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Cheaper Alternatives to Cellphones and Landline Phones

6-18-19




Several options exist for those who would like to have cheaper telephone service. Since individuals tend to stay with the same types of phone services for several years, many may not be aware of cheaper alternatives. I know two groups will not change their minds based on anything I say, no matter how much sense it makes. In fact, my temerity for even suggesting such heresy will probably make them hot under the collar. The first group is women over 65, who absolutely must have reliable phone service, no matter what natural disaster is currently turning their lawn furniture upside down. The second group is the under 30 crowd, who absolutely cannot live without SMS text messaging 24 hrs/day, 365 days/yr, regardless of where they are, including while they are pooping in the woods with the bears. For the rest of you who don't fall into either of these groups, read on.

Statistics for the number of people in the US using cellphones, landline phones, or a combination of the two and the costs of those services is a bit complicated. Not only that, but the statistics are a few years out of date and are not synchronized in time. I guess that could be because no one has recently wanted the numbers badly enough to pay to have the data gathered? I'll tell you what information I could find. At the end of 2016, 50.8% of US households had only a cell phone, and 49.5% had only a landline phone. In 2018, 53.3% of adults in the US had only a cellphone. The definition of "landline phone" seems to have changed recently. It used to mean a phone that was connected to the AT&T switching networks through copper wires. Now, it appears to mean simply a phone that stays in your home. So, today, a landline phone could be a phone connected to copper wires, or a VOIP phone, or a stationary phone in your home that is receiving a wireless signal from a cellphone service provider. I know it doesn't make much sense to lump stationary cellphones into the landline category, but that is what seems to have happened. This makes the average cost of "landline service" confusing.

What I can tell you is what I and my mother recently (sort of recently) paid for AT&T copper-wire landline service. I was paying $51 per month in 2013 when I canceled my service and replaced it with a VOIP phone. My mother was paying $57 per month in 2015 when she canceled her service and replaced it with a Verizon "Home Phone". We canceled because AT&T was raising its rates too quickly to suit us. Some of the copper-wire landline providers made it known around 2013 that they wanted to ditch their copper-wire landline phone customers. They did this by raising their prices until their customers chose to cancel their services. All I can say is that it worked with me and my mother. If anyone out there still has AT&T copper-wire landline phone service, please let us know in the comments at the bottom of this article. And please tell us how much you are paying and why.

A study in early 2019 said 96% of US residents owned a cellphone. I'm not sure if that means all those people had cellphone service, because I own two cellphones, but I use them only as ebook readers and MP3 players. I have chosen not to have cellphone service, because the average American now spends about $1000/yr ($83/mo) for cellphone service. I get by just fine with my VOIP phone for about $75/yr. I'll talk about the pros and cons of the different types of phone services later in this article. For now, I'll just say that I'm very happy with my choice.

In early 2019, 73% of US adults had home broadband internet service, for which they paid on average $67/mo in 2018. By the way, the average download speed for fixed internet service in the US in 2018 was 83.2 Mbps (that's megabits per second). This is much, much, much higher than is required for voice communication. The high percentage of people with broadband internet service means most people have several other options for phone services besides cellphones and AT&T copper-wire landline phones.

Now I'll tell you what other phone alternatives exist and give you the approximate costs and some of the pros and cons of each. I have chosen only the devices and services that I think are the best deals in their categories. That's why more expensive services, like Vonage, aren't listed, nor are service providers and devices that have some problem or other--like unreliability, requiring an already-existing phone number, poor audio quality, requiring some additional service, etc.



VOIP Phones

In my opinion, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phones are the cheapest devices for providing individuals with a service that approximates the AT&T copper-wire phone service experience. VOIP phones come with a phone number anyone on the planet can reach 24 hrs/day, 365 days/yr, and their owners are billed a fixed amount every month. Of course, all VOIP phones require broadband internet service. Any VOIP phone will probably work fine with internet service as slow as 1Mbps. The quality of the audio varies by the device, from unusable to nearly the quality of AT&T copper-wire landline service. Generally, audio quality seems to be getting better over the years. The good news is that if you live in the US, there are no long distance charges ever for VOIP calls to the US and Canada via the providers I've listed below.

Oooma: The monthly cost to you is just the taxes you would pay for AT&T copper-wire landline phone service. Currently, this is somewhere in the range of $4 to $8 per month, depending on what US state you live in. This does not include emergency 911 service. International calls cost extra. The Oooma device, called the Telo, is currently selling for $49.99 on Amazon. I have used this service since about late 2014. The service is unnecessarily difficult to set up, but once it is, it just works. The audio is nearly as clear as AT&T copper-wire landline service. The only complaint I have is that when two people are talking at the same time, the person who started talking first sometimes can't hear the other person. You can also take the device with you when you travel and make and receive calls from your regular home phone number. Voicemail is included in the basic monthly service for no additional charge. There is also a premium service for additional features, but I have never used it. My understanding is Oooma audio is encrypted, meaning it should be safe to call your bank with an Oooma device. My Ooma service has been very reliable.

MagicJack: This device has been around for years. My sister used it for a few years and liked it. The audio is usually clear. There are a few different models. You get free service for a year when you buy the device. After that, it currently runs $39/yr. International calls cost extra. The yearly fee includes a dedicated home phone number. You can also take the device with you when you travel and make and receive calls from your regular home phone number. Some MagicJack devices are designed to be plugged into a computer as needed, and some are designed to be plugged into an internet router all the time. The MagicJackGo currently sells for $26.95 on Amazon.

