The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.
By Mitch Lipka
(Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission is meeting on Thursday to consider changing the fees it administers to expand broadband service to underserved areas (link.reuters.com/juv64s). That could mean your phone bill will rise up to $4 a month for a service fee that your carrier will likely pass straight along to you, according to consumer experts.
New fees and surcharges annoy customers, so no doubt there are going to be many out there who start thinking about alternatives in the wake of this news. The most common course of action? Ditch your land line — if you aren’t already among the hundreds of millions who have. The growth in homes without traditional phones has been staggering. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which actually studies such things, found that more than a quarter of U.S. households do not have a land line now — an eight-fold increase in six years.
In fact, the trend has become so engrained that telephone manufacturers, including Vtech and Panasonic, now make home phone systems that integrate with your cell phone so anyone in the household could answer any of the handsets just as they might do with regular phone service.
While the traditional view of this non-conventional phone set-up involves transitioning just to the cell phone, it’s not really that simple anymore. Long gone is the day, at least some might remember, when there was just “the phone company.” Consumers have plenty of choices.
When writer Anna Aquino was ready to ditch the land line at her Kissimmee, Florida residence, she started off by replacing it with magicJack — a gadget that dispenses with traditional phone service, typically running through your computer.
But magicJack had a few too many fits and starts to keep for everyday phone service, she says. So, she shifted to a no-contract cell phone and is glad she no longer has a phone bill for her.
“For the most part, there hasn’t been any issues,” she says.
For others who have made the switch, they typically use a patchwork of services in addition to their cell phones, including:
*Skype: Best known for its computer to computer video conversations, Skype now offers a wide range of regular calling options including free Skype to Skype calling, pay-as-you-go plans and unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada for less than $5 a month. And it now offers a service with a home phone adapter featuring the same unlimited calling deal (with the adapter included in the price).
*Voice over Internet (VOIP): This option routes your calls over a broadband connection and typically includes a battery backup to keep phone service going for several hours during a power outage. Consumers can bundle this service in many areas with their cable TV and Internet or use a typically cheaper independent company such as Vonage or netTalk. Vonage charges $25 a month for unlimited U.S. and Canada calling after a six-month introductory rate.
*magicJack: This gadget is often seen as a gimmick because it has been hawked on infomercials. But while it might have frustrated Aquino, it has many devotees who see it as a great option for long-distance calls (less than $40 a year including the device, and half that every year thereafter). They make a non-computer option now.
*Google Voice: This web-based option from Google is mostly used as a tool to create a message center and call routing service, but it also enables free calling and texting. Some users complain about unreliability, and the text translations of voicemail messages are the subject of Internet ridicule. But it’s free, integrates with gmail and helps users integrate different phone systems, which is helpful for those constantly on the go.
Matthew Cheng, New York-based president and founder of eCoupons.com, has been using Vonage for a decade and has stepped up his use of Skype. He says he'd stick with Skype if he could find a way to port his home phone number. Some services, including Google Voice, charge for transferring your existing number but it's free to create a new one.
In Chicago, Sheel Mohnot says adding Google Voice helps deal with the issue of missing cell phone calls when you are home, and your phone is another room on vibrate.
“It rings on my computer too,” says Mohnot, who works for a start-up called FeeFighters. “So if I’m on my computer and I left my cell in another room, I can still see it — and pick up on my computer.”
There are some other issues with these alternatives that don’t necessarily generate a lot of outrage, but remain concerns. The most important one is the unreliability or inability to use phones on some of those services to call 9-1-1. Some, including magicJack, offer a way to program the number to properly route and display your name and address to a emergency operator. VOIP through your cable operator will typically include enhanced 9-1-1. Sound quality for most has been reported as good, with occasional issues when large files are being downloaded over the same broadband line.
Other concerns: What happens in cell phone-only homes if someone goes out with the phone and kids are left behind with no phone? A solution could be a prepaid phone to leave at home in case of emergency. And what about the venerable fax line? No need for that if you have Internet access and a scanner. Services including eFax.com and faxzero.com have that covered.
If you do shift to cell phone-only, be sure to avoid getting a $201,000 phone bill -- as happened to a Florida woman recently (see link.reuters.com/nuv64s)-- by understanding what you get in your plan and shopping for a new plan when you're not under contract. You definitely need to pay more attention to your bills and determine the best level of service for your needs. You also should shop around for the best prices available.
Not everyone wants to pare down on services. Even if you trimmed away your traditional phone line, you could use some of that savings to upgrade to a virtual personal assistant (like this one: link.reuters.com/puv64s) or concierge service, where you'll get unlimited calls to directory assistance and have a number to dial into to get tips on where to eat, movie times and even booking flights.
Editing by Lauren Young and Beth Gladstone