All that stands between you and free Internet phone calls is a free download of a third-party softphone, which you use with your desktop, notebook, or handheld (the FWD Web site lists a handful of softphones for Windows and Windows CE, Mac, and Linux machines). You can also use an IP phone that connects to your DSL or cable router, cutting the PC out of the picture entirely. Third-party software or hardware is needed because FWD is just the service provider that provides the network for routing calls over the Internet.
We chose the free softphone route and downloaded FWD X-Lite in New York and FWD EyeP Phone Lite in San Francisco; these are two of the three softphones listed for Windows-based PCs. After you download the softphone of your choice, you are assigned a six-digit FWD phone number. We were up and running within minutes.
Calls between New York and San Francisco were clear-sounding in our tests, with each side using a USB headset. We did experience a slightly longer delay between when a word was spoken and when it was heard on the other end than we did with Skype. This latency resulted in one side talking over the other and awkward pauses initially, but we soon learned to compensate for it. Our conversations from that point on were smooth, if a bit slow. Your experience may differ depending on your location and that of the people you're calling.
Unlike Skype, FWD is an open network, which means you can make calls to other FWD users in addition to users of about a dozen other Internet telephone networks, including iConnectHere and Packet8. If you make calls to or receive calls from people outside the FWD network, however, you or the person dialing your FWD number will need to remember to dial between three and six extra digits. Think of these extra numbers as VoIP area codes; they're needed to dial you in to different networks. Still, it's a small inconvenience for a phone service that's free of charge and easy to use.