Making Phone Calls over the Internet Phoning over the Internet: is voice-over-internet-protocol, or VoIP, for you? Ira Flatow leads a discussion about the technology involved, and offers a quick how-to for those interested in hanging up their traditional phone lines.
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Making Phone Calls over the Internet

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Making Phone Calls over the Internet

Making Phone Calls over the Internet

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow. Have you been considering using your Internet connection for your telephone service? I actually am doing that now, it's quite useful. There are lots of companies that will allow you to talk over the Internet at a fraction of the cost of your normal telephone bill. Chances are your cable company offers such a service, or companies like Vonage, or Skype or even Yahoo now. The technology is called voice-over-IP, IP meaning internet protocol, sometimes they call it VoIP, V-O-I-P. In fact, parts of our phone conversation now that we're going to be having today may be traveling part of the way over a VoIP connection, even if you don't use the service at your home.

So what are the options? If you'd like to try it or improve your VoIP service, you now can talk about it. Joining me is Ted Wallingford, he has a voice-over-IP connection with us. He is a VoIP consultant and author of the books VoIP Hacks and Switching to VoIP, both published by O'Reilly. He joins us by phone from Cleveland. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. TED WALLINGFORD (VoIP Consultant, Author): Hi Ira, thanks for having me.

FLATLOW: Using your VoIP connection now?

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Yeah.

FLATLOW: Tell the people who have no idea what we're talking about, what is it in a nutshell?

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Well, you know, a number of years ago the companies and universities around the world kind of got together and created this wonderful thing called the Internet. And it became quite commercialized in the '90s and everybody began using it for all kinds of data applications: websurfing, e-mail, all the things that we take for granted now. So relatively recently the Internet has kind of gotten to this threshold where we can actually use it for voice communication as well. And sometimes that means traditional phone calling where you pick up your handset and make a call and that call travels over the Internet, and other times it means desktop software calling where you use something like Skype or some other desktop voice-over-IP application to make calls.

FLATLOW: And so it basically takes your analog voice, like we're speaking, and makes it into little packets of things and sends it out over the Internet?

Mr. WALLINGFORD: That's exactly what it does. It - there's a number of steps to the process, actually, but basically, yeah, it takes your voice, turns it into packets, packets are little bundles of information that gets transmitted over the Internet and routed from point to point. And so because Internet bandwidth is essentially free, unlike long-distance calling, I could, say, if I wanted to call Taipei or Moscow or London, I could do so at no cost except the cost of my Internet connection.

FLATLOW: 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk about voice-over-IP. And in some cases if you're, you know, if you have voice-over-IP, you can talk for, as you say, basically nothing. Almost like instant messaging the other person, but using your voice.

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Yeah, and it's not just your voice anymore either. Some of these desktop voice-over-IP applications actually include video-conferencing now. If you've ever used iChat from Apple, that's a real good example of a really fantastic video-conferencing, or you know, everybody says VoIP, but now I've been saying VideoIP because it's video over IP as well as voice.

FLATLOW: Is it possible to hook up your own regular telephone and hook it into the VoIP so that you can just, you don't have to invest in new telephone equipment or you can use the stuff that's around your house?

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Sure. Actually, if you watch the TV you see these ads for Vonage and you see, you know, they offer $24.95 a month calling. But their basic approach is to send you a little device called an ATA. You plug that ATA into your broadband line just like you would your broadband router if you have one of those, and then you connect your traditional home phone into a connection on that ATA and pick it up, you get a dial tone just like normal old Ma Bell service and you can place calls at that point and receive them with a traditional phone number.

FLATOW: And I know there's now, there's also - recently competition has been heating up among the voice, VoIP service providers. I use Skype, I notice now that Skype is giving away the service to calling out to regular telephones.

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Yeah, there's - you know, there's a couple of catches there, as there usually are. You're absolutely right though. The overwhelming sort of movement in the telecommunications industry is very, very competitive. Everybody's moving towards lower rates and in some cases free calling. If we place a call over the internet, it's already free.

What Skype is offering is the ability to place calls to traditional phone numbers, which up until now, you always had to pay for even if you were using Skype, which is internet-based. So if wanted to call my mom, say, using Skype, but call her on her traditional phone line, then I would have to pay for something called a SkypeOut credit, which enables Skype to route my call through to my mother using the old fashioned traditional telephone network.

