East End Tech Makes the Call: Choose the Right Landline Phone Provider

Landline Question
Which home phone provider is right for you? Photo: Jessica Nichols

One of the underrated aspects of technology is that it creates competition. Unhappy with Cablevision? Try DirecTV. iPhone too pricey? Samsung, Nokia and Blackberry are ready to make a deal. Home telephone service is an area with lots of competition. With the advent of FIOS, cable modems and government deregulation, you have a lot of options.

Do you even need a landline? Many people are cutting the cord and making their mobile phones their only phones. I’m not one of those people; landlines are a good thing. Here’s why:

First, anyone with AT&T can tell you that wireless coverage just isn’t very good. Landline service might not be perfect either, but it’s infinitely more reliable than wireless. Second, landlines are cheap. Services such as Vonage cost as little as $20 a month, and even the cable companies are dropping prices.

But which home phone system is right for you? Ultimately you’ll have to make that call (pun intended), but here are some options.

Vonage is the biggest VOIP service provider. (That’s “Voice-Over Internet Protocol.”) The system requires you to connect a separate piece of hardware to your modem, your router and your base phone. That’s complicated, even for Dr. Gadget. It required several customer service calls, but once we got it going the service was reliable and inexpensive. Be careful about price creep: they typically provide an initial “trial rate,” but the price goes up significantly after six months, once they have your credit card on file.

So why did I leave Vonage? Simple: I called my cable provider, told them I was unhappy with Vonage, and asked if they would match the price. They did! Here’s why: cable companies are all about bundling. They want you to use all of their services—TV, phone, internet—because this makes it harder for you to leave. In the end, the price from my cable company was just as good as Vonage, and it was easier to install. The cable VOIP system connects directly through your modem, so I got to throw away my complicated hardware and wires.

So there I was, happy with my Time Warner VOIP phone. Then one day, while watching a football game, I saw an ad for a service called Ooma. That’s an expensive ad buy, so I wondered where they got the funding. Turns out, Ooma has a pretty interesting value proposition. You don’t pay for monthly service; you buy the phone hardware when you sign up—it costs about $130 at Amazon—and then you can make all the calls you want for free. The phone enables most basic calling features, but you need to subscribe to premium service for things like caller ID and forwarding. You’ll also need to pay a one-time fee of $40 if you want to keep your old phone number.

Random side note: Ashton Kutcher was an early investor but has since stepped aside due to the proverbial management shakeup.

There’s another landline option that advertises relentlessly on TV—but not in primetime. Anyone with insomnia knows that I’m talking about Magic Jack. It’s a USB drive that connects your home computer to a standard phone and essentially creates your own VOIP system, with unlimited free local and long distance calls to North America, for life. Magic Jack claims to have more than 11 million subscribers. I can’t vouch for call quality, and I can’t even find a straight answer on how much it costs. That’s why I call it the Gambler.

No column about phone service would be complete without mentioning the phone company! Folks like Verizon will come to your house and give you reliable fast phone service like in ancient times. I’ve found that pricing is the problem; even with the Verizon bundle, you pay about $45 a month, and that’s just to get started. Just not worth the price, especially if you view your landline as a backup service. Those are some ideas to think about, so pick up the phone and give them a call.

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