You see the ads everywhere these days -- on the subway, on the bus, and on billboards. One screams that you can get unlimited local and long-distance telephone calls for just $29.95. Other come-ons offer the same deal for $24.95 or even $19.95. How can they do it? The companies offering these phone services use super-efficient Internet technology. Then they throw in extra goodies such as voice mail for free. The result: bargains that can cost less than half the price of traditional phone service.
Yes, it's a great deal. But you have to be willing to put some work into mastering the technology. If using a regular phone is as simple as operating a toaster, then Net phone service is more like programming the remote control for your home entertainment system. I learned that the hard way when I tested four leading Internet telephone services from such established players as AT&T (T) and little-known upstarts such as 8X8 and Skype.
My favorite, by far, was Skype. The service, offered by London-based Skype Technologies, is a little different from other Net phone offerings, which require you to plug in wires and hardware into a broadband Web connection. Skype is just software that you download from the Web for free. And you don't need any extra gear beyond an Internet connection and a computer equipped with a microphone and speaker. You can call millions of other Skype users around the world for free just by clicking on a name on your computer screen. And you can place a call from your computer to any regular phone for about 2 cents a minute. Voice quality was good, though conversations occasionally become garbled.
If you want a service with better sound, you have to pay a bit more. One good choice is 8X8's Packet8. The price, $19.95 a month, is hard to beat. Installation is a breeze, and sound quality is very good. You can even get videophone service for an extra $10 a month, though the videophone itself will set you back $300 after rebates. The hitch? Packet8's Web site is a clunker -- you can't listen to voice mail online.
It's puzzling that some Internet telecom companies don't seem to have paid too much attention to their Web sites. After all, their customers are, by definition, Net savvy and likely want to use an online site to pay bills or check their voice mail. Here, Vonage Holdings is the pacesetter. The company has a cleanly organized Web site, and it was a breeze for me to pick up my voice mail online. Vonage is also moderately priced, at $24.99. The only drawback was that Vonage's Web site once launched my iTunes software and played Waylon Jennings' Big Ball in Cowtown.
Voice mail on the Web is just the start. The features that come with Net phone service can put your traditional phone to shame. I was particularly impressed with the extras from AT&T's CallVantage, though it is pricier than its rivals, at $29.99. CallVantage lets you create 10-person conference calls or set up a service that tracks you down at all of your phone numbers.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. Sure, there are a few disappointing aspects. Some Internet phone services can crash when your electrical power or broadband line goes down, and not all of them can handle 911 emergency calls. Still, Web phone services sure look like telecom's future, with gads of extras at low cost. They might even play you an old Waylon Jennings song.
Review by Steve Rosenbush