.S. long distance services has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to halt the use of the Internet for this purpose, noting that this "unregulated interstate and international telecommunications service...creates the ability to bypass local, long-distance and international carriers and allows for calls to be made at virtually no cost." America's Carriers Tele- communication Association points out that a long-distance call on the 'Net can be made for an average cost of about 3.3 cents per minute, compared to seven times that for an average residential call, and is asking the FCC to define permissible communications on the Internet. Just another sign that the free honeymoon on the 'Net may be about to end.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan