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Faxing for Free - and Almost Free - on the Internet

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This article first appeared in our TECHMANAGE newsletter
December 1997, Volume 1, Issue 6

by: M. J. Gallagher michael@mail.mc.net

Faxing and fax machines have become ubiquitous. You can use the fax to order lunch from the deli, or deliver a contract to a customer in Zanzibar, in less time than it takes to read this article. Cost-wise, for a one page letter in the U.S., at least, faxing is cheaper than first class business mail.

If you have an email account, your faxes can travel over the Net. And the Net, once you have bought your computer, modem and email account, is all paid for. Folks have figured out how to make email look like faxes, and faxes look like email.

Fax to Computer

Suppose, for instance, you have a computer, modem and email account but no fax machine. If you have fax software on the computer, sometimes you can set the computer up to receive faxes. OK, but you may not like the idea of keeping the computer on all the time.

How about a system that allows your correspondents to send you faxes via your email account, for you to pick up at your convenience? There are several services of this kind. One of the better known, JFAX, works this way. For $12.50 a month, and the first 100 pages free, you get a phone number, in any of several major urban areas in the U.S. and Europe (back to that in a minute). Faxes that come to that number are converted into email attachments, then routed to your email server, where you download them like ordinary messages, and decode them using free software. You can then generate a hard copy at your printer, just as with any other type of document.

Now, the fact that there is no JFAX server in Des Moines, or whatever odd corner of the world you find yourself in, is no problem, because from the JFAX server to your local email account the fax goes over the Internet. This means that you could establish "fax addresses" in New York, LA, Chicago, Miami, London -- or even have an 800 number to which your correspondents could fax for free. Clearly this "fax mailbox" would be accessible on the road, via the laptop or on a borrowed computer. So you wouldn't have to wait till you got back to the office, or home, to get your faxes. And, incidentally, you have picked up a second phone line for a very reasonable $12.50 a month.

Email to Fax

JFAX, Faxaway and others, also offer an email-to-fax service. Here is how that works. You create an email message, with an address containing a fax number. For instance, an email addressed,

To: 12345678900@faxaway.com

would travel over the Net to Faxaway's server (which happens to be in Seattle), where in turn a faxed image of the email (and a wide range of possible attachments) is transmitted over the phone line, to the fax machine located at (234) 567-8900. Any fax machine, anywhere in the world, can be accessed this way just as if you were sending the fax from your own machine.

Most providers of such services have you prepay on your credit card, in a convenient amount, say $10-20. Then every time they send a fax for you, they deduct the amount of the call from your account, charging you in advance another $10-20 once your account is exhausted. Their own phone rates, by the way, should be at least as low as the ones you would pay if you sent the fax on your own -- so there is no "extra charge" for the service. Providers publish their rates to all countries served. For most U.S. destinations, it is about a dime a page, in other words, about what you would pay sending a fax in the usual way.

For U.S. customers, this means that there is no appreciable cost advantage. But for other countries, where phone rates are much higher than the U.S., these services are an excellent deal. For instance, from many countries an international call to the U.S. costs $1.00 a minute, or more. But sending a fax over the Net to a U.S. server, then onwards at a dime a page, is a real bargain. Even faxing "within" a high-tariff country, via a U.S. server, can be a big saving.

Even for U.S. customers, there may be advantages in email to fax, including the ability to generate faxes while on line, to fax to an email "mailing list" containing both email and fax addresses. Some of the services also provide "bulk faxing" capabilities, along with the ability to transmit images scanned at your computer. In general, every time you use the service, the provider sends you an email telling you whether or not the fax was successful, what the cost was, and how much money is left in your account.

Faxing for Free

The day has arrived, in many cases, where a fax can be sent at no cost by connecting to a toll free local server through your email. Here is the concept. If you are on line now, you know that to connect to your ISP, to AOL or whoever you either have to make a toll call, or a local call. Now suppose that there is a server in your area, one which can connect to your phone (or fax machine!) toll-free. Then, if you could somehow direct an email over the Net, to that particular server, and if that server in turn could and would connect to your correspondent's fax machine, it could deliver a fax without paying for a toll call, and whether or not your friend were a subscriber.

This system requires two things. First of all, the intelligence to translate an area or country code and a phone number into the address of a local server; AND a local server willing to participate in the program by handling the traffic without compensation.

It's the second requirement that limits coverage. In the U.S., there are participating servers covering greater New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities; abroad, the whole of the UK, Germany, and some or all of many other countries; but, sadly, not nearly everywhere.

How do you know if free service is available to where you want to send a fax? The information is available at the home page of The Phone Company (TPC)'s Remote Printing Service, along with most everything else you need to know.

There are several ways to access the system. One of the simplest is to address an email message as follows:

To: remote-printer.USER@FAXNUMBER.iddd.tpc.int

The local, participating server, if there is one, will translate the address into a routing for a fax to USER at FAXNUMBER. The server will also send you a message indicating whether or not the transmission was successful; and perhaps some additional information on their participation in the service. For example, in the greater Chicago area the provider limits the number of free messages an individual may send, per day, week and month.

Plain-vanilla email is limited, however, to the ASCII character set, about as flexible as the old telex and telegram systems. What about fancy fax transmission sheets, letterheads, other graphics? The answer is yes. TPC provides information on PC and Mac software which will convert print files (bit-map images) into faxes.

For More Info

In summary, for the majority of us who like to save a buck where we can, or who are simply interested in keeping up with the changing technology, there is a lot here to think about. Here is where to find out more:

JFAX - Fax to email, and email to fax; also voice mail over the Net

http://www.jfax.com/

FAXAWAY - Email to fax, worldwide

http://www.faxaway.com/

The Phone Company - Free faxing via local Internet connection

http://www-usa.tpc.int/

Additional links to these, and other providers, along with other interesting information:

http://www.netpower.no/frost.fax

Technology Management Associates, Inc.
(312) 984-5050jogucwa@techmanage.com

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