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Geek Speak column
[Published in the Key West Citizen Locals Guide on June 25, 2010.]
Talk to Me
When I worked on crypto equipment in the Army in the prehistoric 1970s, the box that would digitize and encrypt ONE telephone conversation was the size of a dorm room refrigerator. Nowadays it all easily fits in your pocket. And any mundane PC can easily carry multiple conversations – with video! Today’s technology offer lots of telephone alternatives, and it’s not always easy to get the most bang for your buck. Let me help you figure it out…
There are 5 basic telephone choices these days:
1) Traditional phone company wire
2) Service over your existing cable TV system
3) Service over your Internet connection
4) Cell phone wireless only
5) Off the grid (no discussion needed here)
The first two are the biggest competitors. They both make use of wires already running into most homes. Other than a conversion box between your TV cable and your phone jacks, they’re functionally the same. Note that the cable phone box, which has a battery for short power outages, goes dead in longer outages (e.g., bad storms). And the cable infrastructure itself is more sensitive to power outages than the phone company systems. During serious problems, phone company service is more likely to stay on-line and comes up faster than cable company telephones.
Costs are similar, though the cable company likes to offer big introductory discounts — especially if you also carry their internet service. Once those offers run out, the cost differences are negligible when carrying the same features (e.g., unlimited calls, etc). In our area I’d give the edge to the phone company, due to their higher reliability after serious storms.
Most of us have decent internet connections these days. It’s tempting to get rid of that $300 – $500 a year “phone bill” and use the net instead. But there’s much to consider. For one thing, you do need a reliable computer and reliable internet connection to keep it all running. And power outages are even more problematic. But the cost savings are enticing…
Completely free services are limited to those who use the same system as you. For example, Skype will let you talk to other Skype users for free. But using Skype to call physical telephones costs extra. It’s great for video calls with your friends, but unless you’re ready to pay for a subscription it won’t fully replace a phone. However if you make few calls to regular phones the charges are reasonable.
A good compromise is Magic Jack. You buy a $40 USB port “dongle” for your computer. It lets you plug in a real phone (not required - you can talk through your computer). That charge also covers a year of service (a full additional year is currently about $20). Magic Jack does establish a regular telephone number for you to give to people. All calls to the US and Canada are free. The only complaints (beyond typical Internet hiccups) I’ve seen relate to poor customer service. Hopefully the company will survive and continue to offer the service.
There are more and more people these days going the “cell phone only” route. When you don’t fax (i.e., you can cover that with scanners and email) this path is more viable all the time. Especially if supplemented with Skype or Magic Jack. A call plan with lots of minutes — even one shared with other family members – may cost a few extra bucks but it may cover all of your calling needs. Think about it. One fourth of all America n households are already doing so.
I welcome questions about any of this, at: Geek@Lybrand.net .
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