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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Phone Home by Net, Toll Free

HARTFORD, Connecticut -- Toll-free long-distance calling.

It's the siren song luring thousands to one of the Internet's latest innovations: the Internet phone.

That's right, more than two dozen software programs now let people make voice calls over the Internet -- just like using a telephone.

For the moment, most users are hobbyists with relatively powerful personal computers. They typically download the software from the Internet, plug a microphone into the sound card on a multimedia PC, and look for someone to talk to.

Though the connections and sound quality are far from perfect, the potential for phone calls over the Internet has excited the imaginations of users and caused even huge telecommunications companies to take notice.

"As the technology is right now, I think you could probably call it a harmless toy, but that's certainly not what the future portends for it," said Allen Clark, a spokesman for MCI Telecommunications Corp.

Imagine leaving custom-recorded messages for different callers, accepting or rejecting calls based on who is calling or giving your computer voice commands over the Internet to, say, lower the heat in your house.

Then there is the potential for a radical shift in billing for telephone calls.

Today, most long-distance companies charge callers based on the duration of the call and the distance. But all that changes on the Internet, which generally operates on a flat-rate model. In a world that spends $500 billion a year on long-distance telephone charges, the potential is awesome.

No one is certain exactly how many people are making phone calls over the Internet, but indications are that the market is mushrooming. Makers of Internet phone software report strong public interest in their products.

Netscape Communications, maker of the popular Netscape Navigator Web browser, is now building its own Internet phone software known as CoolTalk right into the browser. Millions of copies have been sold or downloaded from the Netscape Web site.

Intel Corp., maker of the Pentium processor, is giving away its Internet Phone software on its Web site. A spokesman said "hundreds of thousands" of copies have been downloaded. IBM and Microsoft also have released Internet phone software.

In a recent report, International Data Corp. of Framingham, Massachusetts, estimated that the market for Internet phones will grow to 16 million users by the year 2000.

But others say the pool of regular users has remained small -- partly because it's a lot easier to download Internet phone software than it is to properly install, configure and use it.

Jeff Pulver, an Internet analyst and author of "The Internet Telephone Toolkit" (1996, John Wiley & Sons), estimates that only about 55,000 to 60,000 people regularly make phone calls over the Internet.

Because of the vagaries of how data travels over the Internet, the sound quality of Internet phone calls ranges from pretty good to barely tolerable. Stephen Cohen, chairman of NetSpeak Corp. in Boca Raton, Florida, said improvements to the Internet should boost the quality of Internet phone calls rapidly, to the point where they are similar to regular long-distance telephone service.

"There's no question that it will be toll quality within six months to a year,'' Cohen said.

For now, Internet phone users can speak only with others who have matching software, but that will change over the next year. Leading makers of Internet phone software have agreed on a standard that will not only allow all Internet phones to connect with one another, but also with conventional telephones.

The percentage of U.S. households with the computing power and technical sophistication to use Internet phones is relatively small. Still, telephone companies are watching the Internet phone phenomenon carefully, and some are quite concerned about what it might mean to their business.

Earlier this year, America's Carriers Telecommunication Association, a trade group of smaller long-distance carriers, filed a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission to regulate Internet telephone service. The FCC is said to be leaning against the request.