After years of modest activity, online phone calling has taken off as a quarter of American adult internet users (24%) have placed phone calls online. That amounts to 19% of all American adults.
On any given day 5% of internet users are going online to place phone calls.
Both figures are marked increases from previous readings in surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Using different question wording, the Project found in February 2007 that 8% of internet users (6% of all adults) had placed calls online and 2% of internet users were making calls on any given day. At various points during the 2000s we asked similar questions and found that at most about a tenth of internet users had ever used the internet to place calls and the daily figure never rose above 1% of internet users.
This was the first time that Pew Internet had asked the question using this wording: “Please tell me if you ever use the internet to make a phone call online, using a service such as Skype or Vonage?/ Did you happen to do this yesterday, or not?” This was the first time that we asked the question and specifically referred to Skype, the popular global service that was recently purchased by Microsoft for $8.5 billion.
That changed wording might account for some of the increase, but there is little doubt that the popularity of online phone calling has picked up over time for several reasons: It is free or cheaper than other types of phone calling; it is enabled on many handheld devices like smartphones and tablet computers; more and more meetings and classroom activities exploit online phone connections along with video capabilities; and more families and friends are building online calls into their communications streams.
It is interesting to note that the percentage of American internet users who have placed phone calls online is now about the same as the percent who were aware in 2004 that it was possible to use the internet for phone calling. Pew Internet did a survey in February 2004 asking about the incidence level of online phone calling, which then stood at 11% of internet users. The 2004 survey also asked how many internet users were aware of the concept of Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP) and found that 27% of internet users were aware of it.
The rise of video calling, especially on smart phones, is also part of the story. In the current survey, we found that 7% of cell phone owners had participated in video calls or online chats with their handheld device.
The newest findings come from national survey findings from a poll conducted on landline and cell phones between April 26 and May 22, 2011 among 2,277 adults (age 18 and older). The online phone calling question was asked of 846 of them. The margin of error among the internet users is +/- 3.7 percentage points.
The table below gives a demographic portrait of those who are using the internet for phone calling. There are notable differences tied to socio-economic factors: Internet users with higher levels of education and household income are more likely to use the internet for phone calls than others.
Similarly, internet users who live in urban and suburban areas are more likely than rural residents to use the internet this way. There are also modest differences tied to age: Younger internet users are more likely to place online calls than older users.