Photo Illustration by Heather L. Tuttle, Deseret News

Even with five siblings living overseas, April Murphy doesn't worry too much about trying to stay in touch.

She's got Skype, an Internet-based phone service, and so does her family. Any calls to another Skype user are free, while ringing up a cell phone or landline costs only a few cents per minute.

For the most part, Murphy swears by the system and said if she could, she would trade in her landline and rely solely on Skype and her cell phone.

"If I didn't have to have a landline for business, I would probably get rid of it, just because between Skype and our cell phone, I can't imagine having a real reason to need it," said Murphy, who lives in Mountainview, Calif.

Over the next three years, the Telecommunications Industry Association predicts the use of online phone services, or Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, will grow 20 percent annually within the United States. That would bring the number of VoIP users nationwide to about 33.2 million in 2011, compared to 15.9 million users in 2007, according to the TIA's 2008 Market Review and Forecast.

While Skype advertises itself as more of a supplement to traditional phone services, other VoIP providers believe the Internet is positioned to replace the landline because service is cheaper and the Web can provide unique calling features unavailable through a regular telephone network.

"Really, it seems that whether people like it or not, the future is being driven by technology," said Mary Grikas, executive director of device development at Vonage, one of the nation's largest VoIP providers. "We're getting people hooked on digital phone service, and I do feel that will continue to grow over time."

Said Grant Seiffert, TIA president: "Eventually VoIP will replace the old Legacy network. It's just a matter of time."

But customers and consumers do have concerns with the technology, which works by converting a person's voice into digital data that can be sent over the Web. Unlike a landline, VoIP providers cannot automatically link a person's address with their phone number during an emergency 911 call. Users must manually submit a form telling the location of their VoIP phone.

Also, during a power outage, the technology won't work unless a person has backup power for their computer (which most VoIP providers offer for a minimal price). In addition, only people with a high-speed or a broadband Internet connection can make calls using VoIP, and, sometimes, connections can suffer.

"There are times when I go to pick up the phone and I just can't dial out and it cuts me off," said Melanie Sharp, an Internet phone user and former Utah resident living in Sunnyvale, Calif. "It's not as smooth and reliable as a landline, but most of the time, that inconvenience is worth it."

But Ohio-based businessman Cary Jenkins said glitches with his Web-based phone are rare. He estimates he makes anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 work-related calls per year and loves the convenience of using the Internet for business.

Across the nation, more and more businesses have begun using VoIP, according to Seiffert, who called the Deseret News using a Web-based phone. That growth has happened because service providers have made adjustments to the quality of their service and high-speed Internet has become more pervasive, he said.

"You would never know that you and I are talking on an IP phone," Seiffert said. "Service providers are making the adjustments they need to."

Likewise, Huw Rees, vice president of sales and marketing for VoIP provider 8x8, said the only reason for a person not to switch to a Web-based phone would be the reliability of their Internet connection. As for concerns about using VoIP to make a 911 call, Rees said his company requires subscribers to submit a form listing the address where they will use their Internet phone.

Vonage does the same.

"There's no danger from that perspective, and reliability is just dependant on that last connection," Rees said.

At Skype, Jonathan Christensen, general manager of media platform, audio and video, said his company does not link its users with 911 providers because Skype is not marketed as a landline replacement. In addition, his product is more mobile than some other VoIP products, and people may not always be in the same location when using Skype, he said.

"We make no representation that we're a good landline replacement," said Christensen, who maintains a landline at home. "I know many people are doing that, but I think the driver there is less oriented toward services like Skype and more oriented toward the mobile phone."

Still, competition among all the different VoIP providers is tight. Cable and phone companies have also begun offering VoIP services in addition to Internet, cable or a landline. Just last year, Comcast overtook Vonage as the top provider of VoIP services within the United States.

Here in Utah, Qwest began offering VoIP services in 2005. While spokesman Gary Younger said he doesn't believe the Internet will completely replace traditional landlines, his company is aware that customers want access to the service.

"Technologies change, and Qwest is positioned to provide the services that our customers demand," he said. "The sky's the limit for someone's needs."

At Vonage, the company is trying to outpace its competition by offering unique services and strong customer support, according to Grikas. Prices range from $14.99 per month for a basic residential plan, to $34.99 per month for a package that offers visual voicemails, directory assistance and free calls to five European countries.

Skype, meanwhile, has positioned itself as a global service that is cheap, convenient and easy to use, said Christensen. It has about 338 million registered users across the globe, and a significant number are expatriates who use the system to make free calls to family.

For Seiffert, even though his group represents all the suppliers for VoIP products and services, the Internet is still the way to go.

"It reduces first of all your cost, but it's also reliable and flexible to your business environment and your home life," Seiffert said. "People want to be able to have access to their information 24-7, wherever they're staying, and this will allow them to do it."


E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com