Your Guide to Cutting the Cord to Landline Phones

From time to time, I provide an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I previously covered Twitter, local watchdog news sites, and Net neutrality, among other topics. This week I look at cutting the cord to landline telephone lines.

Background

The number of landline telephones in the developed world has steadily risen over the past century, but something changed in the last decade: A decline began.

The International Telecommunication Union found that there were 57 fixed telephone lines per 100 inhabitants in the developed world in 2001, but that number dropped to 50 lines by 2007 (see chart below). What happened? The mobile phone revolution started displacing landlines as more people relied on cell phones and voice-over-IP (VoIP) services such as Vonage.

That trend is becoming even more pronounced in the U.S., where the National Center for Health Statistics recently found that in the second half of 2009 nearly one out of every four households relied completely on cell phones, while one eighth had landlines but rarely used them.

As smartphones proliferate and offer text messaging, web access and addictive apps, people are spending more time with their mobiles rather than their landline phones. And the less time they spend on landlines, the more they wonder why they need to pay that extra cost.

In recessionary times, people looking to save money make the calculations and cut the cord to landlines.

Pam Collins, a speech language pathologist in Atlanta, told me she's saving $50 per month by cutting the landline in her household.

"We gave up our landline to cut costs when my husband was starting his business -- we use our cell phones," she explained in an email. "I have taught my children to unlock my phone and try to keep it in a central location for emergencies. It got to the point where we weren't answering the home phone and forgetting to check the messages since anyone we wanted to talk to had our cell numbers. My mom just gave up her landline as well."

Just as I explained in the Guide to Cutting the Cord to Cable TV, some people find it daunting to give up a traditional service in exchange for a newer one. The newer services can be glitchy and not provide the service you expect with landlines. But many services such as Vonage and Skype have been around for years and score well in customer satisfaction.

Cell Only

The easiest way to eliminate your landline phone is to rely entirely on your mobile while at home. That means that you'll need to have excellent cell coverage at home, or use a femtocell or microcell tower (see next section).

It also means you should make sure you have an adequate plan to cover all the extra minutes you'll be talking on your cell. The advantages of using your cell phone at home are obvious: No landline phone bill; only one phone number to share with friends and contacts; easy mobility to start a call at home and keep talking on the go.

But there are downsides that come with cutting your landline and relying on your cell phone at home:

If there's a power outage, you can't communicate with anyone once your cell phone battery runs out. Many people keep a spare landline phone around that doesn't require electricity to make calls. That becomes more difficult without the landline.

Similarly, in an emergency, when you call 911 from a landline phone, the operator can get a location without you having to tell them where you are. That's not always the case with a cell phone. However, the FCC is trying to implement new rules so that 911 dispatchers can more readily locate cell phone callers.

It's often easier to locate a landline phone in your house than a cell phone. Although with the proliferation of wireless landline phones, those can be misplaced as well. Another problem is that you don't have one central shared phone for everyone in the household.

Reliance on cell phones leads to more asynchronous communication. As Dana Blankenhorn wrote recently on SmartPlanet:

When you give up on calling and just send send a text, you become part of what I call the Asynchronous Nation. There is nothing inherently wrong with asynchronicity. It's just very different. It's the biggest change in human, electronic communication since the phone replaced the telegram, since synchronicity began in other words, over a century ago.

Personally I don't mind. I'm more productive when communication occurs on my schedule. And I find I can do more of it ... What I have learned since cutting the phone cord is that the Asynchronous Nation is a different place from the one I lived in last century. How different we don't yet know.

Femtocells or MicroCell Towers

One of the biggest issues with going cell-only at home is a weak signal from your mobile provider. The providers have a solution for that: The femtocell or microcell tower, which give you a mini-cell tower in your living room.

Well, not really. Femtocells plug into your home high-speed Internet service and route your cell calls through them, offering perfect coverage and no dropped calls. Jim Rossman of the Dallas Morning News raved about his AT&T 3G MicroCell in a review, saying "it's one of the best products I've ever reviewed" in part because it brought the solid landline feeling to his cell phone.

But others find the idea of consumers paying to offload network traffic from cell carriers abhorrent. Nick Mokey at Digital Trends compares AT&T's tactics to Tom Sawyer tricking people into doing his whitewashing work for him. AT&T in this case is getting the benefit of less network traffic, and also making you pay for it.

"In exchange for taking your weight off its creaking, overburdened network, AT&T will happily charge you $150 for the 3G MicroCell, and continue to deduct minutes from your plan when you use it, even though you're paying another company to handle your traffic, and paid out of pocket for the device to do it," Mokey wrote.

If that doesn't bother you, and you'd like to try out a femtocell to turbo-charge your home cell coverage, here are the main options:

AT&T 3G MicroCell

Description: "Connects to AT&T's network via your existing broadband Internet service (such as DSL or cable) and is designed to support up to four simultaneous users in a home or small business setting."

