No-fee Net phone service expands

Internet telephony is moving from a communications method that only a techie could love to a potentially mainstream alternative, and a new entry is the Earthphone from Five Star Telecom in the US, which claims to be opening an era when talk is free--or at least cheap.

Gone are such Internet telephony disadvantages of dropped lines, muddled connections, and the 2-second echo, the company says. The Earthphone will change how the world communicates, says Sy Richardson, president of Five Star Telecom.

"Fresh water has always been a natural human right," Richardson says. "With the Earthphone, voice has become a natural human right, allowing people to talk freely over long distances."

Initial Investment

The "free" designation, however, is a bit misleading. First, you need a readily accessible PC. Second, the Earthphone hardware costs from US$120 to $240, and you need two Earthphones in order to make a connection.

But once you've made this investment, you incur no additional charges as long as you are talking to someone on another Earthphone. This is, as Richardson points out, "the inverse of the traditional Internet model" which supplies free equipment but assesses a per-month charge.

What's more, once an Earthphone connection is established, a company may leave the connecting line open all the time, as an "intercom" between two offices, Richardson notes. It could be especially economical for international firms with offices on different continents.

Unlike broadband-only services, the unit works adequately on connections as slow as 28.8 kilobits per second. It connects to a PC through a standard USB port. Drivers for Linux and Macintosh systems are under development and are expected to become available later this year.

Other Options

The Earthphone is available in three models: The basic version, a small box, costs US$120. One that combines the Earthphone into a handset costs US$130, while a US$240 box version features call forwarding and incorporates calls to and from other sources more smoothly.

Richardson says that Earthphone now has around 30,000 customers. An "opt in" directory of the unique nine-digit Earthphone codes may be in the works. If the Earthphone reaches critical mass, it could certainly raise the communications ante: A user with a portable Earthphone can connect to any location on the Internet and speak to anyone connected to another corner of the Internet.

By saving corporate phone bills, Earthphone's value as a business communications device is obvious, but the company also aims the device at consumers. Each family member could create a connection to all the relatives, for example.

"We have tested this with one person on our staff who has a brother in Australia," Richardson says. "Before, they only used to talk only on birthdays and at Christmas. Now they call each other all of the time. It has made the family closer, and you can't put a price on that."

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Charles Bermant

PC World
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