Talk Becomes Cheap

Ditch that fee-laden landline. VoIP--routing calls over the Internet--is finally a viable alternative.

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Dept.: Geek Guide

Tech: VoIP

Cost: Free to $40 per month

Landlines are so 2003. Four million people worldwide now use voice over Internet protocol ( onClick=”window.open(”,’popup1′,’height=125,width=325,scrollbars=yes,resize=yes’)” target=”popup1″ class=”sidebar”>VoIP — click a blue word for its definition) to route their calls over the Internet and private networks instead of over dedicated phone lines. All you need is an adaptor that sits between your phone and your high-speed connection and magically transforms your conversation into byte-size digital packets and back to voice again. The quality is better than your cell and often as good as your landline, with a gazillion included features, for less money than you pay now (see “Plan Prices,” below). You can even keep your phone and number. So why aren’t we all using VoIP?

For starters, you need onClick=”window.open(”,’popup1′,’height=125,width=325,scrollbars=yes,resize=yes’)” target=”popup1″ class=”sidebar”>broadband, and a surprising half of all connected Americans still plod along with onClick=”window.open(”,’popup1′,’height=125,width=325,scrollbars=yes,resize=yes’)” target=”popup1″ class=”sidebar”>dial-up. Also, local area codes aren’t yet available everywhere. Other hurdles: VoIP lines die when the power does, not all providers support 911, and there are theoretical security risks (call tapping, voicemail spam), although most providers have, or will soon have, protection against these threats. (Skype already uses onClick=”window.open(”,’popup1′,’height=125,width=325,scrollbars=yes,resize=yes’)” target=”popup1″ class=”sidebar”>256-bit encryption that even the FBI can’t crack.) Kinks, sure, but nothing that can’t be ironed out over the next decade as everyone from SBC to Verizon upgrades to an onClick=”window.open(”,’popup1′,’height=125,width=325,scrollbars=yes,resize=yes’)” target=”popup1″ class=”sidebar”>IP network. (Of course, by then VoIP will probably be regulated to death and riddled with fees.)

Your best bet: get in now. Already, dozens of providers–from Baby Bells such as AT&T to indies like Vonage and BroadVoice–offer paid service that routes calls partway over the Internet and then joins the regular onClick=”window.open(”,’popup1′,’height=125,width=325,scrollbars=yes,resize=yes’)” target=”popup1″ class=”sidebar”>PSTN network, so you can call any phone in the world. And if you’re not ready to take that plunge, you can try VoIP free, calling other VoIP users through your PC.

1. PAID SERVICES: CALL ANYONE

Setup: Most companies require you to sign up online and do your own installation. Pay the start-up fee of around $30, and the provider will send you an adaptor with instructions on how to rig your home phone to their network. I won’t kid you, this can be a pain: you may need a router to bridge your computer to the adaptor, or a cordless phone with multiple handsets to distribute a single VoIP line throughout the home. Fortunately, once it’s done, your computer never has to be on while you talk.

Quality: In six months of using Vonage service, I occasionally experienced minor jitter in conversations or a pause before my calls went through. AT&T’s CallVantage seemed immune to these problems in the month I used it, as did BroadVoice (though I was once told that my words were “clipped”). From my end, the fidelity on all three sounded as good as my old landline, but as I’m mostly calling cells and cordless phones these days, I admit I don’t even remember what pin-drop clarity sounds like.

2. FREE SERVICES: CALL OTHER VoIP USERS

Setup: Start by downloading the provider’s onClick=”window.open(”,’popup1′,’height=125,width=325,scrollbars=yes,resize=yes’)” target=”popup1″ class=”sidebar”>softphone–an application that gives you a virtual dial pad or IM-like interface with which to place calls. To begin chatting you’ll need a onClick=”window.open(”,’popup1′,’height=125,width=325,scrollbars=yes,resize=yes’)” target=”popup1″ class=”sidebar”>USB headset or a converter that connects your regular phone to your PC.

Quality: Luxembourg-based Skype (skype.net) allows you to call only other Skype users, but once you download the spyware-free software and connect, you will be blown away by the clarity. One Canadian caller I spoke to says his Skype conference calls to Tanzania, Germany and Estonia are so clear he never misses a vowel. (Skype recently added a paid service that allows you to call any phone but says it will maintain its free PC-to-PC version.) FreeWorldDialup (freeworlddialup.com) is more versatile. You can call 800 numbers and VoIP subscribers on other select networks, using a Mac or a PC. The catch: Sound is tinny compared with Skype’s, and calls are often dropped. Even when it’s free, a bad connection just isn’t worth it.

PLAN PRICES

All prices are monthly and include unlimited local and long-distance calling, as well as a full suite of features. And forget all those fees and surcharges–the only thing added to these prices is tax.

Call anyone VoIP

Time Warner Cable Digital Phone, $40; timewarnercable.com

AT&T CallVantage, $35; callvantage.com

Vonage, $30; vonage.com

Voice Pulse, $25; voicepulse.com

BroadVoice, $20; broadvoice.com

Standard landline

AT&T OneRate USA, $46 (in New York City); choice of three features

UNIQUE VoIP FEATURES

Receive your voicemail via e-mail as .wav files. BroadVoice and AT&T let you permanently delete them from your inbox or your phone, so you only have to do it once.

With a softphone from Skype or Vonage on your laptop, you can make calls from any Internet connection in the world. Domestic long distance is free, and international rates are as low as a few cents a minute.

AT&T’s “Do Not Disturb” feature lets only emergency calls through and can be activated over the Internet or scheduled to begin and end at set times.

Choose your area code, swapping your 212 for a 415 if you live in New York but mostly call the Bay Area.

BroadVoice offers a Wi-Fi phone, which lets you talk over any free hotspot. By next year, Motorola will offer a hybrid cellular Wi-Fi phone that will roam seamlessly from one network to the other.