A Guide to Free Internet Phone Calls

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Free CallingIt’s amazing how much communication costs. If I add up my cellular bills, Internet bills and home phone service we’re looking at $250 a month! $3,000 a year is more than the average income of a family in 90% of the countries on earth. That is simply criminal!

Luckily, ever since the advent of the Internet those costs have been plummeting, and I would expect them to continue dropping until it costs almost nothing to talk to anyone, anywhere. (When wi-fi Internet has the same coverage as cellular networks all calls will be free!) For now, however, I’ve put together this handy little guide to help decrease the various costs associate with making phone calls.

The Lay of the Land

Cell PhoneI can’t speak for everyone but in the US and many other countries Cellular phone usage has skyrocketed and in many cases has surpassed landline phone use.

Many of the people I know make their first call to a recipient’s cell phone because they have the greatest chance of reaching them that way. Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do right now to decrease the cost of cellular calls other than choosing the right calling plan with one of the near-monopolistic carriers. So we have to concentrate on what we can control.

Internet Service

Map of the InternetEverything that follows hinges upon the requirement of some form of high-speed Internet access. I’m talking about DSL, Cable, WiFi or some other emerging technology.

Dial-up simply won’t do, so if you’re still using it hopefully you’ll see how upgrading to high speed will make your life better and your wallet a bit thicker at the same time.

High speed services generally run between $17 – $45 per month, so make sure and shop around. BroadbandReports.com can help you find service in your area.

P.O.T.S

phone.jpgThese aren’t the things you cook in. We’re talking about Plain Old Telephone Service, the kind you get from Verizon, SBC, or whoever your local phone company is. We’ve been paying these monopolies since the invention of the phone. Bell had a good racket going, but we really don’t need him any more.

The first question you need to ask yourself is, do I really need a home phone line? It may sound silly at first, but if you really think about it you might not actually need one. If you can switch to your cell phone as your primary phone and settle for a phone at home that is secondary then you’re on your way to saving some bucks!

Voice Over IP

VoIPIf you’re sure you still need a home phone, but you also have a cell phone, you really need to consider a move to a VoIP carrier. A service such as ATT’s CallVantage or Vonage will offer a flat price all inclusive dial tone that no phone company can match.

$25-30 per month with these providers will get you:

  • Phone Number
  • Voice Mail
  • Conference Calling
  • Long Distance
  • Call Forwarding
  • Call Waiting
  • Find-me / Follow-me
  • E-mail notification of voice mails

And many, many more features. Plus, your bill is going to be the same every month and it’s going to be lower than even a basic line from your local phone monopolist.

“Soft Phone Service”

A Soft Phone refers to a bit of software that runs on your PC which acts just like a telephone. You need only three things to use one: a personal computer (or laptop), speakers, and a microphone.

There are three fantastic FREE choices here which are available to everyone.

  • SkypeSkype is the 900lb gorilla of the bunch. Skype offers online chat, PC to PC voice calls, video conferencing and even inbound phone numbers and outbound calling. In fact, all outbound calls to US numbers are free through the end of the year (and I would think that would be continued later)! If you download the new Skype Beta 2.6, it will integrate with your MS Outlook to allow one click dialing to all of the contacts in your address book. Skype also offers call forwarding if you get one of the inbound calling numbers so that you can use the service as a home phone, but forward calls to your cell when you’re not there. The one feature that they really need to add in order to perfect the service is a “find me” feature which would ring multiple phones at once and let you grab the inbound call wherever you happen to be.
  • GizmoFinally, the Gizmo project is a SoftPhone that has the most potential to compete directly with Skype. It offers excellent voice quality and all of the features of Skype (and some advanced features as well). They will give you a free 775 area code phone number, but in addition they offer a $4 per month service which allows you to choose a local phone number, set up Dual Ring (Incoming calls simultaneously ring computer and cell phone), Call Screening (listen to callers leave messages in real time), Call Transfer (transfer calls to cell phone, or other number), and send your voice mails to e-mail. In a nutshell it’s basically ATT CallVantage service for $4 a month.
  • Yahoo Instant Messenger also now offers the ability to call out to phones and also have an inbound phone number. In my personal tests, Yahoo actually has better sound quality than Skype, but there are several drawbacks. They charge $.02 per minute to call outbound, do not offer call forwarding, and there is no integration with Outlook contacts. The big advantage that Yahoo has is that you may already use it with existing chat buddys, so trying out the voice features would be very simple.

Summary

All in all, if I had to make recommendations they would go like this:

  1. If you don’t have a cell phone, stick with your P.O.T.S. line.
  2. If you have a cell phone and need to keep a normal phone system in your house, drop your P.O.T.S. in favor of ATT CallVantage. This is going to run you about $25 per month total.
  3. If you can do without a home phone, sign up for the Gizmo Project then get your own phone number via the Basic Area 775 offer on their site. Then set it up to ring both your Gizmo number and your cell number simultaneously so that you never miss a call again. This is going to run you about $4 per month total.

Final Note

If your laptop or PC didn’t come with a microphone I would recommend one of the following as an add on to allow you to use these services.

  • A Logitech Webcam, available at any Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA or other major electronics retailer. The advantage of having a Webcam is that you can do video conferencing as well as voice calls. Purchase the most expensive one your budget allows as the cheap ones give crappy voice quality. I’ve got the Orbit and it’s fantastic.
  • The Polycom Communicator is the best desktop speaker phone for VoIP, period. It’s portable, sounds great, and is made by the industry leader in audio conferencing.
  • Get one of the USB Speaker phones offered by Target. The MiniVox is cheap and works surprisingly well.
  • Finally, if you really need to have private conversations, so a speaker phone won’t work, just pick up a USB Headset – again, preferably by Logitech. The reason is that there are known compatibility issues with off brands and if you get a really cheap one not only will it sound bad, but Skype, Gizmo or any other application may not recognize it.

Feel free to respond if you have questions, comments, etc. And have fun!

Article Written by
John P.

John P. is CEO of Livid Lobster and co-host of Geek Beat TV. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Comments

  1. The Man says:

    Chris,

    I agree, the quality of Skype to Skype calls are much better than Skype to phone. And I’ve already got my whole family on it, and the “killer app” is to get the video hooked up.

    Purchase the best Webcams you can afford and unleash them on the family. They get really excited about it.

    Ryan,

    At the moment, the only “free” pc to phone calling is via Gizmo, and I think they currently limit you to 10 free minutes per day or something like that.

    John

  2. Ryan says:

    I just want to make free pc to phone calls

  3. I’ve been setting up all my family with Skype. Their Skype-to-phone line service isn’t so great, but the quality of Skype-to-Skype calls is outstanding. Eventually, I’ll have all my loved ones set up with Skype…

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