Google likes to shake things up and now it's done it again. It just rolled out a new service in tune with the lean economic times–it won't cost you a penny.
If you have a Gmail account (and if you don't, it's free to sign up), you can now make free phone calls in the U.S and Canada. Calls can be placed from your computer to another computer or from your computer to a landline or mobile phone. Either way, you can't beat the price, which will remain free at least through the end of the year.
You can also make international calls, but you'll have to pay. For instance, calls to landlines in Australia and China cost $.02 a minute; calling India will set you back $.06 a minute. Here's a list of international calling rates.
To get started, go to the Gmail home page and download the voice and video chat plug-in. After you restart your browser, click the “Call phone” link and type in the phone number or select it from the address book. To pay for international calls, use a credit card to add credit to your account. I used the built-in mic and speakers in my laptop in lieu of a headset and microphone. The quality was quite good.
At the moment, the service is only available using your computer's web browser, not a mobile browser on a smartphone. Is that coming? I believe that it will. And when it does, imagine the havoc it will wreak on the telecommunications industry. A Google Calls app will usher in unlimited talk time–no more charges for extra minutes.