So what Skype has done is they've said, wow, look at all this competition that's coming up here. We've got Yahoo Voice, we've got AOL now has instant messaging with voice and we've got Vonage. And look at all this competition out there! We're going to do a crazy promotion and give away voice calling to any U.S. or Canada-based phone number for all of our subscribers.

But there are a couple of catches. You do have to purchase at least one commercial service from Skype in order for that to work, so you have to, what that means is you basically have to activate an account with Skype using your credit card. And once you do, those calls are then free. The other catch is that it's only until the end of the year, so Skype is doing a market-share grab.

FLATOW: And one advantage that Skype advertises is that it also encrypts its phone messages.

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Yes, it does. And actually the method by which Skype encrypts its phone message is also the subject of much debate, especially within the open source community. Because, if you know any open source programmers and you've ever talked to them about security, the worst way to secure things, in their opinion, is to hide the key or to hide the trick that unlocks the encryption.

And Skype's, you know, Skype uses very strong encryption, but the key is basically, the security of the key to their encryption is maintained by means of its secrecy. And so there's a lot of people out there that are trying to figure out how to reverse-engineer how Skype routes calls and how it encrypts calls, and that sort of thing. And that's become somewhat of a hacker community project.

FLATOW: Now, there are lots of free ways you can do this, with free open source internet voice-over-IP connections. Do they all talk to each other? Or do they have, do you have to buy, if you're in Skype do you have to stay in Skype? If you're in Vonage do you have to stay there, or can they call interact together?

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Well, that's a great question. And, if Skype is the example, then that's probably the most closed desktop VoIP tool that's available right now. In other words, if you're a Skype subscriber, you can call other Skype subscribers over the internet. But you can't call somebody who's using, say, yahoo Voice over the internet.

If I run Skype and I wanted to call somebody on Yahoo Voice, I would have to dial out through the old fashioned telephone network. And that doesn't do anybody any good, because that, you know, that doesn't take us away from the legacy technology.

FLATOW: Or you have to get a Yahoo account, so that you can talk that way, a separate account.

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Well, you would have to have a Yahoo account or call them using the CallOut, CallIn functionality of both applications, Yahoo and Skype.

Now there is one tool out there that is very open and able to deal with any provider that uses a protocol called SIP, okay? And SIP is a protocol for setting up and tearing down phone calls. It's kind of like e-mail protocol, SMTP protocol, except it's used for telephony. And this one program is called the Gizmo Project. It's available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

And it'll allow me to actually communicate with any voice-over-IP network that also uses the SIP protocol, which is a standard that was created by the IETF, which is the body that sort of governs the internet. And so, this Gizmo Project would actually let me call my voice-over-IP office phone system, if I had one, it would let me call other Gizmo users and it would also let me call other networks that also use SIP. So it's very extensible and it can really reach out to other systems. Now Skype does not offer SIP support and neither does Yahoo. They're still kind of doing their own proprietary thing.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Jeremy in Anchorage. Hi Jeremy.

JEREMY (Caller): Well, hello there.

FLATOW: A very clear phone call there.

JEREMY: I just knew you can hear me.

FLATOW: Yeah.

JEREMY: Okay. Well I'll just turn you up. I called you via my experimental VoIP box here at our little business and I've been trying to learn how to make it work. And let me tell you, it's not that easy to integrate into a regular old PBX.

FLATOW: But it's, you sound great, though.

JEREMY: Well, there are a couple of points I wanted to make. Yeah, it can sound okay, as long as the internet connection is all right. If I drop for a moment, it just, I'm sharing traffic with all these other things here, so one thing I had to have is a better internet connection to make it really commercial-grade telephone.

You're talking about Skype a lot and I've been using Skype a little bit for radio. And what's really neat about it is the audio codec is much better than telephone quality. And when I'm talking to somebody else, it sounds like they're in the same room with just a wire over to their mike.

FLATOW: Yeah, well, I've been about how can we get Skype into SCIENCE FRIDAY so that the callers can call us on Skype or SIP or one of these and actually sound like they're in the studio.

JEREMY: Well, I've actually done that a little bit. You just have to wire it to your audio equipment in the broadcast studio, the computer output. And from your studio, well, what I did with one case, to make it simple, was just have a separate mike for Skype.

FLATOW: Right.

JEREMY: That makes it really easy to integrate into an audio system. But I had a comment to make that I thought it was really interesting, because I hadn't really thought about security with voice-over-IP and having people listen. So, first I want to say about security, is that I assume when I'm making regular telephone calls that people could be listening. So, that's just something I always assume, so I'm not so sure the regular public switch telephone at work is all that secure when you consider our political environment today. But, when I first got here in Alaska, everything went on satellite, so I knew that if NSA wasn't listening the Soviets sure were. It was too easy to tune in on satellite.

