New Options in Telephony
Just twenty years ago one had very few options when considering
telephone services for the home. In most parts of the US, one had a
single phone company to choose from and ones choices were limited to
selecting the carrier for long distance calls. Today there are many
choices, even for local phone service, including traditional POTS
(plain old telephone service), voice over internet, cell phones,
cable, and fiber optic connections to the home. This page compares
your options and links to pages with more information for specific
choices. There is a table at the bottom of this page that summarizes
Cell phonesBefore deciding on home telephone service, consider if you really need it anyway. Many people are chosing to drop their land based phoneline entirely, relying entirely on their cellular phone, where competion between carriers has dropped costs and increased functionaility to the point that for moderate use, a cell phone may be cheaper than a wired phone. With free weekend and evening minutes include in most cell plans, When one needs a cell phone anyway, the marginal cost of using ones cellphone as ones primary number will often be zero and the only real cost is the occasional, or not so occasional bad connection or dropped call (carefuly consider the number of minutes in your plan before choosing this option, however).
Some cell carriers are offering to sell "fempto-cells" such as the Verizon Wireless Network Extender, or the Sprint/Nextel Airave that you connect to the internet, and which provides you with a strong local cell signal so that you have have stronger cell coverage in your home if you choose this option. This would be important if you otherwise have a weak cell signal. These devices will typically cost between $100 and $250 (depending on your carrier), and yor cell provider might (again, depending on carrier) charge a monthly fee of around $5 for its use. Since they connect over the Internet, its reliability is dependent on that of your network service provider.
The Phone CompanyThe Phone Company - Or more precicely, the particular regional phone company providing monopoly service in your location. These companies include the likes of Verizon, AT&T (formerly SBC, and formerly Pacific Bell or PacBell), BellSouth, and others. They will provide the phone service you are used to (POTS or Plain old telephone service), but with many new features for an added cost, including voicemail, caller ID, and special call functions. Of particular interest is "distinctive ring", which is offered by some carriers, which allows you to assign two numbers to a single phone line and have the phone ring differently depending on the number called. If you need separate phone numbers for a home office, or for different family members, yet don't use the phone so much to need to lines, this can be a cheaper option. Even if you do on rare occasions make simultaneous calls, a cell phone can fill in.
For those still in need of a land based phoone at home who don't want to use "the phone company", one now has several new options, often offered at lower costs because their is competition (or because the providers of these new options want to compete with the phone companies).
Phone from your cable companyYour cable company is another monopoly with a wire running to your home. Most cable companies now offer digital telephone service running over their cable system. They install a box where the cable comes into you home and run a phone line from the box to the demarcation point for telephone service to your house. The rest of your telphones operate as they would if the connection were from the central telephone office. Although the cable companies claim battery backup, you may find that your phone does not work when the power goes out - whereas it would likely continue to work if connected directly to the telphone central office.
Internet Telephony - or Voice Over IP (VOIP)There are three groups of options available if you choose to get your phone service through the internet. There are many providers in each group. Some of the options cross groups, for example your cable company may use Voice Over IP, but on their local network rather than on the open internet. I will list each of the basic kinds of voice over IP service as a separate group. Because you have a choice of providers within each group, please be aware that that my comments are general characteristics for each group, but the details might be different for some providers. Some of these providers offer other services, such as support networks and VPN service, that can improve performance, security, and reliability..
Internet telephony services - such as VonageVonage and similar services provide your local dialtone and usually bundle unlimited long distance for an amount slightly less than you would otherwise pay for local service from your phone company or cable provider. Typical plans cost $25 per month and typically include all the extra features like caller ID and voicemail. This class of service is usally less reliable than that provided by your phone or cable company because they are dependent on proper function of routing in the internet and availability of adequate bandwidth to carry your voice signals. So basically, you are dependent on your internet provider to connect you to your VOIP phone provider, and if you internet providers is as bad as my cable company, you can expect to see some downtime on your internet connectivity, which will in turn mean your phone service won't work.
At present inconsistent latency (i.e. intermittent delay) in transmission of packets over the internet will occasionally reduce the quality of a call, and this typically makes such service inappropriate for fax transmissions (although some of these services provide alternate means for sending and receiving faxes). If you are considering Vonage, be sure to also look at service like Ooma, which may be less expensive in the long run, if you keep the service for a year or more.
Internet telephony services - such as OomaOoma will provide your local dialtone and unlimited long distance within the US with no montly fee. With the Ooma Hub you pay once up front, approximately $250, for the hardware, which you then hook into your home telephones. For the basic service you get a local phone number with features like caller ID, call waiting, and voicemail plus unlimited calling wihtin the US for no montly fee. There is an optional package of services, including a second phone line that is available for about $100 per year. Because of the use of certain traffic shaping technologies, some of the quality issues discussed above for Voice over IP have been reduced, and the Ooma hub can be used for some fax calls. Of course, if your internet service is unrealiable and suffers from frequent outages, your phone will not work during those periods of downtime.
Internet telephony through your PC - such as SkypeSkype provides provides the ability to make free voice calls between computers on the internet, and using SkypeOut to make calls to regular telephones with low rates for domestic and international calls. By subscribing to SkypeIn, you can receive a phone number reachable by regular phones, that calls you on your PC.
