Internet Phones - VOIP

Once upon a time, "getting a phone", was simple - AT&T was the only game in town. Then Uncle Sam broke up Ma Bell, leading to baby Bells, and a whole lotta wanna-be's. Then came cellular. But there's now even more competition, for the Sprints, MCI's, and SBC's  - it's called VOIP.

Allen Cohen, VOIP User: "Do you know I'm calling you from my computer?"

Banking consultant Allen Cohen spends most of his time, on the telephone. He says his telephone bills were sky-high - until he found voice over internet protocol - VOIP. He says it has several advantages, over land-line phones. "It's got lots of neat features in terms of being able to forward my calls to my cell phone, to my computer call, so I never miss important calls."

To use VOIP, you need a computer and a high-speed internet connection. You make and receive calls using any home phone.  The people you call, and those who call you, don't need any special equipment, and, generally, won't be able to tell the difference.

Brian Clark, Tech Enthusiasts Network: "Voice over IP, or internet protocol, is just a way, another way to communicate that basically uses the internet instead of regular phone lines. So you can communicate via your high speed or broadband services."

For a flat fee, VOIP allows you to make unlimited local and long distance phone calls. Overseas calls cost more, but not as much as by cell or land-line. A full service package includes caller ID, voice mail, call waiting and other features.  It ranges in cost - but tops out at 40 dollars a month - in addition to what you pay for broadband. Wherever you may be, your VOIP number is, too... It's as simple as plugging in. You even get to choose your area code. You can be in St. Louis, with a Beverly Hills number.

So, what's not to love about VOIP?  For one thing, if your internet service goes down, so does your phone service. Same thing if you lose power to your home. Also, some services don't work well with 9-1-1 calls. And, in this highly competitive, unregulated young industry, there's no guarantee your provider will keep providing. Consumer Reports recommends keeping a basic land-line connection, until VOIP works all the bugs out - so that takes away some of that cost benefit. But for those like Cohen, the downsides are worth it. "As a consumer, I'm empowered."