Hello … This Is Your Computer Calling

New technologies are turning PCs into multi-media appliances

Not long ago I was speaking with Benedictine Sister Mary Joseph of St. Scholastica Priory here in Petersham, Mass. She told me how she had received a phone call from Rome. No major news there, ordinarily, but Sister explained that the caller had used a computer and made the call over the Internet — and saved a lot of money by doing so.

Does your computer have sound capabilities? If it does, you, too, could be making international phone calls over the Internet at savings up to 95%. Net2Phone.com is one of the Web sites offering this service.

More recently, I was flipping through a computer magazine and discovered Dialpad.com, a Web site offering long-distance phone calls anywhere in the United States — absolutely free. They fund this service by selling space on their Web page for banner advertisements, which appear while you use their service. If Sister Mary Joseph’s excitement had caught my attention, this discovery moved me to action. I decided to give "voice-over-Internet" technology a try.

I am pleased to report that it was even easier to use than I had assumed. For one thing, Dialpad required no special software for me to download. I simply went to the page, clicked on the appropriate page links and watched as a numeric dial-pad window popped up on my screen. I entered my father’s Florida phone number.

As it turned out, I could hear my father fine, but he told me that my voice was broken up. I believe the problem was my connection — a standard dial-in using a 56 kilobytes-per-second modem. To really take advantage of free long-distance phone calls, you need more bandwidth, such as that accessible by more-expensive cable modems (which are usable, for a monthly fee, by anyone whose home is wired for cable TV).

Most technology observers agree that, soon, all manner of communications media — television, radio, telephone — will come into homes via the Internet. Cable and telephone companies are already in a heated competition to get you to subscribe to broadband Internet services they provide. Fortunately, the competition is driving prices down from the rates at which many companies introduced these services a couple of years ago (upwards of $50 a month).

Now it’s true that the Internet was not initially designed for the real-time demands of multimedia transmissions. But "streaming" audio and video technologies have made large strides in making radio and television broadcasts commonplace on the Net. And as demands for multimedia increase, ever-new technologies will be employed to push data more rapidly over the Internet backbone. One recent innovation involves transmissions via electrical power lines. Imagine plugging your modem into the electrical wall socket rather than the phone jack! This has already been simulated under laboratory conditions, where engineers delivered TV-quality video through power lines.

I was talking to Char Vance, programming and promotions director of Focus Worldwide Catholic Network. Char told me she had been looking into uplinking Focus’ TV signal to a satellite to increase viewer accessibility. An expert in the communications field told her to forget satellite uplinking, because the Internet would become the major TV-delivery system within five years.

Ever-increasing multimedia across the Internet means more readily accessible Catholic radio and television worldwide. Already I can tune in the Vatican’s radio and television stations through the Internet. So expect the quality and number of Catholic stations and multimedia files to increase dramatically in the near future.

But enough of the tech-talk. Now for this month’s Web site recommendations.

Surf’s Up

You can expect that, after reviewing thousands of Catholic Web sites for my book, the most common question I receive is, "What are your favorites?" Besides my own site — www.monksofadoration.org — let me recommend a few others to you that perhaps you have never heard of before.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is available at www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm. Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Picayune, Miss., hosts it. St. Charles has plans in the near future to put up cross-references, an index of citations and a subject index. The Catechism search engine found here is a great help to quickly find your topic of interest. Christusrex hosts another online version of the Catechism at www.christusrex.org/www1/CDHN/ccc.html. I prefer their Catechism search engine. The Vatican site also appears to have plans for putting up the Catechism in its online archive.

New Advent Catholic Website at www.newadvent.org includes the 1917 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia (some 11,614 articles), the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas and the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Although some of the encyclopedia is outdated, it still contains valuable information; the project to put it all online took four years to complete. It has an easy, alphabetical lookup index and a search engine will be added soon.

Catholic Families Network at www.catholicfamilies.net is the first national Catholic Internet access provider. When you pay your monthly connection fee, part of the proceeds go to support the Vatican Treasury Museum. The network provides filtered access to the Web, which means offensive and objectionable sites are blocked from reaching your computer. For non-members, the site offers a rich array of Catholic and secular features.

Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, is author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001 and webmaster of www.monksofadoration.org.