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Cut the Cord: Low-Cost and Free Landline Phone Alternatives

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Though it is as much a fixture in American households as the television and the microwave oven, the home telephone has become superfluous. Blame (or thank) cell phones, which are now so widespread that an estimated 1 in 5 homeowners have abandoned their landlines in favor of them.

I'm not quite ready to do that. Cell phones make woefully inconvenient home phones because they're almost never at arm's length when a call comes in--and that's assuming you can hear them ring (or vibrate) when you're in another room. They tend to run out of juice at the worst possible time, and they're notorious for dropping calls in the homestead, where signal strength can be low at best.

No, I want home-phone service in my home. I want the convenience of having extensions in every room and the security of having a dial tone in case of emergency. But one thing's for sure: I'm done paying a monthly bill for it.

Guess what? I no longer have to. Thanks to some new (or improved) products and services, I can keep the conversation going for a fraction of the cost of a traditional landline--or of a supposedly wallet-friendly Internet phone service like Vonage.

Alternative Phone Services

In fact, it was Vonage that sparked my quest for a cheaper home-phone setup. While the company's $25-per-month unlimited-calling package seemed reasonable when I signed up a year ago, in recent months, various fees and taxes have pushed the actual tab to nearly $35 a month.

YMax MagicJack: Contrast that with a product like the YMax MagicJack, a Zippo-lighter-size gizmo that costs around $40 for the hardware plus a full year of unlimited local and long-distance calling. After that, service costs just $20 per year. What's the catch? The unit has to be plugged into a PC's USB port, and the PC has to remain on if you want to make or take calls. That's probably not an ideal situation for someone seeking a full-time home phone (though you can make it work by dedicating a spare PC as a "phone server").

NetTalk Duo: The NetTalk Duo, a kissing cousin to the MagicJack (it looks almost identical), works in much the same way, but with a twist: you can plug it into your PC or your router, the latter yielding a phone-service experience closer to what Vonage offers. It costs a little more up front and annually ($70 and $30, respectively), but it's still an amazing deal.

Ooma Telo: Then there's the Ooma Telo, which hits your wallet with a $250 hardware charge, but promises free local and long-distance service for life. Granted, the standard package's service is pretty basic, with little more than caller ID and voicemail, but putting an end to paying for phone service forever has some real allure. (If you can't live without a monthly phone service bill, you can pony up $10 per month for Ooma Premier, which offers a ton of extra calling features.) The Ooma Telo is a snap to install: Just plug it into your router and set up your account on the company's Web portal, and you're ready to dial.

Google Voice: I also checked out Google Voice. This service isn't really designed to replace a landline, but it does give you some interesting options, starting with a new phone number that's meant to become a kind of single number for life. When someone calls it, Google Voice will ring your home phone, your work phone, your cell phone, or any combination of any phones you want. That saves the caller a lot of a hassle in trying to locate you; and in turn, it helps ensure that friends and family members can reach you more easily. GV also provides free calls to the United States and Canada (but only from your PC), and voicemail that gets transcribed to text (for optional delivery via e-mail). It's pretty cool--and it's free--but it's not the most user-friendly service I've used.

Off the Hook

As a longtime user of voice-over-IP services (before Vonage, I subscribed to Via Talk, and before that, to SunRocket), I've learned that saving money sometimes means putting up with a few hassles. For starters, because your phone service relies on your Internet connection, call quality isn't always pristine. My biggest problem is usually echo, though I've also had occasions when the caller couldn't hear me or vice versa. And if my Internet provider goes down for any reason (power outage, system glitch, or whatever), it takes my phone line with it. Of the four options I tested, only Ooma Premier offers a call-forwarding option that kicks in during network outages.

Even then, any kind of service outage means that you longer have a phone you can use during an emergency. Granted, most of us could reach for a cell phone in that situation, but if you're concerned about 911 accessibility, you might want to stick with your landline (which is immune to power and Internet outages).

Ditching your landline may also mean ditching your phone number: Google Voice, MagicJack, and NetTalk don't yet allow you to port an existing number, though all three services say that this option is in the works). If you want to keep your old, familiar digits, you'll have to choose Ooma.

Or not. In recent years, cable and DSL services have stepped up with competitive offerings, often bundling phone service with TV and Internet packages for much less than the telcos charge for phone service alone. Indeed, many homeowners may find it more convenient to pay those few extra bucks a month and keep everything under one umbrella.

I toyed with that idea myself, but in the end I went with Ooma. It delivered better call quality and a much nicer Web control panel than Vonage, and it'll end up saving me around $300 per year, even with the Premier package. I may not have banished my phone bill entirely, but I've definitely cut it down to size--and got a better service out of the deal.

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