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Everything you need to know before ditching your landline

With the rise of internet-based services like Google Voice and Skype, calling your friends and family has become easier and more cost effective than ever before. The process is so easy that one might start to wonder if it makes any sense to still maintain a traditional landline.

At the same time, telecom companies like Verizon have given up on maintaining their copper wire infrastructure completely, as they recently did in Fire Island, New York -- an area where all phone service was completely disrupted by Superstorm Sandy less than a year ago.

So what does this really mean for the frugal and relatively tech-savvy person who wants to have it all by keeping the benefits of having a landline while reducing their expenses by ditching it? What options are out there and what's the least expensive and time-intensive way to set it all up?

Who can make the switch from wired to truly wireless phones?

The first thing that you need to figure out before you disconnect your landline is whether or not it even makes sense for you and your family. As many Fire Island residents found out when they were being switched onto Verizon's cellular-based Voice Link service, a traditional landline is still the best option for homeowners whose security alarm systems or health and medical monitoring devices are tied into the old copper wire landline network. Until the companies who provide these services also switch to the fiber optic cable network or other non-wired technologies, you will not be able to comfortably make the switch.

The second thing you need to figure out is how often you will be using your landline to make and receive calls that you don't want to make or receive on your mobile phone. For parents whose kids are enrolled in schools which communicate non-emergency announcements by phone and not by email, having a non-mobile phone voicemail to receive these kinds of messages is a real money saver. Same thing applies if you don't want your bank or other utility companies constantly calling your mobile phone to let you know about the fabulous savings they can provide if you sign up for more services with them.

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can start to look at the numerous other services out there that are competing with the telecoms for your business.

VoiP: The only alternative to a traditional landline

When it comes to services that compete with the traditional telephone company, the top two choices are to add home phone services to your existing cable Internet package or to go through a separate VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) provider.

However, the reality is that both options are based on the same underlying technology, with the VoIP-only option costing less. Both cable internet phones and VoIP phones and the services are powered by electricity and a stable internet connection -- which is mostly served through the same cable lines which provide local and paid TV -- and can sometimes use the existing telephone jacks in your home as well.

The way a residence is wired for phone service is that every telephone jack within is daisy-chained from an original point of demarcation, which is normally located either in a gray box on the outside of your home or may be located in the basement of your apartment or condo building near the fuse box. The more expensive VoIP plans include the lease or purchase of a small device which the installer will place at the demarcation point and will thus serve all of the existing phones in your home. Lesser expensive plans include the lease or purchase of a small box that will act like a central office switch, converting the Ethernet signals coming into the box to analog signals that go out through a standard phone line to even the most basic phone.

Drawbacks to an internet-based phone system

The bad news with an internet-based phone service is that unless the modem or switch box provided by your ISP comes with its own battery, your phone will go out in the event of an electricity outage. That's because traditional analog phones are powered by the telephone cables themselves which -- due to being located mostly underground -- are less susceptible to physical damage due to weather or other natural disasters.

One way to get around this is to ensure that your modem either comes with its own battery or to hook it up to an external battery backup system. However, in the event of a major disaster where the power is out even at your ISP's data center, the cable company's distribution connections are damaged, and their generators are out of fuel, you'll just be completely out of luck.

And speaking of emergency situations, early VoIP adopters had to sign up separately for the ability to make emergency calls on their phones and compliance wasn't regulated. However, recently the VoIP providers have been working with the government to make connecting the VoIP network to the emergency telephone trunk easier. Additionally, some providers have developed new technologies and features which will make it easier to pinpoint exactly where the user of a VoIP phone is when it is making an emergency call.

How to choose a non-landline service

Now that you understand exactly how the non-traditional landline works, it's time to decide which of the services out there will work best for you. As always, you should read the fine print at the bottom of every page with pricing on it so that you know what services are included, which ones are not, and what the special conditions are regarding each tier of pricing.

Here's a look at some of the popular choices out there, with a breakdown of how much the most basic service would cost, minus any applicable taxes and standard fees:

Cable internet

In the table above, you can see that the monthly costs are comparable to the cost of a landline and further reading reveals they offer many of the same features like Call Waiting, Caller ID, and 3-Way Calling. The benefit to using these services is that when you bundle this with their internet plans and/or their cable TV plans, the phone portion of the cost may decrease substantially; thus, obtaining landline service through your cable company is cheaper than through the telecom company alone.


In this table, the monthly costs are also somewhat comparable or even better than a landline, with MagicJack costing the least at approximately $2.50 a month or $29.95 per year after the promotional period ends (the first six months are free). Additional further reading reveals that they also offer many of the same popular features. One thing to note with MagicJack is that additional per minute calling rates may apply to certain international numbers; a complete list of charges is available on the website. Ooma -- which also comes highly recommended by Consumer Reports -- requires a one-time initial cost of approximately $150 for their basic Telo box which acts as the local central office switch.

Of course, if you have more complicated needs such as wanting to have multiple phone lines coming into your home, if you own a small business, or if these providers aren't available in your area, there are several others you can choose. The fine folks at DSL have been collecting user-submitted reviews on these systems since 1999 and have links to most of the other major service providers. One thing to note is that the least-expensive VoIP services may also require more technical engineering to work with your needs.

But it's worth a glance to do the more in-depth research to finally determine once and for all if you're ready for a landline-free home.

Photo: Mark Mathosian