For the tech savvy, a home phone line seems almost quaint because so many people use mobile phones for calling. But you don't have to be a techie — or even a cellphone owner — to benefit from cutting the cord to your traditional phone line. More people are using not only wireless phones but their home computers as telephones. After years of modest growth, online phone calling has taken off. Twenty-four percent of online Americans say they have made calls using the Internet, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. One big reason is that those services are free or cheaper than traditional phone service. Here are the major alternatives to traditional phone service at home:
If you want cheaper, high-quality, low-hassle phone service, look no further than the local cable TV company, which almost always offers a TV-Internet-phone bundle that could save you money over paying separately for phone service. And the call quality is likely to be very good, said Andy Abramson, author of the telecom blog VoIP Watch.
"The customer will not notice a difference, except for the cost savings," he said.
Getting phone service from a cable company might be relatively easy, but it will probably save you the least over traditional phone service, especially if it's not part of a bundle.
Another simple alternative to home phone service is using the wireless phone service you already have. There are considerations, though.
One is potentially needing more minutes on your wireless plan to accommodate the time you would have spent on the land line. Reception can be another problem. Before cutting the cord, make sure you get reception in all parts of your home where you want to talk.
This isn't a phone service in itself. It's a way to make cell phones work better in the house. Appearing similar to a wireless router, a femtocell device acts as a miniature cellphone tower in your home. It plugs into your Internet router and uses your broadband Internet connection to place and receive calls.
AT&T calls it a 3G MicroCell, Verizon calls it a network extender, and Sprint calls it an Airave. You pay your wireless provider for the device, which can cost more than $200.
Or in some cases, your cell carrier will give you a femtocell device for free if you're in a lousy reception area. In its basic form, there's no subscription fee, but you use up your cell minutes just as if you were on a regular wireless call.
The Ooma Telo device (Ooma.com) also uses your broadband Internet connection to place and receive calls. It plugs into your Internet router and your phone.
Ooma's attractive selling point is you pay once for the device — about $200 — and never pay for phone service again. Well, kind of. You'll have to pay some taxes and fees, which in many areas amounts to $3.47 a month.
You can plug in your ZIP code to the Ooma Web site to determine your monthly cost.
Consumer Reports' most recent reader score for Ooma service was the highest for any phone service, including landline service from Verizon, AT&T and Qwest.
Similar services, such as Vonage (Vonage.com) and Broadvoice (Broadvoice.com), work the same way but charge a monthly payment that also is likely to be lower than a traditional phone bill.
COMPUTER-BASED INTERNET CALLING
MagicJack, $39.95, is a small device that plugs into your computer's USB port. You plug in a regular phone line to its other end. You can make unlimited calls, including long-distance in the United States. Renewing the service (Magicjack.com) in subsequent years costs $19.95 a year.
Other calling services typically don't use a telephone but instead require a computer with a microphone and speaker, features that are built in to most late-model laptops.
Skype, the service known for computer video chatting recently bought by Microsoft, offers ways to call regular telephones, both land-line and mobile, for 2.3 cents a minute, or lower with a subscription. Receiving calls requires you to buy an "online" phone number. It costs extra, $18 for three months, or less with other price options. Learn more at Skype.com.
With a Google Voice or Gmail account, you can place calls for free by entering a phone number on the computer screen. It will first ring your real phone, whatever land-line or mobile phone you choose. When you answer, it then connects the call to your destination phone number. It starts ringing, and you proceed normally with the call. To receive calls, you can get a phone number for free and set your Google Voice account (Google.com/voice) to ring a real phone — or more than one — whenever anybody dials that phone number.
Internet-based phone services typically offer low rates for international calling.