Jonathan Takiff: Get the 4-1-1 on free & nearly free phone & Web systems

Ooma connects to your Internet modem/router.
Ooma connects to your Internet modem/router.
Posted: April 20, 2011

THE GIZMO: Cutting communications bills with the Ooma Telo and the C.Crane Super USB Wi-Fi Antenna.

SLASH 'N' BURN: Are phone and Internet bills getting you down? Today we're looking at two great gadgets that can cut your monthly costs. How does "free" or "nearly free" sound?

THE BEST HOME PHONE ALTERNATIVE: Lots of folks use the Internet to make calls without realizing it, having signed up for phone service from a cable/Internet service provider such as Comcast or Verizon FiOS.

Those Vonage, Magic Jack and Skype calling systems also jump on your Internet linkup, though. Users often find the signal quality inferior and the call-making process inconvenient.

A couple of years ago, I tried out a few Internet phone systems and found Ooma to be the best. Now, with the second-generation Ooma Telo system featuring sleeker cosmetics and newly upgraded software, there's even more to recommend. I'm contemplating cutting the cord from my old-school landline and using Ooma as my home phone system. Here's why.

WHAT A DEAL: The cost of an Ooma Telo base station - $229 from www.ooma.com - pays for itself in just a few months if you're simultaneously subtracting a monthly house phone bill. Ooma connects to your Internet modem/router, so you need a DSL or better broadband service. But Ooma then makes and receives FREE calls to anyone in the U.S. who's on a landline, mobile or Internet phone. All you pay Ooma are monthly access taxes of $2 to $4. When first registering your Ooma, you decide which area code you want for the new phone number you'll get. Or you can "port over" your current phone number to the Ooma.

Call landline phones in locales from Canada to China from an Ooma system for less than 3 cents a minute. Calls to foreign-based mobile phones are pricier. It cost me 33 cents a minute to schmooze last week with the Lagos, Nigeria-based musician Femi Kuti. Still, not too shabby.

Oh, and if you have friends and family abroad, as I do, you can ship them an Ooma setup with a U.S. phone number and billing address, then talk with them for free. (More on that below.)

EASY INSTALL: Ooma offers lots of connection options. The base station can work with up to four cordless Ooma Telo Handsets ($50 each) that operate in the DECT 6.0 frequency mode and hold a strong signal 100 feet away from the base.

When calling another Ooma owner who also has a Telo Handset, there's some extra magic going on that makes for super-crisp, high-definition reception. I've been trying this out with my brother-in-law Doug, who recently joined the foreign service and was sent to Paris (yeah, tough break). Talking Telo to Telo, the voice clarity is so good it feels like we're just a few blocks away from each other. And again, that call is free.

If you already have a cordless phone system in place, you don't need to buy more stuff. Just plug your cordless base unit into the Ooma base and you'll be good to go. I tried that with both V-Tech and Panasonic DECT 6.0 phones and found the sound quality still quite good, with plenty of human warmth, tone and presence.

If you're willing to give up your landline and disconnect your house wiring from the phone company's junction box, you can plug the Ooma into any wall jack, then make and receive calls on any wired phones plugged in elsewhere in the house. Like the phone that's still hanging off the wall in the kitchen.

That one-time equipment purchase also delivers Ooma features like Caller ID and ID Blocking, call waiting, call hold, 9-1-1 emergency calling and a bunch of voice mail features, including remote and online retrieval.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE: Ooma comes with a risk-free, 30-day, money-back guarantee. Plus, there's a "free 60-day trial" of Ooma Premier, which thereafter costs a mere $10 a month.

Most Ooma users gladly pay it. Premier gives you a second phone number for stand-alone or conference call use. You can attach it to a different area code - to have, say, an East Coast and West Coast presence. Sign up for a year of Premier and the $40 fee to port over your old phone number is waived.

And for a one-time $30 fee, a Premier-ster can buy a special Bluetooth dongle to plug into the Ooma Telo base, then pick up calls sent to your mobile phone on any Ooma-connected handset.

What a deal!

FREE WI-FI? The packaging for the C.Crane Super USB WiFi Antenna 3 ($109.95 from www.ccrane.

com) shows a hiker in the middle of nowhere, communicating on his laptop. This magical, wandlike antenna plugs into a USB port (or better, two) on a computer and then extends reception and use of un-encrypted Wi-fi hot spots "up to a mile" away if you're out in the open. I tried the signal booster indoors in a high-density urban setting, using supplied suction cups to attach the Super Antenna to a window. I also tried it outside in a neighborhood park with Velcro straps (also supplied) to hang the device to a tree branch. With just its internal antenna, my Sony Vaio laptop found at most 11 Wi-fi addresses, all encrypted. With the booster antenna connected, I could now "see" as many as 20 addresses - including one named, I swear, FBI Surveillance Van.

Oh, and among the latter bunch were two that were unencrypted, allowing me to surf gratis on their service. I'm not saying you should do this. Just saying, now you can.

Send email to takiffj@phillynews.com.

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