Internet services are dominated by cable providers, and digital voice service can be run over the same wires. Thus, cable companies can offer attractive bundles of TV, Internet and phone service. Without these bundled rates and other special promotions, Cable VoIP (*Est. $12 to $60 per month, depending on package) can be the most expensive option. A full-featured, Internet-based VoIP service such as Vonage (*Est. $10 to $25 per month) might save money. In addition to lower basic rates, Vonage includes features like voice mail that usually cost extra with cable VoIP.
However, cable phone services consistently get better reviews for call quality than Internet-based VoIP providers. Cable providers say this is because they can route phone calls over their own broadband networks rather than public connections. Another advantage is that professional technicians install cable VoIP. And cable VoIP often has battery backup built in -- important for 911 calls when the electricity is out.
Five cable VoIP providers earn recommendations in different reviews: Bright House Networks, Cablevision/Optimum Voice, Comcast, Wide Open West (Wow!) and, most often, Cox Communications. However, users say that a company that provides excellent service in one part of the country could rate much lower in another area. It's a good idea to check with neighbors and take a look at user-written reviews of your local cable company before signing on.
For example, a March 2009 review in PC World recommends Comcast. However, Comcast ranks near the bottom in another comparison review, outranked by Wow!, Cox, Bright House and Cablevision. Nor does Comcast earn any of the top spots in the 2011 J.D. Power and Associates survey of over 20,000 telephone customers.
No one company earns top ranking for all areas of the country in the latest J.D Power survey. In the West, for eight years users have given top marks to Cox Communications, which also wins this year's first place rating in the East. Bright House Networks earns top ranking in the South, while in the North Central region, Wow! cable is the winner. Cablevision also earns the Readers' Choice award in PCMag.com's 2010 service and reliability survey.
Obviously, your choice is limited by where you live and which cable companies are available to you. But in general, cable VoIP is usually best for call quality.
The most established VoIP provider, Vonage (*Est. $10 to $25 per month), is still one of experts' top VoIP recommendations. However, its market share has been eroded by cable VoIP. Vonage doesn't lack Internet-based challengers, either. Of these, Ooma (*Est. $200) earns even more recommendations in reviews than Vonage.
Both Vonage and Ooma get good marks in reviews for decent call quality and reliability. The big difference is in how you pay. Vonage is a subscription service: You get a free adapter that plugs your phone into your Internet connection, and then you pay a monthly fee for access. With Ooma, you buy the adapter, and then U.S. calls are free (except for taxes and fees -- about $3.50 a month).
Dollar for dollar, Ooma is the better deal, reviewers say. The risk is that you could lose your investment in the Ooma system if the company suddenly shuts down. It takes only about seven months, however, for Ooma to pay for itself compared to a comparable Vonage plan. After that, every free month is a net gain.
Ooma has replaced its original hardware options -- the Ooma Hub and the Ooma Scout adaptor -- with the Ooma Telo (*Est. $200) and Ooma Telo handsets (*Est. $50). The Telo service earns a 4.5 -star average rating (out of 5) at Amazon.com from over 2,000 customer reviewers. The Ooma Telo promises better call quality for people with poor Internet connections.
The free Ooma plan includes basic features like voice mail, caller ID and call waiting, and supports 911 service. The extra-cost features with Premier memberships (*Est. $10 per month) include voice mail transcription and the ability to forward your calls from your cell phone (with an extra $30 Bluetooth chip) and Google Voice to the Telo. If you subscribe to the Premier services package, you need to purchase an Ooma Telo handset to fully access all the features. Each Telo supports up to four handsets so you can spread them throughout your house. If you don't need extensions or the Premier package, you can use your own cordless phone.
Even without the Premier plan, you get email notifications of new voice mail messages, but you'll need to buy a Premier subscription if you want some of the features that come standard with Vonage, such as three-way calling and voice mail forwarding. Transferring your existing phone number -- free with some VoIP providers -- is a $40 option with Ooma. Ooma also has a mobile app.
