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VoIP: Cheap alternatives to long-distance calling

Aug. 14, 2013 at 1:17 PM ET

VoIP, or voice over Internet protocol, has become a popular and cheaper alternative for those making long-distance calls. Plans start around $15 a month. The Vonage box is among the options Cheapism recommends.
Vonage
The Vonage box is among the VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) options Cheapism recommends.

The high cost of calling someone across the country or around the world on a landline or mobile phone has spurred many consumers to turn to VoIP as an affordable alternative. Instead of channeling conversations along a copper wire or cellphone frequency, VoIP transmits calls over the Internet (hence the acronym: Voice over Internet Protocol). In some cases this means sitting at a computer and speaking into a built-in microphone or wearing a headset, but not necessarily. Some VoIP providers furnish customers with an adapter for plugging a regular landline phone into an Internet connection.

Here are four top picks from Cheapism.com with plans starting at less than $15 a month.

· Skype which is well-known for its free, worldwide Skype-to-Skype calling, also enables users to call landlines and mobile phones at low rates. A subscription for unlimited calls throughout the U.S. and Canada costs $3 a month, and another $30 a year buys a Skype Number for receiving incoming calls (thanks to a 50 percent discount with the subscription). Users living abroad exalt Skype for letting them choose the same area code they would have back home, so family and friends can reach them with a local call.

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· Ooma may scare off some consumers with an initial cost of $150 for its Telo adapter. After that, though, users pay only taxes and fees (which vary by location but generally amount to a few bucks a month) to make unlimited long-distance calls within the U.S. Hundreds of reviewers say they’ve found the startup cost worth it based on excellent call quality and reliable service for far less than they paid for a landline.

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· Vonage also requires an adapter but is offering its Vonage Box for free. Reviewers heap particular praise on the international calling plans, which start at $26 a month for unlimited calls to landlines in 60 countries and mobile phones in 10 countries and territories, primarily in Asia. Along with typical offerings such as voicemail, caller ID, and call waiting, standard features include three-way calling and call blocking.

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· Google Hangouts specializes in video, voice, and chat conversations between users, much like Skype, but now includes the option to call phones. Some experts lament that certain features -- even the ability to receive incoming calls from non-users -- require an account with a separate service called Google Voice, which is available only in the U.S. The company has said it plans to seamlessly integrate the two. For now, there’s a huge upside for domestic users: It’s all completely free.

The software-based VoIP services from Google and Skype are intended to supplement an existing phone plan, rather than replace it completely, in large part because they do not support 911 calls. Ooma and Vonage include emergency service, although the FCC cautions that it doesn’t work quite the same way traditional 911 calls do. Emergency personnel may receive the address registered with your VoIP provider, for instance, instead of automatically identifying your location. The companies also assess a small fee to cover the cost of meeting 911 service requirements.

More from Cheapism:

Full report on free and cheap VoIP services 

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