Tomorrow's Phones for Yesterday's Cost
Until now the joy of frugal geeks and early adopters, Internet phoning is finally ready to connect with just plain folks. It's inexpensive, fairly easy to set up, and cuts out the phone companies without forcing you to depend on a fritzy cellphone.
The Internet can bring crystal-clear conversations to your standard telephone for as little as $10 a month plus pennies more per call, or $20 to $25 for unlimited service. Some "voice over Internet protocol" companies even allow international calls free. You also get a bevy of services--like voice mail and three-way calling--that would push the cost of your telecom line to $40 or more. We've tried a variety of the services and have been impressed each time by call quality, including those at vonage.com , voicepulse.com, packet8.net, and broadvoice.com.
The companies send you a start-up kit, or you can buy one in some electronics stores, which includes a small box that plugs into a broadband modem or home network router. (You need broadband Internet service to make the phone calls.) Your phone then plugs into that little box. It's simple, but if you're still intimidated, many cable companies sell a similar service, and they'll send someone to install it.
Eternally busy. Internet phones also offer features that traditional phone service can't, like making your voice mail available on the Web or forwarding messages to your E-mail address. Or how about electronic screening that sends certain callers straight to voice mail or forever delivers them a busy signal? And if you take that little service box with you on the road, so goes your phone number.
Two caveats: Internet phones go down when the power goes out, unlike traditional lines. And not all companies relay 911 calls to emergency centers, or they can't relay an address and phone number. But most, under pressure from federal regulators, will have better 911 capabilities in coming months.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.