Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

Are free net calls the real deal?
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Tesco is running ads which hint at the notion of a free-to-use international Tesco phone network for broadband users. Is it too good to be true?

For years companies have been trying to get a foothold in the supposedly huge potential market for making cheap international calls over broadband connections. Tesco is keen to slash through the "complicated technology and confusing jargon" it believes turns people off internet telephony, or VoIP.

"My service," writes Joe S, "requires me to put on a headset to make calls, which makes me feel as if I should be selling someone double glazing or a timeshare." Even Tesco's service isn't that straightforward: software needs to be installed on your PC first (Macs are not yet supported), and the Tesco handset has to be plugged into a USB port. Thus to make and receive calls the computer has to be on, and the software running. Some other VoIP services - such as Freetalk and Gossiptel - provide adapters which allow you to plug a phone into an ethernet port on your router, circumventing the computer completely. As Emma Brett writes: "Until VoIP is easier to use, consumer take-up is bound to be low." And, as Graham Breen points out, "reliability issues mean you still need a normal phone for emergency calls. I can't see VoIP replacing land-lines in the near future."

However, VoIP isusefulalongside your land-line, and, if you know people abroad, Tesco's option is as good as any. However, its charges for calling, say, UK land-lines (2p/min), can't really be considered competitive. It's a shame that such a genuinely revolutionary internet application has thrown up even more tables of call charges. Until VoIP substantially undercuts the price of traditional telephony across the board, it's perhaps inevitable that people will stick to their much-loved land-lines.

Diagnosis required

Andrew McKeown writes with next week's question:

"I used to laugh at people who had been taken in by phishing scams - where personal details are requested via e-mail - but now I've been caught out myself. How can we protect ourselves against increasingly sophisticated techniques?" Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be e-mailed to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk.