Easy call: Phoning via Web

NEW YORK (MCT) — With family and friends in such far-flung places as Hong Kong and Argentina, Carlos Ronisky used to run up hefty phone bills just trying to keep in touch.

Then he heard about VoIP. It may sound like the name of an energy drink, but it’s actually an emerging phone service that routes calls over the Internet to make talk cheaper.

An acronym for Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP has exploded in recent years. Use has more than doubled in the past year, according to TeleGeography Research, and experts expect the growth to continue.

Ronisky, who works as a marketing manager at a New York bank, dumped his landline and switched to Internet phone provider Vonage last year. He’s saved $600 — which he plans to spend on a video iPod. “I used to be paying $75 to $80 a month. Now, my average bill is about $20,” he said.

VoIP is part of the latest skirmish in the battle among startups and cable and telephone companies to deliver competing services.

Independent providers such as Vonage, SunRocket and Packet8 have sprung up in recent years to battle the old Baby Bells for customers. Traditional phone companies like AT&T have gotten in on the VoIP act, too, and cable companies such as Time Warner are offering digital phone service as an alternative to a traditional phone line.

All you need to make the switch to a Web-based phone service is a high-speed Internet connection. Once you sign up, you’ll get an adapter that connects your phone to your Internet router.

Another variation of VoIP is the service provided by Skype and YakWorldCity. There’s no router — you use a headset that plugs into your computer. But the tradeoff for being stuck in front of your monitor is that you can make free computer-to-computer calls to anyone in the world who has the same service. You do pay for calls from your computer to regular phone numbers.

In addition to the money you save, VoIP services often include in their monthly fees handy features like voicemail, caller ID, call waiting and call forwarding. There are some less useful, but fun features, as well. Skype lets you download an optional “lie detector,” which senses the stress level of your conversation partner.

Recent college graduate and New York resident Julie Blank helps keep her cost of living down by using Skype to videoconference with her brother, Aaron, who lives in Israel. “If I didn’t talk to him on Skype, I’d probably just be e-mailing him.”

Frequent international callers who want an experience just like a traditional phone line need to check what countries the VoIP provider includes in their basic plans, as well as rates for calls to different regions. Many companies post their rates online. The Web site voipreview.org can help you compare VoIP companies’ international plans and rates.

Another option that Internet-based phone services may offer those calling far away locales is a virtual phone number. That means that, for a fee, you get a number that’s local to the area where friends and family live, allowing them to call you for free. At Vonage, for example, an extra $5 a month will get you a local number in Mexico that, for example, lets your aunt who lives there call you all she wants merely for local charges.

The latest twist is that VoIP providers are trying to make their services even more portable.

Apple has promised that its new iPhone cell phone, which will debut in June, will have VoIP capabilities. Vonage recently launched the V-Phone, a tiny, $40 device that plugs into any computer with a USB port. With it, Vonage subscribers can make a call from their home phone number while they’re anywhere in the world where they have high-speed Internet access.

This year, Skype debuted cordless phones that let users toggle between Skype and landline calls. Vonage and Skype are also offering “wi-fi” phones, cell phone-like devices that let you connect to their services through most wireless Internet networks.

One drawback of VoIP for anyone thinking of completely ditching traditional phone line is 911 service. Since regular landlines are linked to a specific location, local emergency service personnel immediately know where to find you if you call 911.

That’s not always the case with VoIP. Some providers offer enhanced 911 service, meaning that emergency dispatchers will immediately know where you are as long as you have provided your address and you update it if you move. But some services, such as Skype, don’t offer any 911 service, and are best used in addition to another phone line.

In either case, if you lose power or your Web service fails, your VoIP service will go down, too.

The 411 on VoIP

– Not all providers offer the same standard of 911 service as a regular landline.

– Watch for sign-up fees, connection and cancellation charges.

– You’ll have to upgrade to high-speed Internet service, which will likely mean you’ll have to pay up a bit if you’re now a dial-up customer.

– Be aware that even if a company lets you keep your current phone number, the switch could take two weeks or more.

– If you have fast DSL Internet service through a traditional phone provider, they will likely require you to continue paying for at least basic phone service through them. Some companies are beginning to offer so-called naked DSL, meaning that you can get the high-speed Internet without a voice plan, but not yet at prices that make it a good deal.

VoIP plans by the numbers:

– Vonage

Cost: Service starts at $14.99 per month; $25 monthly gets you unlimited calling to anywhere in the United States, including Puerto Rico, and Canada; basic adapter is available free with rebate; $10 shipping fee for gear.

Pros: Works with your regular phone, but phone-plus-adapter products are available; call quality is generally high; you can take your number with you anywhere.

Cons: May charge a $40 disconnection fee if you cancel after two weeks of service.

– SunRocket

Cost: $199 a year gets you unlimited calling throughout the U.S., including Puerto Rico, and Canada; monthly billing option is $24.95 and includes $3 of international calling per month.

Pros: Offers some of the lower-cost plans; no activation or cancellation charges; annual fee refunded on a pro-rated basis if service is canceled.

Cons: With its monthly plans, customers need to pay an additional charge of $39.95 for an adapter.

– AT&T CallVantage

Cost: Unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada starts at $25 monthly plus a $10 shipping fee for adaptor and $30 activation fee; now offering one month free with online order.

Pros: Gets high marks for its call quality from tech Web sites like Cnet.com.

Cons: Plans tend to be on the expensive side; $30 disconnection fee if service canceled within one year.

– Time Warner Cable

Cost: $39.95 per month with digital cable service for unlimited calling in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, and Canada (for a total of about $90 per month; now offering two months free service.

Pros: One bill, if you have cable service with them anyway; taking bundled services may lower your overall costs.

Cons: Service isn’t portable – you can use it in one location only; if you move to another area code, you’ll have to change phone numbers; international rates can be relatively high.

– Skype

Cost: Free for computer-to-computer calls; Unlimited Skype-to-phone calling is $29.95 per year.

Pros: Free if you can get friends and family on board and in front of their computers; reasonable international rates; video conferencing available with a Webcam.

Cons: Not meant as a replacement for a regular phone line; no 911 service available; call quality to landline or cell phones may be spotty; caller and callee both have to be at the computer at the same time for free call.