The new, cheap way to phone home

Internet telephony is a boon for travellers, say Selina Malhotra and Liz Thomas
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The Independent Travel

Bzzzz. "Hello?" Click.The line goes dead. A few minutes later your phone rings again. This time the transmission is slightly more audible. It still echoes like you are shouting to someone at the other end of a tunnel, but at least the racing static known as "latency" has gone.

Bzzzz. "Hello?" Click.The line goes dead. A few minutes later your phone rings again. This time the transmission is slightly more audible. It still echoes like you are shouting to someone at the other end of a tunnel, but at least the racing static known as "latency" has gone.

A few decades ago, this garbled fuzz would be the clarity of an international line. Now it belongs to the latest digital miracle that can make travellers' lives both cheap and easy: internet telephony (IT). A complicated term, which basically translates as making a phone call through a personal computer to a normal phone network, from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world and for the bargain price of a local call. Fortunately, you need not be a technical genius to make it work.

Going on holiday? Leave your mobile at home, to avoid crazy "roaming" charges. You can also evade the surcharges of hotel phones. Increasingly, many internet cafés offer more than just online services; they can also dispense cheap international calls. Hundreds of internet cafés offer the facility, often with signs saying "Net 2 Phone". Next time you see one, try it out.

To initiate a voice conversation in an internet café, go to an Internet Protocol (IP) terminal. Pick up the microphone or PC handset, which is connected by a cord to the back of the PC. Generally, the internet café will have an established internet service provider (ISP) and all you need do is dial the international number, which charges a minute/rate.

The ISP takes your call over the net using a protocol called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). The call passes over the net until you hit the country that you're calling. It then transfers to a gateway which routes the call over an IP network rather than the old Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN or normal phone system) and the crackly chat commences. Note that if you are calling a mobile phone, the line quality will be even lower but the price will probably be higher to reflect the increased PSTN charges.

If all this sounds horribly techy, don't worry: the staff are used to helping. Yet not all British travellers have caught on to this cheap and easy way of keeping in touch. In many countries in Latin America, internet cafés provide cheaper and faster long-distance connections than local telecom companies – usually charging around 10p a minute rather than the usual £1. Indeed, the power of the net to reduce costs caused India to ban internet telephony in order to protect the national telephone service. That law was lifted less than a year ago, and now the high cost of normal international calls is coming down because of the net competition.

The industry is busiest in south-east Asia. Venture down Bangkok's travellers' hub, Khao San Road, and you'll be bombarded with offers for international calls. At some of these the technology is so good you can call home with a line so clear your family may suspect you didn't actually leave the UK at all.

Cities such as Saigon and Hanoi are peppered with internet cafés – this proliferation has led to much lower priced long-distance connections and a more user-friendly service. Phnom Penh and Vientiane are catching up, with calls from internet cafés far cheaper than any service offered by hotels. And in New Zealand prices offered by internet cafés are often more competitive than even the discount phonecards. In some Queenstown cafés an international call to a UK mobile will cost the same as to a UK landline, making it easier than ever to stay in touch.

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