The Internet has already become an alternative phone service, with many people using the global computer network to carry some of their calls.
Now comes an Internet-based telephone service where no personal computer is needed by callers.
"It will be like a regular telephone call," says Michael Reichmann of Alphanet, the Toronto start-up that is putting together the service.
Currently, telephone use over the Internet requires the two people at either end of a call to have personal computers with special software. He says such connections sound similar to a citizens' band radio call.
Alphanet's calls, by contrast, will sound normal, Mr. Reichmann says. "And we will keep prices at least half" what mainstream carriers charge, below even the rates of so-called call-back firms.
At a recent investors meeting, Alphanet handed out cards allowing guests to test the network. A call from Toronto to Vancouver sounded the same as a call over regular telephone lines.
Users will first dial Alphanet, using a local or toll-free number; then they will dial an individual account number, followed by the number they want to call. Alphanet will compress the voice calls into digital information, which will then be sent over lines usually used for data transmission. The lines, which are part of the Internet backbone, are leased from Sprint and Global One, a consortium that includes Sprint, Deutsche Telecom, and France Telecom.
"We plan to have custom-configured [telephone] switches in cities in 20 countries," Reichmann says. "Those locations account for 75 percent of the world's telephone traffic." Alphanet has $20 million to spend; a switch costs $40,000. If a city doesn't have a switch, the call is routed over regular phone lines.
Technology aside, he says the loosening of long-distance rules will allow cheaper service. "More countries," he says, "are allowing third parties to carry calls in and out of the country."
Alphanet will compress the voice calls into digital format, which will then be sent over Internet data lines.