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.
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.
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.