One day I was checking the MSN Web site and discovered a fantastic piece of software called MSN Messenger Service. Like many similar programs, it allows you to send instant messages over the Internet, and it lets you know when you have new e-mail messages. Where this software really shines, though, is in its ability to allow you to make free long distance calls to anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.
Call telephones, not PCs
Having family all over the country, my long distance bills are usually nothing short of astronomical. Because of this, I’ve checked out several different Internet phone call packages. Most that I’ve looked at have required both parties to use a PC as a telephone. That method of calling isn’t very practical since most home PC users don’t sit at their machines waiting for phone calls. What makes the MSN Messenger Service so special is that it places phone calls from your PC directly to a telephone. The person you call doesn’t need to own a computer or have access to the Internet.
Putting the service to the test
As you can imagine, I was a bit skeptical at first, so I decided to put the product to the test. I began by dialing my own phone number. I did so to find out if the software was just dialing a modem that existed somewhere on my network or if it really was using voice over IP. Sure enough, my phone rang, and I was able to carry on a PC-to-telephone conversation with my wife. The sound quality was excellent during this short test. I’m assuming that the quality is based on your Internet bandwidth. I’m running a DSL line at 1.5 megabits per second, so I had lots of bandwidth to spare.
Great long distance sound quality
After this exciting test, I wanted to see how the quality held up over a longer distance and time span. I called my father in North Carolina. We talked for an hour and the sound quality was nearly perfect for the entire call. To test the impact of using increased bandwidth, I checked my e-mail and downloaded some large files while I had him on the phone. The sound quality never suffered.
The only problem I encountered was that my father heard an echo of everything he said. I later learned that the echo was caused by the sound from my speakers being picked up by my microphone (acoustic feedback). This problem is easily solved by using the Audio Tuning Wizard included with the software. It’s the same wizard that comes with Microsoft’s NetMeeting. Another solution would be to use headphones instead of speakers.
MSN Messenger Service seems to function over standard TCP/IP ports. My firewall blocks many unused TCP/IP ports. Even so, the program worked flawlessly, which suggests it would work in corporate environments. This program could be handy if you needed to make a long distance call to a tech support line, but your company frowned upon long distance calls.
Call waiting flaw
The only serious flaw I discovered is that the software doesn’t handle call waiting very well. During one test conversation, the person on the other end got another call. When he switched to the other line, the software instantly disconnected me. It took me three or four minutes to reestablish the call.
If you’re interested in this software, you can download it from MSN.com. One wrinkle—you’ll need a Microsoft Password Account or Hotmail account to use it. If you don’t have a Hotmail account, you can get one for free at Hotmail.com.
Brien M. Posey is an MCSE who works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.