MAKING FREE PHONE CALLS via the Internet using your PC sounds like a great idea. But the sound usually isn't very good--its more like ham radio. Plus, Net calls are cumbersome to set up, and basic features such as voice mail aren't widely available.

Now, a Phoenix-based startup called visitalk.com has come to the rescue. The company has devised a scheme for permanent 12-digit Net "phone numbers" and built the first clearinghouse for assigning numbers and routing calls. Some 50,000 Net phoners have already signed up for numbers on the visitalk Web site, allowing them to find each other more easily and place calls from anywhere, the way cell-phone users can roam among cities. Better yet, visitalk.com offers voice mail and other services that make the Net more like a real phone system. On tap for this fall: video mail, conference calls, and audio chat rooms.

Using the ad-supported site requires a PC equipped with a sound card and a mike, and Net phone software, such as Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting or White Pine Software Inc.'s CUSee-Me. You can also use a digital camera for videoconferencing. To get reasonable sound quality, though, use a high-speed link such as a cable modem rather than a regular phone line. After all, when's the last time you closed a deal via ham radio?

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