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Susan Preston spent $6,000 on cell phone calls to Iraq this summer before she discovered a cheaper way to stay in touch with her husband downrange.

From June through September, the couple racked up one outrageous bill after another until their savings began to take a hit.

“Finally we said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Preston, whose husband is a staff sergeant with the 299th Forward Support Battalion based in Schweinfurt, Germany. “We realized all this extra money we’re making, we’re just throwing it away on these phone calls.”

But now Preston can chat with her husband without breaking the bank by using comfi.com, an Internet-calling plan.

It’s one of many increasingly popular Web-based telephone services operating with VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol. Though many soldiers have limited Internet access downrange, some VoIP phone services require only one party to have an online connection.

The technology — which uses an Internet broadband connection to plug into the traditional telephone network or connect one computer with another — is revolutionizing the telecommunications industry and drastically reducing rates.

Preston’s old plan with Telepost Kabel-Service cost her between .99 and 1.53 euros per minute to call Iraq, plus additional costs for using a cell phone. Now she pays about 9 U.S. cents per minute on comfi.com to talk to her husband.

“It’s awesome. It was an absolute relief to find another way to make calls,” she said. “If I just would have had other options from the beginning we wouldn’t have had such huge bills.”

Depending on the service, Internet calls can be made from a computer, a special VoIP phone, or a traditional phone with or without an adapter. Some VoIP services also can be accessed from public and private wireless “hot spots.”

Rates can fluctuate, but certain providers, such as Jajah (jajah.com) , are free if both callers subscribe to the Web site. Signing up is usually free, too, and special equipment or software is not required.

Others, such as Skype (skype.com), involve downloading a program in order to make reduced-rate calls or free calls to other Skype users.

Like Skype, many instant messenger programs, such as the one available through Yahoo (yahoo.com), have incorporated VoIP technology with videoconferencing software, allowing users to see whom they’re talking with on the other line, as well as share files and type messages.

Natalia Steele, who turned Preston on to the Internet-based calling movement, subscribes to both Skype and comfi.com. She talks to her husband in Iraq using the latter and stays in touch with her family in Moscow on Skype.

“It’s a life-saver,” said Steele, whose husband deployed with the Schweinfurt-based 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment in August 2006.

Steele said she could not afford to learn the same expensive lesson as Preston and scoured the Internet for the best deals shortly after her husband left.

“He needed to talk with his family because nothing good is happening downrange. I didn’t want him going to sleep at night with all those bad thoughts in his head without being able to talk with someone from home,” said Steele, 23.

“Now I talk with him as much as I can. And I get to talk with my mom in Russia every day.”

But while VoIP plans are free or markedly cheaper than conventional telephone service, there is a downside.

The quality of calls can be affected by glitches associated with home broadband services. While some conversations can sound crisp, others can be distorted or dropped because of transmission errors. And unlike the steadfast land-line connection, VoIP can’t work when the power is out or the Internet is down.

Still, “for 9 cents a minute,” Steele said. “You can’t beat it.”

Though the Internet calling plans don’t require a lot of technical know-how, plenty of people still call loved ones downrange the old-fashioned way.

Customers need to know that calling Iraq and Afghanistan is not cheap, said Steven Kallay, spokesman for TKS, the telecommunications company that dominates phone, Internet and cable TV market on military bases in Germany.

With traditional phone service, “there’s no back door for calling those countries,” Kallay said.

What’s more, he said, connecting with cell phones and satellite phones raises the price even more.

But for 3.94 euros a month, TKS offers a “Country Flat” plan for calling the United States from Germany that also allows customers to get a reduced rate for Iraq, Afghanistan and other selected countries.

The plan reduces the cost of a call to Iraq from between .99 euro to 1.53 euros per minute to between .54 euro and .79 euro per minute, depending on whether cell phones are used.

To get cheaper rates with traditional service, some people use calling codes offered by smaller companies. The codes override the original service provider, though rates can fluctuate and service can be shoddy, Kallay warns.

“They can work really well,” he said. “But use them with caution because just when you think you have the best deal in the world, the tariff changes.”

What you should know about Web calls

Internet-based phone services, or Voice over Internet Protocol, make long-distance calling cheaper than ever. Here’s what you should know:

¶ Only one caller has to have Internet access to place calls.

¶ Calls can be made from and to land lines or cell phones, though the latter costs more.

¶ Establish account with a provider using a credit card or a money transfer service such as PayPal.

¶ Dial online and within a few seconds your phone rings and your call is connected.

¶ Some services require special downloads or equipment to use.

Sample rates

Here are current per-minute rates for a few services: (From a German land line to another land line.)

¶ comfi.comIraq — 9.4 centsIraq (Baghdad) — 5.7 centsAfghanistan — 23.9 centsU.S. (continental) — 2.8 cents

¶ jajah.comIraq — 0.85 euroAfghanistan — 0.19 euroU.S. — 0.24 euro (free between jajah users)

¶ skype (skypeout)Iraq — 0.3 euroAfghanistan — .29 euroU.S. — 0.017 euro*with videoconferencing capabilities

¶ itp4you.comIraq — 35.0 centsAfghanistan — 49.0 centsU.S. (continental) — 3.0 cents

Check www.voipreview.org to search for Internet phone providers and compare plans.

— Charlie Reed

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