For PC to PC calls, I have found the quality to be excellent, far better than I would achive using my phone. Even though I have unlimited calling on my home phone, I prefer Skype when talking with someone else that is skype enabled because of the call quality and hands free talking. As a speaker phone, the sound quality is amazing. Skype also supports free video calls if you have a webcam, and audio conference calling, where more than two PC Skype users are connected.
As with other forms of Voice Over IP, availability is determined by the availability of your internet access, which might be less reliable than what is provided your phone company. Additionally, inconsistent latency (i.e. intermittent delay) in transmission of packets over the internet will occasionally reduce the quality of a call A nice feature of skype is that you can receive calls at home, while at work, or even while traveling.
Internet telephony through your PC with MagicJackMagicJack is a small USB device almost the size of a thumb drive that plugs into your PC's USB port, and into a telephone. It provides you with a phone number, voicemail, caller ID, and call waiting, all for $20 per year (after the first year, which is included with the device, which sells for approximately $40). If you already have high speed internet access, This may be your least expensive option to get phone service at home, or when traveling. In any event, the reviews on MagicJack appear mixed with some problems pertaining to call quality, others claim it works great. I have not personally seen the problems described by some. See my review.
One limitation is that it does require your PC to be on all the time that it is in use (including if you are waiting for incommming calls). There have also been comments that it consumes significant processing power on your PC, meaning that if you do not have a high end PC, it can slow the system down significantly.
Table of Telephone OptionsThe table below lists the main choices you have for home phone service. There are other services discussed later on this page, such as Fax, and Follow-Me numbers, which are not included in the table since the basis for comparison is different. In the table, up-front cost includes equipment you must purchase as well as installation charges. The monthly cost is the cost of a typical configuration including a single line, call waiting, caller ID, call forwarding, and possibly voice mail (if noted in features). Where known I have included the "hidden fees" like "subscriber line" charge, etc. as they would apply in Los Angeles. Please let me know if my numbers are incorrect since sometimes it is hard to find out about the fees until one signs up for service. Please note that the table lists the kinds of home phone service: there may be more than one provider for each kind and specific costs might vary from provider to provider. Where know, recent promotion costs are listed as well - these are what you might expect to pay for the first 6 months, or first year, or first month, but eventually you cost would go up to the basic monthly cost. The column marked "order from" provides a link to one of several places from which you can order the service or the product. A link marked "find provider" in this box will take you to a site where you can enter your address and find and order from the local provider for the particular service. Reliability is on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being best. For VOIP options, reduced reliability is not due to problems with the service itself, but is instead based on its dependency on your internet connection which will typically be less reliabile than a traditional landline telephone. The table is not yet complete, and I will add services as I can verify their pricing structures.
Other services useful for home calling
Integrated Inbound Calling NumbersThere are several services that provide you with a local phone number and allow you to set up calling rules that cause calls on that phone number to ring on one or more phones simultaneously. You will sometimes hear these services refered to as providing "follow me" numbers. One such service is Google Voice, previously known as GrandCentral which was acquired and subsequently rebranded by Google. The basic service for Google Voice is free if you can get an invite to Google Voice. This service is not intendent to replace, or be used as your home phone, but it does provide an alternative to home phone service whereby you can select a "home number", and receive calls on your cell phone or office phone when you want, and change the forwarding rules so that you aren't interrupted by your calls to home when you don't want such interuptions. It is also useful if you want a second phone number at home (so each family member can have their own number), or if you simply want to avoid the need to change numbers if you move (without needing to rely on number portability).
If you want this kind of service and can't get an invite, this kind of service can by obtained from My1Voice, and RingCentral (which is described below - since it provides other kinds of services too). With either of these options, be sure you read the terms since the number of minutes of included use per month may be limited.
Hosted Small Business Intenet Phone SystemsRingCentral provides mult-line hosted business phone system connected through Voice over IP, as well as many other services, including integrated inbound calling number (just described) without the VOIP service, and a hosted internet fax service. The plans range in price from appriximately $10 per month to more than $100, depending on the features and serices you choose. The multi-line business VOIP service may be ideal for a small business operating from your home (or from multiple homes), but as with other VOIP services, reliability is dependent on the reliability of your internet connection. Because the service also includes integrated inbound calling, you can set the system up to roll incomming calls automatically to your cell phone, or a landline if you have one. Be sure to read the plan details carefully as some plans provide limited calling minutes, and you may be charged for calls (including inbound calls) that exceed your montly alottement. Even with this limitation for some of their plans, the service is a good value.
Internet Fax ServicesSome of the voice over IP services are not compatible with local FAX machines. Additionally, hosted voice mail services (i.e. anything other than your local answering machine) can not be used on the same line as a fax machine that needs to accept incomming calls. If you need incomming fax service, your choices are a second line without voicemail, from a service that can support faxes, or a hosted fax number. My recomendation is to use a hosted fax number, such as that provided by RingCentral , MyFax, or eFax . These may cost less than adding an extra phone line, and it will save you the cost of the fax equipment. Bettter yet is that the faxes are delivered to you by e-mail where they may be easier to manage or forward than would be pieces of paper. Depending on the package you select, you may be able to send faxes by "printing" from your computer - this can include printing PDF's that you scan yourself, in order to send faxes from a piece of paper.