If you think there are still just two main kinds of telephone mobile and landline this update on the telephone of the future may be an eye opener.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone service already is available for consumers and businesses. It promises to give landline and mobile phones a run for the money during the next few years, offering lower prices and new services.
A VoIP phone sends and receives phone calls over the Internet, almost like e-mail. Some individual calls may go entirely over the Internet, bypassing the traditional telephone system. Others may use parts of the existing phone system.
Depending on the kind of service, your VoIP phone may be a regular telephone or a softphone.
Most services allow you to plug an existing telephone into an adapter box. The adapter attaches to your broadband Internet connection, and you dial like a regular telephone. The other kind uses your computer as the telephone. You communicate via a handset or headset plugged into a Universal Serial Bus (USB) outlet on the computer.
Charges for making calls vary, but are low compared to regular telephone service. Calls that cost dollars with traditional landline service cost pennies with VoIP. Calls to other users of the same Internet telephone provider, even individuals across country, may be free.
An Internet telephone has other advantages.
Many VoIP providers allow you to pick an area code. That can be important to individuals operating small businesses or sideline businesses. A business run from a home office in a rural area can get a prestigious urban area code like New York s 202 or 415 for the San Francisco area.
The phone numbers may be portable. If you move, pack the adapter box, plug it in at the new location, and your old phone number becomes active again.
Business or home VoIP systems can be configured in interesting ways, so that a call to one main number also rings on telephones elsewhere, such as employees on duty after hours. Voice mail messages can be routed into an e-mail inbox, so you can check voice mail and e-mail at the same time.
The main requirement for VoIP is a broadband Internet connection.
That leads right to the main disadvantage of any Internet telephone service. If the broadband connection goes down, you loose both Internet access and telephone service. The connection can go because of problems with the Internet service provider or power outages. Power outages usually do not affect landline telephones, which get their electricity through the telephone wires.
More and more telephone companies are offering VoIP service.
Check with your local phone company. Check, in addition, on Internet-based companies. Some, including FreeWorld Dialup (www.pulver.com/fwd) and Skype (www.skype.com), offer free VoIP.
It works only among people using their service. People who often talk with family or friends in distant places can save big money by using those services.