26 Telecom: Landlines

According to a 2011 industry survey, a basic landline now costs about $500 per year. Back when Ma Bell held a monopoly, you had one choice only. Nowadays, services abound and you have many ways to save.

26.1  Ditch the Landline and Use Cell Phones

More Americans have decided to drop their landlines. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), as of the first half of 2007, 14 percent of US households used cell phones only. By the second half of 2011, wireless-only households had jumped to 34 percent. The NCHS suggests that others are poised to join the trend, because in almost one of every six households that still cling to a landline, almost all calls are made wirelessly.

If you haven’t already done so, evaluate whether to ditch this relic from the last century. Here’s a checklist that helps you make the call. The more often you check the “No” boxes, the more sense it makes to cancel the service.

Should I Keep My Landline?

  1. My Home’s Wireless Signal Is Weak.
    Walk around your house and test the reception in several places. If service is spotty, check the “yes” box; if it’s strong, check “no.” Even if you checked “yes,” explore whether you can beef up signal strength with a “cell phone signal booster.” Or switch your cell service to a carrier that delivers a stronger signal.
  2. My Cell Phone Is Unreliable.
    If you suffer from dropped calls, dead batteries, or other cell phone troubles, keep the landline. Or address these problems with: (1) cell chargers that use car batteries, hand cranks, or solar panels; (2) backup batteries or phones (buy them used on eBay); (3) VoIP service through a broadband connection (see 26.2); and (4) separate cell phones for each household member (one of which should work at the crucial moment of need, provided the phone’s owner is home).
  3. My Household Still Uses a Landline.
    If so, perhaps you should keep it. However, if yours is among the one in six households that pay for a landline, but use it rarely, going wireless makes good sense.
  4. I Want a Listed Number.
    Unless you request otherwise (and pay a fee), your landline number is public information. This lets old friends track you down, but it also exposes you to obnoxious pollsters, dubious charities, and other undesirables. In contrast to landlines, cell phones generally go unlisted.
  5. Instant 911 Call Location Is Important to Me.
    When you dial 911 on a landline, the dispatcher sees a readout of your address—a helpful feature in an emergency. Cell phones don’t offer this capability yet, but you can contact emergency service providers to tell them to list your home address as your cell’s default location.
  6. Power Outages Are Frequent Where I Live.
    Corded phones work without electricity (however, cordless landline phones don’t). Cell phones work in power outages too, but they require charged batteries.
  7. I Love to Fax.
    If you still use a fax machine, your best bet for reliable service is an analog landline. Cell phones can’t transmit faxes. You could, of course, drop the landline and switch to a web-based fax service, but that requires old dogs to learn new tricks, and being an old dog is likely why you still heel to the fax screech.
  8. Dropping My Landline Triggers New Charges or Interferes With Other Services.
    Before you cut the cord, think about the consequences. Without a landline, you might need to buy more mobile minutes or additional cell phones for other household members. Some home security systems won’t work without a constant phone connection. Some satellite providers require a landline in order to deliver pay-per-view shows or seasonal sports packages.

26.2  Ditch the Landline and Use VoIP

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems use your internet connection. If you intend VoIP to replace a landline, pick a service that lets you call cell phones and landlines, and isn’t limited to computer-to-computer calls. Also, pick a service that allows long distance and international calls. Read the latest reviews of top providers at ConsumerSearch.com/voip or Consumer Reports. To decide whether to adopt this option, work through this checklist.


   VoIP Is Portable.
If you use landlines and move often, you pay disconnect and reconnect fees. With VoIP, the service moves wherever you do for FREE.

   For Premium Phone Service, VoIP Costs Less.
If you load your landline with premiums such as call waiting, voicemail, and three-way calling, your costs can run $700 per year. But with VoIP these premiums are standard (savings versus landlines: $300-$400 per year).

