A few months ago I make the faithful decision to ditch my under-used home phone line, wave goodbye to Telecom and the sluggish Go Large broadband plan and head for a naked DSL connection on Orcon.
As I explain to Simon Morton on Radio New Zealand's This Way Up programme, naked DSL is a digitally enable phone line that can carry broadband internet but not the analog phone service most phones rely on.
A few plans are in the market offering naked DSL services, meaning you don't have to pay monthly phone line rental, just pay for the broadband. This arrangement is handy for those of us who are taking advantage of deals like Vodafone Best Mate to make mobile calls cheaply or alternatively, those who are comfortable making Viouce over internet protocol (VoIP) calls. After a few months use of a dedicated 04 calling area Skype number, effectively making the internet my phone, I've got to say the experience has been largely a positive one and at least cost neutral one.
In fact I am saving some money over what I was stumping up to Telecom each month, though it isn't a massive saving - in the region of 10 - 15 per cent. What is impressive however, is the greater flexibility I have to communicate the way I want to, taking advantage of instant messaging, digital voice mail, video calling and online account management as part of a mix of regular telephone services.
It isn't just for geeks either. It used to be that the quality of Skype was fairly flaky and that using it for anything other than computer to computer use was too much of a hassle. However, most laptops come today with fairly good quality inbuilt speakers and a web camera, so you can make a decent quality hands-free call just by talking into your computer screen. A number of Wi-fi enabled mobile phones, including several Nokias, virtually any modern Windows Mobile device and the iPhone, all have Skype software clients. The version for the iPhone is particularly nice and means that I can make and receive calls to my 04 number via the internet without racking up mobile bills.
While the bulk of Skype's features are free, I paid to have a dedicated local number (15 euros a quarter) and I also pay in the region of $8 a month for unlimited calling to landlines in New Zealand (or up to 600 minutes a day under Skype's fair use policy). If I want to make calls to landlines in other countries, say my sister in London, I can do so from my computer, mobile phone or Philips Skype handset I have kicking around the house.
Other services on the market allow VoIP type functionality and call savings but still aim to give you the conventional telephone experience - Xnet VFX is still probably the best known service on the market. By using a dedicated Linksys router with some software on it, you can plug your ordinary phone into the router to make calls over the internet from your existing phone number. Slingshot has a similar service, while a new service called 2Talk from the founders of CallPlus/Slingshot goes more down the Skype route, offering a sofphone and a client for VoIP calling from Nokia handsets.
Is the technology ready for prime time? It isn't for everyone, but a new generation of telephone users are bored with the old analogue telephone - that's why they spend so much time texting and instant messaging. They want the addaded bonus of "presence" - knowing whether the person you are trying to call or message is online, gone to bed or too busy to take calls. And they want better visibility on their calling costs - preferably in one place online. Increasingly it looks as though Google's Voice will take more of a challenger role against Skype serving this burgeoning demographic. As the technology improves, data caps loosen and people become more comfortable operating in the always-on environment of broadband, VoIP services and the functionality they offer will become the norm.