Stay in Touch

The Web has made it easy and inexpensive to stay in touch with friends and family members throughout the world. With free services like Skype, you can see and hear your friends and family members for no extra charge. In this section we’ll take you through all the ways to stay in touch online.

Older woman in front of computerEmail

Email, short for electronic mail, is the oldest and most basic method for communicating online, and it hasn’t changed much in look since it was first introduced in the 1970s. Today, email is used more than any other online service both at home and in the workforce. The benefits of email include:

Convenience - If a desktop computer, laptop or mobile phone is around, you can type your email message wherever you want, save it for later and send it at any time without having to worry about envelopes, and stamps.

Speed - Emails typically arrive within seconds or minutes of sending to anywhere in the world.

Attachments - You can attach any file on your computer to an email message easily, regardless of its type and, mostly, size.

Accessibility - Emails can be stored conveniently in your email program. Good programs make it easy to organize, archive, and search your emails, so any information contained in an email is always readily accessible.

Cost - With the exception of your internet bill, sending and receiving emails is free.

Choosing an email provider

The most popular email services for personal use are: Yahoo! Mail, Google Mail or Gmail and Windows Hotmail.

Spam and Privacy

As a general rule of thumb, limit the amount of private information you send over email as messages are generally not encrypted and it is relatively easy for others to intercept and read messages. Also many Internet Service Providers (ISP) store copies of your email messages on their mail servers before they are delivered. The backups of these messages can remain for several months on their server, even if you delete them in your mailbox. Read Stay Safe section for more information about how to protect yourself from scams and malware over email.

Instant Messaging (IM)

Woman in front of computerInstant Messaging, a faster alternative to email, consists of sending short text from your computer or your mobile phone with an Internet connection. Think of having a conversation over the phone but via text instead.

The four most popular IM services are AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ (now owned by AOL), MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger. They all work similarly. First, you enroll in the service by creating a user name, which is also your screen name, and a password. Next, you build what is known as a buddy list--people that you want to communicate with. When any of the contacts on your list is online, you can initiate a private chat with that person.

How do you know who is online? After launching the IM software, your buddy list will show you if any of your contacts are also online. At the same time, your contacts' lists update to indicate that you're online. By clicking on a name you can send text messages to that person, or they can send them to you. After you type your note and click on the Send button, the message travels to the IM server, then immediately forwards to your buddy's computer. This all happens almost instantly--that's how this popular form of communication got its name.

IM has exploded in popularity. Over one billion IM messages traverse the Net each day. Many businesses use IM to keep in touch with clients and staff in far-flung offices or just down the hall. It's more immediate than email and can be cheaper than a phone call.

Today there are many services that aggregate all your IM services together so that you can communicate with friends and family who are spread out over many services. Meebo allows you to sign into various IM service and social networks such as MySpace or Facebook from your browser. Digsby is just like Meebo but instead of viewing it through your browser you download it to your computer.

VoIP or Internet Calling

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is essentially the same as a phone call but connected over an IP network such as the Internet. By using the Internet to place calls you eliminate any long distance or local fees you would normally incur with a phone line and you have the added advantage of using video.

Skype is one of the more popular services for home users and allows you to make video calls over the Internet to friends and family all over the world for free. All you need is a broadband connection and a webcam. If you don’t have a webcam you can also make voice calls to computers, cell phones and landlines. You can also send instant messages and share files with other Skype users.

Skype

Alternatively, as long as you have a broadband Internet connection, companies such as Vonage can turn your current telephone into a VoIP phone. Vonage converts sound into data, sends it over the Internet, and converts it back into sound at the other end. The people you talk with will never know the difference because a VoIP call sounds just like a regular phone call.

VoIP 911 Emergency Calling

Because VoIP service works differently from traditional phone service, when using it you should be aware that VoIP 911 service may also work differently from traditional 911service. If you have or are thinking of subscribing to a VoIP service, you should:

  • Provide your accurate physical address to your VoIP service provider to ensure that emergency services can quickly be dispatched to your location.
  • Be familiar with your VoIP service provider’s procedures for updating your address, and promptly update address information in the event of a change.
  • Have a clear understanding of any limitations of your 911 service.
  • Inform children, babysitters, and visitors about your VoIP service and its 911 limitations, if any.
  • If your power is out or your Internet connection is down, be aware that your VoIP service may not work. Consider installing a backup power supply, maintaining a traditional phone line, or having a wireless phone as a backup.
  • If you have questions about whether the phone service you are receiving is an interconnected VoIP service, contact your service provider for further information.