Price: $150, but you can get a $100 rebate if you sign up for the $20/month unlimited calling plan. Otherwise it uses your cell plan's minutes. If you have AT&T DSL or U-verse, you can get an additional $50 rebate.

Learn more here.

Verizon, Sprint Offer Options

Verizon Network Extender

Description: "Network Extender is easy to set up and ready to use right out of the box and can provide coverage in an area of up to 5,000 square feet."

Price: $250. No monthly usage fees.

Learn more here.

Sprint Airave

Description: "Works with any Sprint phone -- up to three users at the same time. Installs in minutes with your existing broadband Internet access, such as DSL, cable or T1."

Price: $100, plus $15 to $25 per month for unlimited calling.

Learn more here.

VoIP Services

If you'd prefer not to go the cell-only route at home, there are various VoIP calling services, many of which allow you to use your existing phone. With VoIP, your calls are routed via the Internet, which means quality can vary depending on your high-speed connection and data loads.

While the charges for long distance calls are usually tiny or free, there are a few other downsides with VoIP services, as reported by John Ewoldt in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: VoIP won't work in a power outage; you need a broadband connection; fax machines won't work with most VoIP setups; and you may need the computer to be on to receive or make calls.

Alan Pearlstein, CEO of Cross Pixel Media, told me that he tried the magicJack VoIP service (see info below) but dropped it after call problems.

"MagicJack was easy to install and was working well for me until I had a few negative experiences that led me to stop using it," he said via email. "My calls were full of static and were being dropped every so often. It became unreliable for any important call. If I needed a second line at home I would probably use it for that, but not a main line."

Dan Frommer, deputy editor of Business Insider, told me he loves magicJack and thinks the company will be bought out or go public in the next six months.

"I love it," he said via email. "Pros: Cheap, reliable, cheap, reliable. Cons: Software not very elegant, need to leave it plugged in to computer (and need to leave computer on), blue LED keeps [my] bedroom slightly lit up."

If you're still undaunted, here's a rundown of some of the more popular VoIP services:

Vonage

Description: "Your computer doesn't have to be on to use Vonage. The people you call don't need to have Vonage or the Internet to get your call -- just a phone. And when someone calls you, your phone rings as usual."

Hardware: The Vonage V-Portal device costs $80 but is free when you sign up for a one-year service contract.

Price: Vonage World is $15/month for first six months, then $26/month afterwards for unlimited long distance calls in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and unlimited calls to landline phones in 60 countries; Vonage Pro for $35/month; and Vonage Basic 500 for $18/month.

Learn more here.

Skype

Description: "Do amazing things for free: voice and video calls to anyone else on Skype; conference calls with three or more people; instant messaging, file transfer and screen sharing."

Hardware: Will work through your computer or laptop microphone and speaker, or you can get dedicated phones or headsets. Accessories here.

Price: Free for calls or videoconferences to other Skype users; cheap rates for calls to mobiles and landlines around the world; unlimited U.S. and Canada calls for $8/month or unlimited calls to 40 countries for $14/month.

Learn more here.

Ooma

Description: "Ooma lets you make free U.S. calls over the Internet with outstanding voice quality. No PC or headset required, just use your existing phone. The award-winning Ooma system offers 911 service, free U.S. calls, voicemail, caller-ID, call-waiting and low cost international rates."

Hardware: The Ooma Telo connects to your high-speed Internet connection and you plug your existing phone line into it.

Price: $250. You need to pay taxes and fees each month, usually a few dollars, for unlimited U.S. calls; international calls are cheap per minute or you can pay $5/month for 500 minutes to 70 countries.

Learn more here.

magicJack

Description: "magicJack is an easy-to-use portable device that allows you to use a traditional telephone handset to make and receive calls. magicJack utilizes a dedicated telephone network and provides cystal-clear call quality. magicjack provides a free telephone number and free voicemail."

Hardware: Small device plugged into computer's USB port, and you plug your phone into it.

Price: $40, but a limited free trial is currently being offered; $20/year after the first year, plus more for international calling packages.

Learn more here.

Google Voice

Description: "Google Voice is a service that enhances the existing capabilities of your phone numbers. With it, you can access your voicemail online, read automatic transcriptions of your voicemail, create personalized greetings based on who is calling, make cheap international calls, and more."

Hardware: You provide your own cell phone, but can get a new number free.

Price: Free; currently invite-only.

Learn more here.

Many of these services, including Skype and Google Voice, have mobile apps that will run on smartphones such as the iPhone. Plus, Vonage recently announced support for T-Mobile and Android mobile users.

Conclusion

Ultimately, your decision on cutting the cord to landline phone service depends on where you make the most calls and whether you're using it for business calls.

If you are dead set on saving money but aren't as worried about call quality, then solutions like Skype and magicJack would work. Or if you want higher quality calls, you might pay more for Vonage or Ooma. If you are hooked on a cell-only setup, buying a femtocell extender might do the trick.

Just as with cutting the cord to cable TV, it might take some experimentation -- and multiple solutions -- to figure out what works best for your situation.

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