Next Tel

The days of old-fashioned phones are numbered. People, it's time to VoIP.

Q. My mailbox is absolutely flooded with postcards from Time Warner, trying to sell me on this newfangled digital phone service. Sounds like a good deal, actually—pitch says $39.95 for unlimited local and domestic long-distance. Worth taking the plunge?

A.Compared to sticking with plain ol' Verizon or another copper-wire provider, yeah, it's a bargain. If saving loot's your top priority, however, there are cheaper ways to go about joining the ranks of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) users. Not necessarily simpler if you're in a multi-phone household, but definitely cheaper.

Time Warner's service, which the company's hawking like mad at twcdigitalphone.com, is available only in select New York neighborhoods right now, but should reach all 1.4 million customers by next summer. Cablevision, meanwhile, is offering the comparable Optimum Voice. Both work in the typical VoIP fashion, by chopping up your voice into tiny data packets, then shunting them through the same cables that bring you such visual delights as TBS's umpteenth repeat of Mr. Destiny.

The direct-mail card may trumpet that $40-per-month price, but that's only if you also sign on for Time Warner's TV and Internet services, which can push your monthly tab upwards of $150. As a stand-alone, digital phone goes for $50 a month, or about $10 cheaper than Verizon's unlimited plan.

In Time Warner's favor, the taxes on digital phones are markedly lower. Mr. Roboto used to subscribe to Talk America (talk.com), which offers a $49.95-per-month unlimited package. But taxes pushed the bill to over $70 without fail; with VoIP services, by contrast, taxes'll only add a few bucks, since cables aren't levied as heavily as copper wire. Not yet, anyway.

So making the switch to VoIP is where it's at for penny-pinchers, no doubt. But Time Warner's is actually one of the more expensive digital options out there, at least for folks who already have—or are willing to get—DSL or a cable modem. For pure cost-saving, you're better off with a dedicated VoIP provider like Vonage (vonage.com) or Lingo (lingo.com); the latter's unlimited package now costs a measly $20 a month, and the first month's free. Throws in free voice mail too, while Time Warner charges extra.

You'll need to install the hardware yourself with Vonage and Lingo, but don't fret—it's no more complicated than jacking an Ethernet cable into a wireless router. Mr. Roboto has previously warned about voice quality with these services, but that issue seems to have resolved itself over the past 12 months. So, too, have all the customer-service quirks—it's now no sweat transferring your current phone number to a VoIP provider. Takes 15 to 20 business days, but not many flubs.

The do-it-yourself nature of Vonage and Lingo installation does mean it's harder to connect multiple phone lines in spread-out rooms. Time Warner will send out a techie to ensure that every line is hooked up with digital. That may not be a priority if you're living in a smallish Manhattan apartment, where one phone is the norm. But for house dwellers, well, you gotta take it into consideration.

The bottom line is that any sort of VoIP setup will save you money over even the "budget" copper-wire folks, and the technology's ready for prime time. You're gonna be talking through cables sooner or later, mein freund. Might as well hop on the bandwagon now.


Sync your iPod

Mr. Roboto's taken to reading story notes on his iPod. But how, pray tell, does your humble narrator get those notes on the gadget in the first place? Simple, man—the PocketMac iPod Edition. The $23.41 software lets you sync both Windows and Mac machines with your iPod, including Outlook e-mail. Try the demo at pocketmac.net.


bkoerner@villagevoice.com

 
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