FLATOW: Jeremy, you got a point? Because I've got other phone calls to take.

JEREMY: Well, let me get to the final thing. If you use RSA encryption between one box and other, you ought to be able to have a whole lot of security. So maybe your guest could comment on that. And I'd be real interested to hear.

FLATOW: Okay, thanks for calling.

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Sure. You know, security is a big thing and I think VoIP sometimes gets an unfair rap when it comes to security only because people say that, well, you know, if I can sniff traffic over the network like a hacker would sniff other people's network traffic in order to decode it, why can't I do that with voice-over-IP traffic? And that's a very valid point.

But what people forget is that if you want to listen in on somebody else's phone call on the PSTN, the public switch telephone network, all you really have to do is take a pair of alligator clips and a linemen's set, which is a tool they sell in most industrial supply catalogs, walk up to a, what they call a distribution frame somewhere on the network - it could be out on the street, it could be up on a pole, it could be on the back of a building, plug in your clips and listen to all the calls that you want. So there are no, sort of, there are no security measure on the PSTN that aren't physical.

You can't even get a phone line that requires a PIN code. I've always thought it would be a great idea to be able to order dial tone and then require a PIN code in order to place calls. I mean, they have some limited features for restricting long-distance calls and things like that.

But, so, as we compare the security of legacy telephony with the security of voice-over-IP, I think that there's no question that voice-over-IP, while out of the box may not be as secure or maybe about as secure as traditional telephony, there's no question that it can be made many, many times more secure through the use of, like you mentioned, RSA keys, RSA encryption, and other mechanisms too. I mean, just the different -

FLATOW: Let me, I have to give a, let me give an ID. I have to just break in here while we have the time. We're talking with Ted Wallingford, author of VoIP Hacks and Switching to VoIP, on TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday from NPR News.

And because I only have a couple of minutes and I don't mean to break in, I want you to see if you can tell us, and people who have heard this and say, gee I'd like to try it, what's the best and quickest way for them to give it a shot?

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Well, if the person has a computer and a broadband internet connection, that means DSL or cable, then the easiest way to probably try it would be to download Skype. And I recommend Skype because it's very easy to use. It's very intuitive and it doesn't have a lot of the frustrating things that people who, perhaps, aren't accustomed to using computers might run into using a computer application. It's very fluid, very organic, very simple. You're also going to need a headset and a microphone. Now a lot of computers have these built in.

If you prefer not to use your computer to do your voice-over-IP and you'd prefer just to use a traditional phone, I've been using a service called Packet 8, P-A-C-K-E-T number eight. And, you know, they have a number of calling plans that start around $20 a month that allow basically unlimited domestic telephone calls between their system and the outside world.

And in fact that's the service I'm using now. And when your producer called me to put me on the air, she just dialed my phone number and I answered as if it was a typical telephone. The only difference is that it's plugged into my broadband connection instead of into Ma Bell.

FLATOW: And should you expect that there might be times when the phone service might be terrible and, you know, if there's something bogging down the internet at that time?

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Well, that's a real good question. And in most cases, people aren't going to have the kind of equipment that's necessary to guarantee a quality IP phone call. In a business you can invest in equipment that makes IP rock-solid, so that it never has quality issues.

But because we're dealing with the public internet, and because we're dealing with residential broadband lines, there's no guarantee as to how the call quality is going to sound. In fact, the call we're on now, even though I'm on National Public Radio, I was actually confident enough in my service to use my voice-over-IP. I felt like, hey, if I'm going to be talking about it I should be using it.

But the point you make is a great point, and that is that voice-over-IP sound quality may not always be the best. If your internet connection is heavily utilized or if the internet itself, the pathway that your phone call is traversing across the internet is bogged down, and there are, you know, computer viruses, and all kinds of things out there that are wreaking havoc on internet traffic. So, the possibility of a poor sounding phone call does exist.

FLATOW: We've run out of time, Ted. I've got to go, but I'm going to tell people to go read your books, VoIP Hacks and Switching to VoIP, both published last year by O'Reilly. Ted Wallingford gives you all the ABCs on how to try it for yourself. Give it a shot, see how it works. You might enjoy it.

Thank you for joining me today, Ted.

Mr. WALLINGFORD: Thank you, Ira.

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