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Long Distance at No Charge on the 'Net

     By Thom LaCosta

     Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus -- and some things are really free.

     While the free long distance service offered by Dialpad, Inc. at http://www.dialpad.com may not have AT&T and MCI running for cover, clutching pin-drops, it does give web-junkies another reason to sit in front of the computer.

     Armed with an IBM style computer, soundcard and an Internet connection, you're ready to connect to virtually any number in the United States.

     Dialpad is not all roses however. Sound quality suffers on some calls, perhaps due to the popularity of the service. 2,000,000 members have joined in the first twelve weeks of operation since it went live Oct. 18, 1999. Modem speed is critical -- you will NOT be able to use Dialpad if your modem is slower than 33.6kbps -- you might get through to the other party, but the sound quality will make both of you reach for a string and two tin cans. Sound quality is on par with calls made over a cell phone: sometimes fine, sometimes awful.

First Time Isn't Always Fun

     It's essential that you take a few moments and adjust the recording level of your microphone before using Dialpad -- too high a level and your voice seems distorted, or if too low, the person on the other end may not hear you. My first attempt with Dialpad was not very positive -- my father, the long-suffering guinea pig for my latest excursions into tekkie-land hung up on me -- since there was no audio, he assumed it was a crank call.

     Call number 2, microphone level adjusted correctly, went a lot better -- Dad and I actually had a real conversation, although he pointed out an "echo" -- which prompted me to switch from the microphone/speaker combination to a headset. The headset eliminated the echo.

     Of course I now had a new challenge -- how to hook the headset microphone into the back of the computer, and the earphone jack into my speaker. Apparently headset manufacturers never thought of that configuration -- but a quick trip to a local electronics chain store solved that problem ... a five dollar cable moved me from marginal no-cost calls to moderate quality calls with a minor cash outlay.

     Call number 3, volume correct, and using the headset to eliminate echoes was made to a non-technical person. By now I had learned to preface the beginning of the call with a short explanation that the call was being placed through the Internet. We actually communicated, but an explanation had to be provided about the delay in the message -- after all, my voice was leaving Baltimore, going to California to Dialpad's server, and back to Baltimore to the person on the other end.

Practical Considerations

     Dialpad offers the ability to talk with another user of the service without making use of landlines. Each user has a unique ID, and you can "call" someone with an ID and chat as if you were on the phone. Phone-a-holics and web-junkies can now exercise both passions with a single telephone line.

     On balance, it appears that Dialpad may be an alternative to the long distance services we all use -- especially if you are communicating with folks who have a technical bent, are open to alternative sounds, or understand it's a free service that gives them the opportunity to chat with you.

     For those of us that must call "customer support", Dialpad can be a real advantage:
With just one phone line, you can use Dialpad to call a technical support number on the west coast at noon and not worry about paying day rates to sit on hold for 15 minutes.

     Once connected to a real person, you can work online with the technician to solve a problem you're having. Dialpad does not offer "dial through", so if you need to dial an extension number once you've reached the company, you're out of luck -- unless the folks at the other end had enough foresight to have an option in their "voice-jail" system to accommodate callers with (shudder) dial telephones.

So, why would the Dialpad folks give away free toll calls?

     It's all about the numbers! With over 2,000,000 members, each seeing banner ads when they connect to the site, Dialpad hopes to generate a significant amount of advertising revenue. To their credit, the banner ads do not interfere with the use of the system, and you aren't assailed by audio ads for products.

The Technical Stuff

     To use dialpad.com, you need: A Pentium 100 Mhz or greater processor, MS Windows 95/98/NT(Currently, Dialpad.com is for Microsoft Windows only), MS Internet Explorer 4.0+ with Java VM, or 5.0/ Netscape Communicator 4.5+, Sound card , Speaker/microphone or headset, and an internet connection of at least 33.6kbps is recommended.

     Once you finish the registration process, which asks questions designed to tailor the banner ads you see, based on your interests and income, a 163Kb applet is download to your browser directory -- and you're up and running.

     When you use dialpad.com, your call is transmitted over the Internet to third-party Internet Protocol (IP) telephony gateways, then automatically relayed to the telephone number you're calling. The telephone of the person you're calling will ring just like when receiving any other incoming call.

     Give Dialpad a try -- let us know how you like it -- 410-342-7737

2000 Thom LaCosta

Thom LaCosta is webmaster at BaltimoreMD.com - you can email him at comments@baltimoremd.com

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