Have you heard of Skype? Now owned by eBay, Skype is a cheap or free way to make phone calls using the Internet as the transport (VOIP). Think of it as instant messaging, but with audio. Many Podcasters are using Skype to record interviews, as the quality is as good or better than recording a traditional phone call. (Right now I am in the process of trying different techniques for recording the Skype calls for use in Podcasts -- once I feel confident in my solution, I will post it here.)
Cheap or free you ask? If you and the party you are calling have Skype installed on your computers, then the call is completely free. If you want to call a landline (a phone number - Skype calls this SkypeOut), from the U.S. and Canada to the U.S. and Canada, it is also free until the end of the year. The posted rates are $0.021 per minute after the end of the year. So if you like this service, and want to continue at no cost in 2007, you will need to convince you family and friends to put Skype on their computer. Skype's posted rates also indicate that U.S. toll calls are free, which makes it a good option if you want to record business conference calls.
You can also use Skype for conference calls with up to 4 participants plus yourself, or if you are using an Intel dual-core microprocessor, then you can get a total of 10 people in your conference. Mind you, this is not a feature enabled because of the extra processing power, but rather it is a business agreement between Skype and Intel.
Other feautes of Skype include its own instant messaging client, video support, voice mail, and getting your own phone number (SkypeIn). And of course Skype is getting into the ringtone business, so you can customize your own ringtone, just like your cellphone.
Finally, Skype has recently started a new service called Skypecast, which is bringing people together to talk about common interests. Skype is advertising that they can get up to 100 people on one Skypecast call.
So, if you make any long distance calls, Skype may be a good alternative to saving you a few dollars every month. Or, if you want to see a friend or family member while you talk, such as those who you do not see often, all you need is Skype with a web cam. And of course, if your home phone is tied up by the kids, Skype can also work as a second line.
One last note, bottlenecks on the Internet can, of course, affect the quality of your call, but also having a good microphone is important too. I use the Plantronics DSP-400 at work, and am very pleased with the quality. The DSP-400 plugs into my USB port, has a noise cancelling mic, and it folds up nicely. Expect to pay about $75 for it at Fry's. If you're looking for something cheaper, I think it's a bit of a gamble, as I had a $20 Radio Shack headset that was useless, yet a found a no-name brand at Fred Meyers for $20 that works fine. So, you can try an inexpensive headset, but prepare yourself to take it back, just in case it's too noisy.