Technology Solutions

Call on Your Computer for Cheaper Phone Service

Free telephone service could be a big boon to commercial real estate professionals, many of whom burn up the long-distance wires with repeated phone calls to clients, potential clients, project partners, and others. With simple software and widely available (and cheap) hardware, just about anyone can use the Internet to have low- or no-cost, two-way voice communication with others around the world.

To take advantage of Internet phone service at its most basic level, you’ll need a late-model Windows 95 or Macintosh computer, speakers, a microphone (microphones/headsets run as little as $15, but you’re better off selecting one costing about $60 to ensure good noise-reduction features), an Internet connection (see "Speeding Up Internet Connections," CIRE, July/August 1999), and the software to get you going. Most of the following programs only work when both the caller and receiver use the same software, but you can use a pay service such as Net2Phone to make calls from the Internet to regular phones and still likely will save money.

Dialing Up the Options
Free long-distance voice communication can be a huge advantage for commercial real estate professionals working with clients or partners out of their local calling area. The same system that works between Florida and New York also works between Montreal and Singapore; the Internet is blind to most national boundaries.

Check out some of these free programs for Internet voice communication. However, beware: In a perfect world, you should be able to download programs, test them, and uninstall them without problems; in the real world, you may find that having more than one installed on your computer at one time can lead to some automatic (and unwanted) resetting of software preferences or conflicts between programs.

Yahoo! Messenger. Yahoo! is best known as a search engine and secondarily as a home for free e-mail accounts. One of the many other options available is Yahoo! Messenger (http://messenger.yahoo.com/), which itself offers multiple features. To understand the Voice Chat feature of Yahoo! Messenger, think of the instant one-on-one chat programs such as Yahoo’s text messenger, the America Online buddy lists, or the AOL-owned Instant Messenger, but substitute voices for text. (Don’t confuse this with the feature that some people use to have their computer read text messages to them.) In a text chat, you send a message and wait for a response. You don’t see what the other person writes until he or she sends it.

Similarly, with Yahoo! Messenger, both parties cannot talk and be heard at one time. One person talks while the other listens; the system tells you it’s OK to talk by highlighting a microphone in red that appears in a small window on your computer screen.

Yahoo! Messenger’s Voice Chat is a Windows-only program; new computers usually come with the necessary sound cards, but if your computer is older than a few years, you may need to add them. Speakers also often are standard, and some computers even come with microphones.

Yahoo! Messenger allows you to talk to several people at once, has a simple user interface, and is free. However, it does not work through corporate fire walls.

CU-SeeMe. The well-known CU-SeeMe (http://www.wpine.com/) works with Windows 95 or NT or with Mac OS. CU-SeeMe not only lets you communicate with other CU-SeeMe users; you also can join group conferences with users of Microsoft NetMeeting (and other H.323 standards-based conference programs).

This program costs $69, but the use of the Internet phone service then is free. CU-SeeMe, as its name implies, is not limited to audio; if you have a computer video camera (which you can purchase for less than $100, but expect to spend about $150), you can engage in full-color audiovideo conferencing, viewing up to 12 people at one time. It also features address books, easy connections, and an Internet version of caller ID.

NetMeeting. Another video conferencing choice is NetMeeting (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/), Microsoft’s highly touted entry. NetMeeting includes far more than just audiovideo conferencing, but it does offer good competition to CU-SeeMe and Yahoo! Messenger. One drawback is that it works only with Windows 95 and later Microsoft platforms; Macintoshes are left out (though Mac users with CU-SeeMe can communicate with NetMeeting users).

NetMeeting is an audiovisual communications tool; like Yahoo!, it has a text-based chat program. The user interface is the point-and-click format familiar to any Windows user. It works both over the Internet and over a corporate intranet, and perhaps best of all, NetMeeting software is free.

It’s hard to beat free voice communication, and the programs described above offer ways to save money when communicating with someone who’s also on the Internet and connected with the right hardware and software. That’s most useful when dealing with ongoing clients in another location, because you already know what technology they have. What it doesn’t do is help lower costs for all of those calls made to people whose technology setup you don’t know.

Net2Phone. Now cold-calling can become cheaper, too, thanks to Net2Phone (http://www.net2phone.com/english/), which offers 3.9 cents-per-minute calling within the United States and other cheap rates for international calling. Instead of computer-to-computer communications, Net2Phone lives up to its name by letting you place calls using your computer’s Internet connection to a normal telephone or fax machine; those calls then are routed over the Internet by Net2Phone. The Net2Phone software itself is available for free download from the company’s Web site.

Improving Sound Quality
To reduce unwanted noise that can be common in Internet voice communication and use your regular telephone in your Internet communications, investigate Quicknet Technologies (http://www.quicknet.net/) , which offers the Internet PhoneJack as an option. PhoneJack ($160) is an audio card designed to carry voice transmissions over the Internet, but it works only with Windows 95 or NT. It helps to eliminate sound echo, works with data compression, and allows simultaneous two-way conversations instead of the one-at-a-time communication found in most Internet voice communication. PhoneJack works in combination with — not in place of — Internet telephone software programs. Buyers receive NetMeeting and Net2Phone with PhoneJack.

For more information on free and other voice communication over the Internet, see http://www.virtual-voice.com/ and Computer Telephony at http://www.telecomlibrary.com/.

Free or almost free, the Internet can make a difference in the way you make business calls — and for your bottom line.

John Zipperer

Tech Links is written by John Zipperer, new-media editor of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute. Contact him at (312) 321-4466 or jzipperer@cirei.com.

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