The Associated Press's Peter Svensson, who has used the original Ooma, experiences buzzing in the background when he tests the Telo handsets and recommends steering clear of them. However, reviewers at The New York Times and SpotCoolStuff.com both praise the call quality of the Ooma, saying that it's on par with that of Vonage. In agreement is Rick Broida at CNET, who reports better call quality with Ooma Telo than with Vonage, and he and the San Francisco Chronicle's David Einstein both recommend Ooma over Vonage.
"The main advantage of Vonage is free international calling, but Ooma offers that for just pennies a minute," Einstein says. "So if you plan to make Internet phone service permanent, and you don't have a gabby relative in Belgium, Ooma has the edge." For international calls, Ooma charges $10 per month for 1,000 minutes to 70 countries (rates for other countries vary). With Vonage, the $25 monthly World plan includes unlimited calls to landline phones in more than 60 countries.
Another Vonage advantage is its virtual phone numbers option, with a monthly fee and a one-time activation fee for each number. This means you can add phone numbers with area codes that are local to the people who call you most -- all of which will ring on the same line. Vonage lets you add as many of these virtual phone numbers as you like. In addition, Vonage maintains a network of local access numbers someone can use to make calls to you without incurring a long-distance charge.
Overall, reviewers say Vonage is the most full-featured VoIP provider, with many free and add-on features. For example, you can adjust the bandwidth to use Vonage with a slower broadband connection. You can add a fax line for an additional $10 per month, plus a $10 activation fee.
Stepping up from the World plan to the World Plus 1000 (*Est. $55 per month) adds 1000 premium minutes to landlines in over 15 additional countries and to mobile phones in an additional 30 countries. Vonage offers a more basic 750-minute plan (*Est. $20 per month) and 300-minute plan (*Est. $12 per month) that include calls within the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada. The unlimited plan for calling these countries is $25 per month. Note that, as with all VoIP plans, monthly fees and taxes will be added; a calculator on the Vonage site shows a range of about $7 to $13 per month for these.
An alternative to Vonage, Phone Power (*Est. $15 and up per month) earns a Gold award at DSLReports.com, based on accumulated user-written reviews and ratings. It's also a favorite at TopTenReviews.com and NextAdvisor.com, but none of our more prominent expert sources reviews the service. Phone Power gets very mixed reviews from about 50 users at Amazon.com. When it works, customers love it -- but 1-star reviewers say the service simply conks out. Like Vonage, Phone Power doesn't require a yearly contract, but it offers discounts if you sign up for a year (*Est. $17 per month) or two (*Est. $15 per month).
Plans include unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada, standard features like voice mail, call waiting and caller ID, plus unique features such as a free cloned second line (enabling two users to make calls at the same time). International long-distance rates vary, but each plan includes 60 minutes of free international calls per month to selected countries. Beyond this limit, calls to U.K. landlines cost less than 1 cent per minute, while calls to Mexico are about 4 cents per minute. (Calls to cell phones overseas cost more.)
The magicJack (*Est. $49) has attracted a lot of attention for its unique phone jack that plugs into any computer with a USB port. A year of VoIP service is bundled with the magicJack device; calls are free to the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. When that first year of service runs out, you pay only about $20 per year for unlimited calls to those same regions. (International rates, however, are much higher than Skype's.)
Initial reviews were very positive; magicJack even earned the 2008 Editors' Choice award at PCMag.com. However, a follow-up review in the February 2009 issue effectively cancels this distinction -- noting that hundreds of users have complained about poor technical support, plus the inability to uninstall magicJack without editing their computer's registry -- something most experts say is best left only to those with a high degree of technical know-how. After the Florida Attorney General investigated allegations that magicJack offered customers a "free trial" but actually charged them for it, magicJack agreed to beef up its customer service.
Like other software VoIP services, magicJack requires that your computer be turned on to make and receive calls -- so it's only a supplement to a landline or cell phone. A new product, the magicJack Plus (*Est. $70) addresses this problem by including a computer processor in the adapter. You simply plug any phone into the magicJack adapter, which you then plug into the wall through a supplied AC adapter.