The cost of making phone calls has been dropping rapidly in the last few years. If you want to take full advantage of that, you might need something new.
Here are some options using broadband Internet lines:
Vonage is the most widely advertised replacement for the home phone line, and the price is more attractive than before. It just squeezed free calls to more than 60 countries into its standard $25-per-month plan, which already included free domestic calling. But if you're not a big overseas caller, there are cheaper options, and in our testing, long-running problems with audio quality and reliability persist.
Ooma sells a device that's similar to Vonage's adapter that connects to your broadband line and your old phone. But once you've plunked down $250 for it, domestic calls are free. International calls are billed at low per-minute rates. Ooma's audio quality and reliability are much better than Vonage's, but slightly below that of a regular phone line. The adapter works as an answering machine too, and you can access your voice mail through a Web browser as well.
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MagicJack is selling a device that plugs into a computer to provide unlimited domestic calls for one year for $40. After that, every year of service costs $20. International calls are billed at low per-minute rates. But call quality was barely acceptable in our tests. You can't move your own number to it, and the computer needs to be on for the MagicJack to receive calls, which could cost about $300 in electricity.
Skype is best known for free computer-to-computer voice and video chatting, but you can make and receive phone calls using this software as well. Outgoing calls are billed per minute or through monthly unlimited-calling plans. A phone number that can receive incoming calls costs $60 per year. You can't use your old number as your Skype number, and you can't call 911.
You also could consider prepaid cell phones. While the phones are marketed mainly to people with poor credit, many households could save money by going prepaid instead of signing up for long-term contracts.
The main drawbacks are that it's difficult to get feature-packed "smart" phones and limited calling areas that may force users to pay roaming fees.
Tracfone is the nation's biggest provider of prepaid phone service. It sells bare-bones phones cheaply, and calls cost between 15 cents and 30 cents per minute. If you use your phone for only a few short calls a day, this is a good deal - Tracfone subscribers pay an average of $10 per month.
For heavy callers, prepaid unlimited plans costing less than $50 per month are available from MetroPCS, Cricket and Boost.
A MetroPCS phone worked just like one from a more expensive carrier, including the Web access. The upfront cost of that device - a touch-screen-equipped Samsung Finesse - is $349. An equivalent phone would cost $50 or $100 when you sign a contract with a major carrier. But you would come out ahead in less than a year by saving $30 per month on the prepaid service.