OBi202: This device is designed to work with Google Voice, but it also works with other VOIP providers. The OBi202 is currently $70 on Amazon ($45 for the OBi200). Google Voice (requires a Google account) is free and can provide you with a dedicated phone number. You can sign up for 911 service for an additional $25/yr. There is no caller ID, but that can be obtained from third parties. Google voice supports text messaging (computer required). Almost all Google Voice calls to US and Canadian phones are free. No one can predict how long Google Voice will continue, since Google is notorious for dropping its well-liked services. Amazon buyers rate the OBi202 highly, but some say the instructions are not clear. Audio quality is very good. Technical support is not good. Some Amazon reviewers report that the phone service is inconsistent.



SIP Phones

Some of you may have heard of SIP phones. A SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) phone uses a particular VOIP protocol, so it is a type of VOIP phone. However, instead of phone numbers, SIP phones work with SIP addresses. SIP phones are used mostly by businesses. SIP phones can communicate with each other without a provider, but they often use a provider. In this regard, SIP is similar to email, in that you can set up your own email server in your home to avoid using an email provider. SIP phones can't be used to call landline or cell phones directly. SIP phones enable a SIP provider to integrate basic phone capabilities with web, email, online chat, and more.

There are also many SIP software programs that can be used to make free voice calls from your computer to other SIP phones. In fact, there are so many SIP programs that I won't mention them further here. Some of these can also send video and data files.



Stationary Cellphones:

You can buy a stationary cellphone that acts like a landline phone.

Verizon Home Phone: For Some reason, Verizon's website obfuscates the important information about this phone. You can buy them at Walmart, and the back of the box gives more useful information than Verizon's website. These phones are cellphones that stay in one spot in your home. The monthy fee is $15 plus taxes (my mother pays a total of $17.25 per month for hers). The device sells for $40 to $60 on Amazon. There are no long-distance charges or additional charges at certain times of the day. Verizon Home Phones can call any other cellphone or landline phone anywhere in the US or Canada. The Home Phone can be connected to an answering machine. The audio quality is what you would expect from a cellphone. It comes with an A/C power cord, and there is an included battery backup, should the power ever go out in your home.



Other Internet Phone Services

By "other internet phone services", I mean internet phone services that work with your computer or wifi-connected smartphone running a provider's software. These are services that are designed to be used as you need them, rather than like an always-connected phone. I've listed the cheapest, useful ones below, but there are many others.

Google Voice: Google Voice gives you a free personal phone number that can forward calls, voicemails, and messages to many devices. It requires a Google Account. With Google Voice, you can make free phone calls and send free text messages from the US to almost any US or Canadian landline or cellphone. Google Voice customers in the US can connect to any other Google Voice user in the world for free. Calling international landline phones or cellphones costs additional. Since this service is provided by Google, no one knows when they may decide to cancel it.

Google Hangouts: Google Hangouts is still available until October 2019. To use it, you go to the Google Hangeouts website with your web browser and log on to your Google account, then make your call. I have used Google Hangouts to make free phone calls to US landline phones. Hangouts times out after about 4 hours, and you have to call back. Since you have to have a Google Account to use it, you have to give Google your phone number (or your neighbor's, friend's, or relative's). The audio calls are very clear.

Skype: This well-known service can be used to make free voice and video calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world. I use Skype when I want to make video calls. For a fee (either by the minute or by the month), you can use Skype to call any landline phone in the world. If you select to pay by the minute, you prepay in advance, currently a minimum of $10. What annoys me is that Skype keeps taking away my unused balance if I don't use it for 6 months, and then I have to ask for it back. To use Skype, create an account on their website, download the Skype program to your computer or wifi-enabled smartphone, and install it. Then log in to your account to make a call. Skype used to have horrible, often unusable, audio. Now, audio is better, but there are still times when an annoying amount of static can make conversation virtually impossible. Video can also freeze up at times. Hanging up and calling back often fixes this. I would not recommend Skype if you need absolutely reliable phone service. For years, Skype has been owned by Microsoft, so be aware of this if privacy is important to you.



Other:

If you are a super nerd who just wants to experiment, HAM radio operators have for at least three decades been able to make free phone calls to landline phones through HAM radio repeaters that provide that service. Of course, these are not private calls, since the user must transmit an open radio signal to the repeater. This is an esoteric method of making a phone call, if you are interested and don't mind getting a basic HAM radio and a license. There are also ways of sending emails and SMS text messages via HAM radio.



Conclusion:

Unlike the high prices charged for AT&T service to copper-wire landline phones and the even higher prices charged by cellphone carriers, VOIP phone service can be had for very reasonable monthy fees. And, unlike AT&T landline service and cellphone services, you never, ever pay long-distance charges or extra charges when you call during certain times of the day (at least, for those VOIP phones listed above). VOIP phones are the cheapest alternative for those who need a phone that is always connected, so anyone can call you at your home phone number at any time.

For those who do not require a home phone number and only need to make phone calls occasionally, an internet service like Google Voice, Google Hangouts, or Skype may work just fine. You can use Google Hangouts and Google Voice to make free calls to anywhere in the US (assuming you live in the US), and for additional charges to any phone in the world.



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