Cutting the Cord
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Internet-based phone service

This web-based development can save big bucks on your phone bills

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By now you've no doubt seen the ads for Internet phone service that promise dirt—cheap rates on calls to just about anywhere. The technology—Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP—uses your high—speed connection as a digital phone line, allowing you to bypass the phone company and its usual charges. VOIP has a few advantages over conventional phone service. In addition to saving you money, it's easy for a homeowner to set up and use. You can install it yourself, which means you can kiss those four—hour appointment windows good—bye. You still get all of the familiar phone features, like call waiting, caller ID, and voice mail. You can even use your existing telephones, and some services let you keep your number.

"VOIP is just a way to talk to somebody that has the benefit of drastically reduced cost," says Scott Bourquin, owner of Rustic Creek LLC, a VOIP installation company based in suburban Houston. "The only thing that's different is that you're plugging into a network jack instead of a telephone jack."

The Equipment You'll Need
Before you run out and sign up for VOIP service, you'll need to make sure you've got the necessary equipment for a quick and successful switch. If you plan on keeping your old phone, you'll need a converter box that accepts a telephone cable and plugs into a network jack or your computer's router. Most VOIP companies will sell you a converter for $30 to $60, and some will give you one free if you become a subscriber.

Or you could upgrade to a VOIP phone, which plugs directly into a network port, no converter necessary. These come in a wide range of styles that look and work just like the ­corded or portable phones you're used to. Since you probably don't have a network jack in every room, you can get cordless handsets that communicate through a base station plugged into your Internet connection.

By now you've no doubt seen the ads for Internet phone service that promise dirt—cheap rates on calls to just about anywhere. The technology—Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP—uses your high—speed connection as a digital phone line, allowing you to bypass the phone company and its usual charges. VOIP has a few advantages over conventional phone service. In addition to saving you money, it's easy for a homeowner to set up and use. You can install it yourself, which means you can kiss those four—hour appointment windows good—bye. You still get all of the familiar phone features, like call waiting, caller ID, and voice mail. You can even use your existing telephones, and some services let you keep your number.

"VOIP is just a way to talk to somebody that has the benefit of drastically reduced cost," says Scott Bourquin, owner of Rustic Creek LLC, a VOIP installation company based in suburban Houston. "The only thing that's different is that you're plugging into a network jack instead of a telephone jack."

The Equipment You'll Need
Before you run out and sign up for VOIP service, you'll need to make sure you've got the necessary equipment for a quick and successful switch. If you plan on keeping your old phone, you'll need a converter box that accepts a telephone cable and plugs into a network jack or your computer's router. Most VOIP companies will sell you a converter for $30 to $60, and some will give you one free if you become a subscriber.

Or you could upgrade to a VOIP phone, which plugs directly into a network port, no converter necessary. These come in a wide range of styles that look and work just like the ­corded or portable phones you're used to. Since you probably don't have a network jack in every room, you can get cordless handsets that communicate through a base station plugged into your Internet connection.

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Signing Up for VOIP

 

Signing Up for VOIP

Speaker Phone
Photo by Viktor Koen
VOIP Phones
Thanks to the popularity of VOIP, there are plenty of hardware options, from futuristic-looking hands-free gadgets to cell-phone clones.
Speaker Phone
Plugs into your computer's USB port. Approx. $129; Polycom.com

Just like traditional phone service, VOIP is mainly a subscription—based service, with monthly plans that start at around $15. There are more than a dozen outfits jockeying for your business, including Vonage, Broadvoice, and Sun Rocket. A number of cable companies offer a VOIP option, giving you the convenience of one bill for data, phone, and TV. Some phone companies have their own Internet plans, like AT&T's Call­Vantage. Because competition is hot, many pro­viders offer special perks like free equipment, unlimited long distance, or introductory discounts.

Armed with the right gear and the plan you want, simply sign up online with your credit card, plug your phone into the router, and you'll be gabbing away in minutes.

Beyond Just Phone Calls
Since VOIP works through the Internet, it allows you to do some fun and convenient things that a conventional phone line can't. Take a small VOIP phone with you when you travel, plug it into an Internet connection in your vacation house or hotel, and you can receive calls as if you never left home—even if you're halfway around the world. (Note that if you get VOIP from your cable provider, you will only be able to use it at home.)

For those who are more ambitious about getting the most from the technology, VOIP also allows for video conferencing, in many cases for free, through popular Internet chat programs from AOL, Yahoo!, and Micro­soft. For example, if you and your best friend in Australia are both VOIP—enabled, you can just open your Instant Messenger program, click the name on your contact list, and talk face to face. You'll need a headset or speaker phone plugged into your computer, as well as a network camera to transmit the video.

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What VOIP Can't Do

 

What VOIP Can't Do

Wireless
Photo by Viktor Koen
Wireless
Set up the base station, and you can roam the house with this mini handset. Approx. $129; Vonage.com

Along with its many advantages, VOIP also has some limitations. For example, most VOIP companies don't have 911 services. With the money you save, you may decide it's worth keeping a stripped—down conventional phone line for that purpose. For those who get Internet from a satellite provider, VOIP isn't an option, since a satellite receives data faster than it can send it. When used in large numbers, VOIP phone lines can begin to weaken your Internet signal, which may degrade sound quality and slow down your web surfing, but it's unlikely to be a problem with a basic household setup. "In terms of residential applications, one line seems for the most part stable," says Stu Shulman, managing partner at S&S Interconnect, a telephone network installer in New York City. "The voice quality is pretty good."

Shulman points out another significant difference between VOIP and land lines: With conventional phone service, you don't necessarily lose contact when the power goes out. Not so with VOIP. "If you don't have a battery backup on your cable modem and you lose power, you'll lose your phone," he says.

Those drawbacks aside, the VOIP trend is gaining rapid momentum—and everyone may benefit. "Phone companies are going to have to become more competitive with pricing," says Shulman. "You can spend twice as much money with the phone companies as you will with VOIP."

Some websites, like Skype.com, allow you to download software that lets you make free Internet calls, anywhere in the world, to anyone who is using the same program.

 
 

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