KATIE HAFNER, The New York Times, reports:

Perhaps because of its geographic remoteness, Dartmouth College in the small town of Hanover, N.H., has long been willing to try novel means of communication.

The college introduced e-mail messaging to campus in the 1980’s, well ahead of most other higher educational institutions. And in 2001, it was one of the first colleges to install a campuswide wireless data network.

Now, the college is venturing into the world of “voice over Internet protocol,” also known as VoIP, which essentially turns a computer into a telephone.

This week, as classes begin, the 1,000 students entering the class of 2007 will be given the option of downloading software, generically known as softphones, onto Windows-based computers.

Using the software together with a headset, which can be plugged into a computer’s U.S.B. port, the students can make local or long-distance telephone calls free. Each student is assigned a traditional seven-digit phone number.

The software, supplied by a variety of companies, works on laptops and desktop computers alike. Over the next six months, the softphone platforms will expand to include Apple computers, as well as Palm and Pocket PC hand-held devices.

When running, the software appears on the screen as a phone with a dial pad. Phone numbers are dialed by clicking the numbers on the key pad.

Voice over Internet protocol is not new. But running so much voice over a wireless data network is.

“As far as I know, no one has done a wireless voice-over-I.P. network this large before,” said David Kotz, a computer science professor at Dartmouth.

The network is being phased in across the entire campus with plans to reach 13,000 people, including faculty and staff.

“So far, it’s just incoming freshmen, because they’re the ones mostly likely to grab on to this,” said Larry Levine, the director of computing at Dartmouth.

The $50 headsets are being sold at the campus computer store. “But most headsets will work,” said Bob Johnson, director of network services at Dartmouth. “It’s just a question of what kind of voice quality you want.”

The roll out of voice over Internet protocol is closely coupled with Dartmouth’s recent decision to stop charging students, faculty and staff for long-distance phone calls. The college made that decision when administrators discovered that the billing function was costing more than the calls themselves.

“One wouldn’t be possible without the other,” Mr. Johnson said. “Imagine the complexities of trying to track down who made what call when on a large, mobile campus voice-over-I.P. network.”

The phone system will also serve as a laboratory for study. With underwriting from Cisco Systems, Dr. Kotz will study the impact of the VoIP on the campus wireless network.

Audio places more demands on a network’s capacity than pure text, Dr. Kotz said. And he is interested in seeing how the wireless network responds to increased demand.

Dr. Kotz said he was also interested in studying the new phone system from the user’s point of view.

“I’m curious to monitor how much people use it,” Dr. Kotz said. “Are students who have had a very e-mail-oriented culture going to use it? Will they use it from dorm rooms, dining halls, classrooms? Will they make lengthy calls? Long-distance calls?”

In a year or so, Dr. Levine said, the college will be offering a similar service with video.

“It all ultimately relates back to this idea of convergence,” he added, “where anything you see or hear can be digitized.”

Mr. Johnson said the quality of the calls made with softphone was “indistinguishable” from a traditional phone. “It will be interesting to see what wins out in the long run,” he said. “Instant messaging, cellphones, traditional e-mail or this voice over I.P.”