Look Out, Bells: The Web Is Calling

If you think making phone calls over the Internet gives you the sound quality of two cans tied together with a string, think again. Net telephony has gotten a lot better. It now may be good enough to give phone companies a run for their money.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying two new Net phone services. They're simple to use and usually sound great. Both allow anyone with broadband Internet service and a home network to make cheap telephone calls. Just plug a box called an analog telephone adapter (ATA) into your network router, hook your regular old phone into the adapter, and you can call anyone you choose.

The sound quality of the services I used, Vonage and iConnectHere, is usually as good as my normal Verizon (VZ ) phone line. Once in a while, there's an echo or tinny sound, but never as bad as most cell phone calls. Both services assign you a new phone number so you can receive calls, and they offer extras such as voice mail and caller ID that local phone companies charge a premium for. If you move--or even travel--simply bring the sandwich-sized ATA with you, plug it into a network, and your phone number follows you.

I preferred Vonage (vonage.com), because its sound quality is more consistent. It charges either $40 a month for unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada or $25 a month for unlimited local calls plus 500 minutes of long distance. International rates are superlow: a nickel a minute to London and 6 cents to Paris, Hong Kong, or Sydney. The price of the ATA is included in the monthly fee.

iConnectHere (iconnecthere.com) is cheaper, but you have to buy the adapter for $179. It offers various service plans that end up costing 1 cents to 2 cents per minute for U.S. calls and 4 cents to 6 cents per minute to Western Europe. If you want to receive calls, you pay $9 per month for a phone number.

Neither service is totally ready for prime time. One problem: You can't call 911. And if your broadband connection--or your electricity--fails, you're out of luck. But if you need a second line for your kids, or just want to be able to make inexpensive international calls, give it a try.

If you're really daring, you might even ditch your regular phone service altogether. Telephone companies, listen up.

By David Rocks

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