Q: I rarely use my home phone, but still want an alternative to my cell phone once in a while. What are my options these days? — Clint
A: The ubiquity of cell phones combined with the plethora of Internet-based options for making traditional phone calls is slowly decreasing the need for many families to pay for a traditional POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) line.
If you have a solid high-speed Internet connection and want to save money, looking at one of the many VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) options might make sense.
The big three are MagicJack, Vonage, and Skype; they all offer VoIP services but in entirely different ways.
MagicJack — we’ve all seen the schlocky TV commercials that tend to make the product seem somewhat questionable, but there are lots of loyal fans of the product because it’s cheap and easy to set up.
The system consists of a small matchbox size device that plugs into a USB port (with a slot to plug in your standard telephone line) and software that allows your computer to route phone calls via the Internet through it.
The system costs $40 (including the first year of service), and then $20 per year thereafter.
When it works, it works great, but there are a few things that you should know before choosing this option.
The software that gets installed also acts as an advertising portal for the company, so keep that in mind. Additionally, the terms of service cause some privacy advocates concern as it allows MagicJack to “analyze” the phone numbers you call for advertising purposes.
The one thing that seems to be a consistent complaint with MagicJack is its lack of customer service options and random overcharging. There are no support numbers to call; all the support is handled via email and Web chat.
Finally, there are wide ranging reports that uninstalling the software is a major undertaking that often requires a manual uninstall in the Windows Registry.
Vonage — this option most closely resembles your existing POTS line because it does not require a computer to be running in order to use your phone line.
The Vonage solution (starting at $10 per month) is a small box that connects to your home network and does not require any software to be installed on any computers.
Once the box establishes a connection to the Internet, it sets up your phone service and it’s the only one of the three that allows you to retain your current phone number (in most cases).
Skype — If you don’t mind using your computer as your telephone and you don’t really care about incoming calls, Skype may actually work out as your occasional home phone.
At its base, Skype is a free computer-to-computer call network, so if you only have a handful of friends or family that you want to call, get them on Skype as well and it will always be free. Skype also allows you to make video calls and conference calls for free as long as all parties are using Skype, even if they are international callers.
If you want to make calls from your computer to landlines and cell phones, you can buy SkypeOut credits; this is a pay-as-you-go system that charges 2.1 cents per minute and up depending upon where in the world you are calling.
If you want non-Skype callers to be able to call you, you would need to sign up for an online number, which can cost $30 to $60 per year depending upon your monthly subscription package.
All three of these options rely on your Internet connection for sound quality, so any of them can make you sound like you’re underwater when calling if your connection speed bogs down.
Both Vonage and Skype offer mobile apps to extend the services to your smartphone for those who travel and want to access their VoIP lines (voice-messages, making calls, etc.) from the road.
Both MagicJack and Skype rely on your computer to be effective, so avoid these options if your computer is really old and slow or you are experiencing other problems that cause performance issues.
As a final tip, before you discontinue your existing landline service, it couldn’t hurt to call the provider to tell it of your plans to see if it will make it worth your while to stay!
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Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show