   For Basic Phone Service, VoIP Can Be Cheaper.
If you have a bare bones landline, a switch to VoIP can save you money, but you have to shop around. As of this writing, Vonage’s cheapest VoIP service allows unlimited incoming calls and 300 minutes per month of outbound local and long distance calls. This costs $144 per year, plus local taxes and levies. A Vonage competitor, Phone Power, offers unlimited domestic service for about $100 per year. The catch is that you have to pay for two full years upfront. Bottom line: if you now pay for basic landline service, which runs about $350-$420 annually, a switch to one of the cheaper VoIP plans will save you about $175-$225 per year.


   VoIP Quality Depends on Your Broadband Quality.
According to ConsumerSearch.com, fiber optic services and cable companies deliver the fastest internet. If you buy your internet elsewhere, use these online testers to predict the likely VoIP quality:

   VoIP Fails During Internet and Power Outages, but Workarounds Exist.
Until recently, a big knock against VoIP was that it wouldn’t work in power or internet outages. Nowadays, however, most VoIPs forward incoming calls to your cell phone whenever such lapses occur.

   911 Calls on VoIP Require Advance Preparation.
Depending on the VoIP provider’s capabilities, your local 911 operator might not receive a readout of your location and callback number. The FCC requires providers to explain all 911 limitations upfront and to obtain your signed acknowledgement that you understand them.

   VoIP Can’t Match the Reliability of Landlines.
Traditional phones are overpriced, but at least they’re reliable. Internet connections aren’t as trustworthy yet, and that’s what VoIP depends upon. It boils down to this: will you accept periodic glitches in exchange for a 50 percent price break on phone service?

26.3  Keep the Landline and Seek Savings

   26.3.1  Switch to a PAYG Cell Phone
If you keep the landline, it’s easier to get by with an inexpensive PAYG cell plan (see 27.1).

   26.3.2  Bundle
You might cut your overall costs for landline, internet, television, and cells if you buy them all from a single provider. Run the numbers in advance to confirm your savings.

   26.3.3  Shop Around
Visit Movearoo.com or ConnectMyPhone.com, where you can enter your home address and receive offers from local phone companies.

   26.3.4  Avoid Bells and Whistles
Stick to basics. Decline extras like voice mail and caller id.

   26.3.5  Use Long Distance and International Calling Cards
You have to program a 1-800 number and password into your handset, but the savings make it worthwhile. As of this writing, Costco sells a $20 card for 700 minutes worth of stateside calls (at $0.029 per minute) and a $30 card for international calls (at slightly higher rates, which vary by the country called). Visit Yahoo! Shopping or Google Shopping to search for similar cards.

   26.3.6  Use Free Long Distance
Get FREE long distance and international calls in exchange for listening to a couple of short (10 to 12 seconds) commercials. Visit FreePhone2Phone.com.

   26.3.7  Share With Roommates
Split landline costs with your housemates—yet another benefit of social living.

   26.3.8  Scour the Bill
The phone company might charge you for services you never use and don’t even know you have. If so, call to have the services  removed. Seek a refund for past charges.

   26.3.9  Keep Alert for New Deals
Just because you have a landline now doesn’t mean you need one forever. Newer technologies continue to improve. Revisit your options annually to see whether it’s time to cut the cord.

26.4  Haggle

If you buy premium services from the phone company, you probably can talk your way into a lower monthly rate. Negotiations might shave a few bucks off your bill, but you pay less—much less—if you choose the barebones service.

If you have basic service, like I do, discounts are unlikely. Still, I took a stab at negotiation. A loyalty department representative told me the price couldn’t be dropped since I already had the cheapest package available. I persisted. I asked whether any deals were possible if I paid one year in advance (answer: no), signed a multi-year contract (no again) or switched to PAYG (no here too). Finally, the agent tired and offered four months’ service at half price. I accepted, and thereby saved myself $34, which represents 10 percent off my annual bill. Not great, but well worth the short phone call. I’ll try the same approach next year—provided I haven’t ditched the landline by then.

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