It’s true that your mobile phone is always with you, but you may not always want to rely on it, as everyone who’s ever had a dropped call knows. You can, of course, still get a landline number from your local telephone or cable operator—Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and the rest. But you can do better. You can use a lower-cost voice-over-IP (VoIP) service that takes advantage of your broadband Internet connection for your phone service. VoIP services also offer some nifty calling and voicemail features beyond just a reliable connection for your home or small business. Finally, there are even some higher-end business-grade VoIP services for larger companies.
You can still get a landline number from your local telephone or cable operator—Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and the rest. But you can do better than that: You can use a lower-cost VoIP service that takes advantage of your broadband Internet connection for your phone service.
VoIP is usually very simple to set up. You get a box or special phone adapter unit from the service provider, plug it into power, your Internet router, and a standard telephone handset. An alternative that’s becoming less common is to purchase a SIP phone, which includes electronics enabling it to sidestep the need for the adapter.
The price differences between VoIP and standard landline services are indeed significant. For example, in the New York area, a Verizon Freedom Value plan that includes unlimited local and long-distance calling costs $59.99 per month. AT&T does better, with an AT&T U-verse Voice Unlimited plan in Wisconsin costing $35 a month, but there’s a catch—you can’t get it without adding at minimum a $14.95 per month Internet plan.
So you’re looking at upwards of $50 just for landline service from the traditional Ma Bell duopoly. VoIP services cut that monthly bill significantly. A Vonage line will run you $9.99 the first year and $26.95 thereafter. A newer player, PhonePower, will get you unlimited U.S. and Canada service for $14.95 per month with a 2-year commitment. And you can get unlimited U.S. and Canada calling with Skype, plus an inbound phone number for just $7.95 per month.
Not only do VoIP services cost less than standard phone line services, but they also add features on top of what you get from the legacy providers. For example, PhonePower gets you an on-screen application that lets you make and receive calls from your desktop computer. Vonage offers mobile apps for iOS and Android that act as extensions to your main phone. And both give you Web access to your voicemail and call history, and let you receive faxes to an email address.
Skype is actually better-known for its video calling than its standard telephone system capabilities, and that service also offers rich text messaging. A cool feature in most of the services is «phone hunt,» which rings multiple phones or apps until you pick up, or sends the call to voicemail. You’ll also find caller blocking, three-way calling, and call waiting.
The business-focused entrants in this roundup, as you might expect, go much farther in additional capabilities, serving as cloud-based PBXes (public branch exchanges). These let your business present a professional appearance to the telephoning world, with features like call-routing, automated attendants, call recording, and conference call bridges. They generally offer several pricing levels based on the number of lines needed, ranging from about $20 per line for large organizations to $35 per line for smaller groups; you also pay more for some added features like integration with cloud business services such as Salesforce.com. For an excellent overview of business VoIP, read Fahmida Rashid’s Working Without Wires: Cutting the Phone Cord.
Emergency Calling: 911 and E911
Emergency service calling is an issue that VoIP providers used to have a problem with, but for which they’ve now come up with a working solution—with the important exception of Skype, which doesn’t require a separate phone adapter box. When you sign up for Vonage or its ilk, you now have to specify an address for 911 service. This sets up E911, or Enhanced 9-1-1, which allows the emergency operator to see the location where the call is coming from in order to more quickly dispatch first responders. The services also have a fail-safe number you enter—another phone number to forward calls to in case your Internet connection goes belly-up.
Make the Internet Your Landline
You could certainly get away with having a mobile as your only telephone. But landline service retains its advantages, including never having to worry about how strong your cell signal is or whether your battery has any charge left. Landlines and VoIP also tend to provide clearer and reliable sound at all times. If those characteristics have undeniable appeal for you, look through our summaries of the best VoIP services around and dig into the review links for more details.