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The catch: Calls to non-PhoneGnome members aren’t free. The plans are cheap: for example, $15 for unlimited domestic calls, or $6 a month for unlimited calls to your favorite 10 numbers. A recording tells you, each time you dial, whether the call will be free. But over all, PhoneGnome’s various permutations are not for the easily befuddled.
(Geek note: The PhoneGnome box is a user-friendly version of the Linksys SPA3000, beloved by techie types.)
Ooma. This September, you’ll be able to buy an Ooma box for $400. (The price will be $600 next year.) Then you can make all free calls to numbers in the United States, all the time, from your phone, without paying anything to anyone.
The Ooma box, which looks like a classy little desktop intercom, plugs into both your broadband modem and your telephone. If you have other phone extensions, you can equip each with a $40 minibox.
From then on, you just pick up the phone and dial, free and unlimited. Better yet, the Ooma box gives you a free second line (though not a second phone number). If you’re on one call when another comes in, the other phones in your house ring so someone else can answer. (You hear the traditional call-waiting beep in your ear.) Or someone else in the house can lift another receiver to place a second call.
The box also serves as an answering machine; in fact, through the box’s speakerphone, you can hear messages as they’re being left. You can also check your messages on a Web site.
The Ooma system is diabolically clever — and crazily ambitious. It exploits the practice in this country that local calls (usually within a 12-mile radius) are always free, even with basic phone service. When you call long-distance, your Ooma box connects over the Internet to another Ooma box in the destination city belonging to a total stranger. That person is never aware of it and neither are you, but that Ooma box places a landline call for the final, local leg of the call. Behind the scenes, in other words, Ooma relies on a vast peer-to-peer network.
Ooma says it needs only 1,500 boxes in place to cover 95 percent of the population in the United States — which is why it’s giving away that many boxes this summer (by invitation only).
The catch: The Ooma scheme relies on people who retain basic phone service, which, with taxes and fees, costs $24 to $28 a month these days. If you keep your home line, you keep the traditional 911 emergency service, for example, and you have a backup system if the power goes out. (Of course, a cellphone presumably serves the same purposes.)
If you cancel your home phone service entirely, Ooma still works, but you’ll be issued a new phone number by Ooma.
Ooma calls exhibit a fractional-second delay, much as cellphone calls and VoIP calls often do. It doesn’t stop you from getting your message across, but it can throw off your comic timing.
Finally, if Ooma goes out of business, the whole house of cards collapses. All of those $400 boxes stop working. Fortunately, if you have a $60 monthly phone bill now, you’ll have recouped your Ooma expenditure in seven months. Besides, Ooma has $27 million in venture capital, not to mention the actor, Ashton Kutcher, as the company’s creative director. (Ashton Kutcher? How could anything possibly go wrong?)
Of all of these approaches to free Internet calling, T-Mobile, Jajah and Ooma come the closest to delivering the holy grail: free calling, to any phone number, from regular phones. Even they are not entirely without drawbacks — but they’re certainly enough to keep phone company executives awake at night.