Monday, November 27, 2006

VoIP: Cheaper phone calls

Gone are the days of Lili Tomlin and her sketch as Ernsetine, the AT&T operator who would say. "We don't care, we don't have to, we're the phone company.” Not only do we have a choice of phone companies today, but we can ditch the whole idea of having a phone line.

Technology called Voice over IP (VoIP) allows you to use your high speed internet connection to make and receive phone calls. Because VoIP uses your existing Internet connection, costs are significantly less expensive than traditional phone lines and cell phones.

The best known VoIP phone company is Vonage. Vonage allows you to use existing phones for VoIP. Setup is about as difficult as hooking up an answering machine and takes about five minutes. Your computer doesn’t have to be running to use VoIP from Vonage. Unfortunately Vonage doesn’t provide phone numbers in the 785 area code as of this writing. However, one neat feature about VoIP is you can get a phone number in any area code serviced by the phone company. This is great for businesses who want a presence in distant cities or parents who to call their children at school while avoiding long distance.

To set up VoIP, all you do is an one end of an adapter to your Internet line and the other end to your existing phone. Most VoIP companies let you transfer your existing landline or cell phone number if they have service in your area. The quality of the phone calls I tested with Vonage was outstanding and virtually indistinguishable from traditional phone lines. When doing heavy downloads, I did notice some reduction in voice quality, but it was still better than the average cell phone.

Unfortunately, VoIP hasn’t quite figured out all of the 911 features. When you call 911 in most areas, you are automatically directed to a dispatcher near you and they have the location from where you are calling. Because a VoIP phone is Internet based, full 911 service may not always be available. Also, if you have a power or internet outage, you loose phone service. It’s always good to have a cell phone or traditional phone line as backup if you use VoIP.

Software-based VoIP allows you to try the technology without replacing your existing phone line. Skype, owned by e-Bay, has a few different components that allow you to chat from your computer. First, Skype allows voice chat for free between Skype users anywhere in the world. Until the end of the year, SkypeOut allows you to call any phone in the US or Canada for free, and the rest of the world at heavily discounted rates. SkypeIn gives you an actual phone number that anyone can use to call you at your computer for $39 per year. I’ve personally used it to give myself an easy extra phone number without having to pay a monthly charge to the phone company. You can also buy attachments for your computer that lets you use Skype with a traditional phone handset such as the Logitech Internet Cordless Headset.

Even if you don’t sign up with Vonage or Skype, VoIP technology can still save you money. Jajah, www.jajah.com, allows free or discounted calls using VoIP technology without installing any additional hardware of software. Another service, NoPhoneTrees.com, uses VoIP technology to avoid phone trees when calling customer service at various companies. Just type in your phone number and NoPhoneTrees.com will call you when they’ve reached an operator. 

With the holidays upon us and lots of phone calls to friends and family with warm wishes for the holidays, now is a great time to explore the lower cost phone option of VoIP.