For the last few years, “convergence” has been the hot topic in technology. The idea is that communications, information, entertainment, financial management and investing will all be handled as digital streams sorted by the computer. The communications part just took another step with introduction

of two handy new telephone boxes.

The two new boxes, from Actiontec and D-Link, let you make Internet phone calls directly from your regular telephone set to anywhere in the world.

The technology involved is called of course VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). This has been around for a while, but wasn’t quite ready for prime time, as they say. The payoff is not just phone calls to almost anywhere in the world for pennies a minute, but calling absolutely free if the other party is using Skype, the most popular VoIP service.

The Actiontec box (www.actiontec.com) is called Internet Phone Wizard.

We took the box, about the size of two packs of cigarettes, and connected it between our cable box router and our phone. We then downloaded Skype, a free program from www.skype.com, based in Luxembourg. This software lets you make phone calls over the Internet; the purpose of the Phone Wizard box is so you can make those calls from your regular phone. While you’re on an Internet call, a regular call can still come through. Just tap the pound key twice to toggle back and forth.

We followed the simple instructions and made some calls. Some of the people we spoke with said our call was “breaking up” on their end initially, but we heard none of this interference on our end. If we’d wanted to, we also could have used Skype to transfer files from our computer through the phone; these could have been as large as 3 or 4 gigabytes.

D-Link (www.dlink.com) makes a similar, larger box, called the VoIP Router. This has a network router already built in and can be connected directly to your cable or satellite box. It has the additional advantage of working with almost any VoIP software: Skype, Vonage (www.vonage.com), Lingo (www.lingo.com) or AT&T’s CallVantage. Lingo is not available in Canada, yet.

The D-Link box is cheaper and has many more features. Because it is also a router, it can handle up to four lines, letting four people make Internet phone calls at the same time. It also has a built-in firewall for security against hackers, and comes with one month’s free service from Lingo.

Lingo is a VoIP service from Primus Telecommunications, and it has all of the phone features we’ve come to expect, like call waiting, caller ID, “star 69” callback and call forwarding. It also has a special “do not disturb” setting that will allow only previously approved calls to come through, routing others to your answering machine. It and BroadVox (www.broadvox.net), another VoIP service, are the only two players that claim to provide secure phone connections, safe from prying ears.

Both Vonage and Lingo charge a monthly fee for 500 minutes or for a little more a month for unlimited usage. If you don’t use a VoIP router such as the D-Link device, you need an analog telephone adapter. You can get these from electronics stores or from the company that provides Internet phone service.

AT&T CallVantage is more expensive and slightly more complex. A technician will come to your home or office to install the service for an extra charge of more than $100. We have to guess here that AT&T, which used to be “the phone company,” is trying desperately to figure out some way to make money from a business that has been slipping away from it.

Most of these services charge more per minute if you’re calling a cell phone instead of a land-line phone. Skype charges on a-minute rate basis for the most popular countries and charges more for calls to cell phones in more remote regions. For companies other than Skype, the difference typically runs anywhere from just a penny more when calling China, for example, to four times the regular rate when calling cell phones in Western Europe.

Another thing VoIP services do is skip taxes. Taxes make up about a third of a regular phone bill, but no part of an Internet telephone bill. What will politicians, wringing their hands in anguish, do about this missing revenue? We’re sure they’ll think of something.

TV OR NOT TV, THAT IS THE QUESTION

Here are two new TV providers that aren’t quite ready for prime time but do offer a squint at the future.

The first is East Bay Technologies (www.eastbaytech.com), which claims to offer 1,500 channels (we didn’t try them all) from just about anywhere in the world. You pay for the software, called CTube for Windows or iTube for Macintosh, and you’re off and running. Excuse us — viewing.

You can watch Russian game shows (lots of enthusiasm, but hard to follow unless you speak Russian), interviews with Middle Eastern sheiks (brush up your Arabic), or some devastatingly funny British celebrity gossip. In fact, there are so many choices, it’s hard to choose. Fortunately, many of the choices are incomprehensible or unviewable. Even with a pretty fast computer, we could barely recognize people because of the jerky, grainy pictures on some of the video.

Blinkx, at www.blinkx.tv, has fewer channels but looks like a better service. It’s free, and no special software is required. The video was sharp, and the sound was clear. You can give it a run yourself just by going to the Blinkx Web site and clicking on a station. It offers some radio programs as well as TV. So far, the shows are only American, Canadian or British.

Blinkx provides so-called “smart folders.” You select the topics you want to follow, and the folders are automatically updated with the latest video and radio clips that fit. How they do it for free is beyond us.

This is all early days, but you can see convergence comin’ round the bend. The medium not only carries the message, but is the message, as Marshall McLuhan liked to say.

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