By Joseph Moran
More times than I can count over the past several weeks, I’ve found myself watching — or at least forwarding through — a television commercial by the Internet service provider NetZero. The ad targets those with broadband Internet connections, exhorting them to save money by switching to NetZero’s dial-up service for $9.95 a month. The ad says that by doing so one can save “up to $300 a year.”
Given today’s gloomy economy, many of us are trying to conserve cash by cutting back on nonessential expenses. Even so, I find NetZero’s attempt to switch broadband customers over to dial up somewhat surprising — it’s probably a testament to how bad things have become because this type of marketing strategy would have been unthinkable even six months ago.
NetZero is claiming savings of $25 a month, so it’s assuming $35 as the monthly cost of broadband access. That’s probably right around the average price of a DSL or cable modem account these days so I don’t quibble with the math. But does ditching broadband for dial-up make sense?
Unless you have a single PC and rarely, if ever, use your Internet connection, I’d say no. Aside from the fact that dial-up is anywhere from five to 100 times slower than a broadband connection, it also tethers your computer to a phone jack. And although you can rig a PC to share a dial-up connection over a wired or wireless network, doing so can be a pain and it’s ultimately pointless given the poor performance.
While I certainly don’t mean to equate the expense of broadband Internet access with things like food, rent or health insurance, I’d venture that for most people, giving up a speedy and convenient Internet connection isn’t worth the modest savings. After all, Internet access can be invaluable if you’re a student or looking for a job. In these and other cases, a fast, hassle-free connection enables you to get more done in less time.
Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
Broadband customers (those with cable modems in particular), may have another way to reduce monthly technology expenses — eliminating conventional landline home phone service and switching over to a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service.
Things are trickier for DSL customers since DSL is delivered via a phone line, although some providers (albeit not many) offer so-called “naked DSL,” which is a DSL connection without the landline phone service included.
Switching to VoIP, which routes calls over your broadband Internet connection, can easily save you anywhere from $20 to $40 a month (and sometimes more) over conventional phone service. Moreover, in almost all cases you can continue to use the phones you already have and transfer or “port” an existing phone number over to VoIP phone service, so the transition isn’t a major hassle.
A few things to consider before switching to VoIP phone service.
A solid broadband connection is the foundation of any VoIP service, so first and foremost consider your broadband ISP’s connection reliability before signing up. If your connection suffers from frequent performance problems or service outages, it will likely negatively affect phone availability or the quality of your calls.
VoIP service requires special hardware to connect a standard phone to your Internet connection, and that hardware can vary depending on where you get your VoIP service from. If you get VoIP service from your cable company, it will typically provide you with a special cable modem that has VoIP capability and built-in phone jacks.
When obtaining VoIP service from an independent provider, you’ll usually receive either a stand-alone adapter box that plugs into your existing cable modem or router, or a wireless router with a built-in adapter you’re required to use in lieu of your existing one.
The latter scenario may be a problem if you already have a high-end router with 802.11n or other advanced features you’ve become accustomed to because most VoIP-enabled routers are decidedly basic. If so, you can usually preserve your existing wireless network by disabling the Wi-Fi feature of the VoIP router and reconfiguring your current router to act as an access point. However, you’ll need to reconfigure the new router
Regular phones are powered by current that comes from the wall phone jack. In contrast, VoIP adapters must be plugged into AC power outlets. So, while power failures don’t generally impact conventional phone lines, they can knock out VoIP service.
An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is one way to ameliorate this problem. You can connect your VoIP adapter (and phone, if applicable) to a UPS you already have, but an even better approach is to get a dedicated UPS for your VoIP hardware and phone. These devices don’t use nearly as much power as PCs or monitors, so even a relatively inexpensive battery backup can keep them up and running for an hour or more during a blackout. Some VoIP adapters/routers come with their own built-in batteries.
When you dial 911 from a regular phone line, the call gets routed to a local emergency service office and usually displays your address automatically to the operator. Calling 911 via a VoIP service doesn’t always work the same way. Check with VoIP providers to see what kind of 911 service they support.
Faxing and Alarms
Do you send or receive faxes from home? Some VoIP services let you plug fax devices like fax machines or fax modem equipped PCs to a VoIP adapter, but others don’t support faxing. If necessary, free Internet-based fax services like www.faxzero.com and drop.io/fax can be alternatives to conventional faxing.
Also, monitored alarms that make use of the phone line may or may not work with VoIP services, so contact your alarm company in advance to see what your options are.
For many, switching from conventional phone to VoIP service can provide equal or greater savings with fewer compromises than dropping a broadband Internet connection for dial-up access.
Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.