The price of home phone service has dropped 30 percent since 1999. Surely, say the analysts, that trend line will eventually plummet all the way to zero. Surely, thanks to the Internet’s ability to carry your voice, landline phone calls will soon be free.
An Ooma box allows free calls to anyone in the United States, linking the home phone to broadband. It also provides a free second line.
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Already, dozens of calling services promise to slash your residential phone bill by exploiting the Internet. And yet nobody has yet delivered the holy grail: free calling, to any phone number, from your regular telephone. There’s always a catch.
For example, programs like Skype offer unlimited free calls — but not from your phone. You and your conversation partner have to sit at your computers wearing headsets, like nerds.
Then there are those annoyingly named VoIP services (voice over Internet protocol), like Vonage. You plug both your broadband Internet modem and your existing phone handset into an adapter box. Presto: unlimited domestic calls from your regular phone.
But they’re not free. You pay about $25 a month, and you hope that your VoIP company won’t suddenly go under, as SunRocket did last month.
If you’re still forking over $60 or $70 a month for residential phone service, here’s a guide to some newer Internet-calling options.
iCall.com. The promise: Free calls to domestic phone numbers.
The catch: Your friends pick up their phones to answer, but you still have to sit at your computer. In other words, iCall removes only half the drawbacks of Skype.
People can also call you from their phones (iCall assigns you a number, with an extension). But here again, you have to take calls at your computer, not your phone.
Jajah.com. The promise: Unlimited free calls to anyone else who’s signed up for a free Jajah account in the United States, Canada or 35 other countries. You use your regular phone. There’s no special equipment, contract, monthly fees or prepayment.
The catch: You don’t talk on your computer — but you need a Web browser to initiate calls. You begin at jajah.com — or, if you have a Treo, BlackBerry or iPhone, at mobile.jajah.com. There, you type in both your phone number and the one you’re calling.
In about 10 seconds, weird as this sounds, your phone rings: the Jajah Web site has called both of you, connecting the call from the middle. It works reliably and the voice quality is good, but having to place calls from a Web site is a hassle.
The “free calls to Jajah members” part gets a little complicated, too. The calls are free to both landlines and cellphones in the United States and Canada, but calls to overseas members are free only to landlines, and then only in 35 countries (in Europe, parts of South America, plus Australia, Israel, Japan and Taiwan and others).
When you’re not calling a Jajah member, overseas calls can be very cheap: how’s 3 cents a minute to England or China?
Calls to some other countries can still hurt, though. Afghanistan is 26 cents a minute. Greenland, 50 cents. Cuba — gulp — 86 cents.
And those are landline prices. Calls to overseas cellphones often cost five, six or seven times as much. That’s too bad, considering how many people outside the United States use only cellphones.
T-Mobile. Its new HotSpot@Home cellphones make unlimited free calls whenever you’re in a wireless hot spot — or when you’re at home, since a free home Wi-Fi router comes with the deal. Calls you place to numbers in the United States from overseas hot spots are free, too.
The catch: Your voice plan costs an additional $10 a month. Only two bare-bones phone models are available for this program, although more are on the way.
The free calls are available only in hot spots that don’t require a login in a Web browser. (The exceptions: Calls are free from any of T-Mobile’s 8,500 commercial hot spots in the United States — coffee shops and so on.)
PhoneGnome. This gets complicated, so read slowly.
PhoneGnome offers three ways to make free calls through the Internet, all of which should now sound familiar. One works just like Jajah (type in your number and the other person’s, and both your phones ring). The second method works just like Skype (wear a headset at your computer).
And the third is like VoIP: you buy a box ($100) that plugs into both your phone and your broadband modem. The PhoneGnome box, though, entails no monthly fees; you pick up your phone, cordless or not, and dial. If you’re calling someone who uses any of the three PhoneGnome plans, the call is free.