Friday, November 21, 2008

Home Internet Phone Service Made Easy

Internet phone service is like bathroom tissue. There are dozens of brands and few significant differences between them. Beneath all the marketing fuss, the product is very simple and easy. Installing Internet phone service for ordinary home use is no scarier than installing bathroom tissue, as you are about to learn.

Here's a short list of what you need:

  • Internet access service that is always "on" and moves data fast and smoothly. That means DSL or cable Internet in most cases. Dial-up, satellite or other wireless Internet service isn't fast enough to provide high enough quality phone calls. Whether you get cable or DSL Internet, it will come with a box called a "modem" to which all devices that use the Internet connect.
  • An Analog Telephony Adapter (ATA or just "adapter"). This is a box that translates telephone electrical signals into Internet signals and vice versa. An ATA needs an electrical outlet for its power supply. Your phone plugs into the ATA instead of a wall jack, and the ATA plugs into the Internet modem. Fancier boxes do more things for people who want multiple phones, computers, fax machines, etc.; we will discuss them later in this article.
  • Any telephone that can make touch-tone beeps, corded or cordless. It doesn't need an answering machine because voicemail is included with Internet phone service. Caller ID, speed dialing, and other amenities are optional.
  • An Internet phone service company. It does the same things a traditional phone company does, only cheaper.

Notice what's missing. You don't need a computer to use Internet phone service any more than you need a washing machine to use bathroom tissue.

Cable and phone companies will do everything for you. Just call and say you want Internet phone service. But you will pay for such convenience with installation charges, higher prices for equipment, and higher monthly fees in the future. It takes only a little effort to save a lot of money.

In most areas, one company provides cable TV and cable Internet. But every phone company, by law, must allow other companies to offer DSL over its phone lines. You may find a bargain among such third-party DSL providers. They're in the phone book under "Internet Service Providers".

The Internet service provider you choose will rent or sell modems, often for too much money. A used modem costs 10 to 50 percent of a new one's price. Ask your Internet service provider what technical standard the modem you plan to buy must meet. The usual answers are "DOCSIS 2" and "asymmetric" for cable and DSL, respectively. Motorola, D-Link, and Linksys are reliable, widely available cable modem brands. In theory, if the modem meets these standards, it should function on any provider's network.

If only buying an ATA was that easy! You know how a cell phone company will give you a great deal on a phone that works only with its service? Likewise, Internet phone service providers pay manufacturers to "lock" ATAs into their specific services. On the bright side, an ATA is usually free if you sign up with an Internet phone service company directly via its Web site or toll-free number.

Don't buy a high-speed Internet connection kit in a retail store unless you like paying more than you must for what isn't what you want. You'll pay full price for an ATA that you could get for free, and sometimes more for second-rate phones and accessories that nobody can sell separately. Use your existing phone or buy one that fits your needs.

If you want multiple phones in different rooms, you can get an ATA with multiple phone jacks and run wires along baseboards. But a cordless phone or a cordless system that supports multiple handsets is easier. The main base station plugs into the ATA, and cordless handsets communicate through the base station via radio waves. Vtech, Panasonic, and Siemens make excellent cordless phones and multi-phone systems.

One caution about cordless phones and wireless home networks: make sure they operate on different radio frequencies to avoid interference. If you have a 2.4 Ghz phone, get a 5.8 Ghz wireless network, and vice versa. The latest cordless phone standard, called DECT, does not interfere with either 2.4 or 5.8 Ghz wireless networks.

You can even use your home's built-in phone wiring for your Internet phone system by disconnecting your home from the regular phone company's line, a simple chore that must be done very carefully. The phone company's line carries low-voltage electricity so phones will work during power outages. If the line is not disconnected properly, it can fry your Internet phone equipment. Basically, you will unscrew two wires, tape their ends to prevent short circuits, then test every wall jack to make sure it's "dead" before connecting your Internet phone service to the home wiring.

Once you're unhooked from the phone company, plug your ATA into any wall jack, plug the ATA into the Internet modem, and presto! Every wall jack in your home now provides Internet phone service instead of old-fashioned phone service. You can always re-connect to the old phone company.

If you want to use a personal computer (PC) with the Internet and Internet phone service, you will need a "router" as well as an ATA. Whenever you have two or more devices sharing an Internet connection, you have a home network. The router is your network's receptionist, directing incoming phone calls, email, Web pages, etc., to the ATA or the PC where they belong. Also like a receptionist, the router accepts outgoing mail and packages from the ATA and PC and ships them to their destinations, such as someone's email address or telephone. Finally, the receptionist/router can tell unwanted visitors - like hackers who want to break into your PC or ATA - "there's no one here, go away".

If you don't have a router already, you may as well get one box that contains a router and an ATA to save space. Such combination router-ATA boxes are available wherever ATAs are sold. If you already have a router, it should be "out front" just like a receptionist. Plug the PC and the ATA into the Ethernet jacks on the router, and plug the router's "WAN" port into the Internet modem's Ethernet jack.

Sometimes the quality of Internet phone calls can be improved by plugging the ATA directly into the modem and the router into the ATA's Ethernet jack. But then you have a phone sitting beyond your receptionist's sight, where any passerby can use it. It's unlikely that some Internet bad guy will find and use your Internet phone, but it's more likely when the ATA is plugged directly into the modem.

The calling features and pricing plans of many Internet service providers can be compared at Their features are all pretty much the same. Prices take a little more study.

Here are two things that many shoppers overlook and later wish they hadn't:

Is "Anonymous Call Rejection" (ACR) included? This feature tells callers who have blocked their caller ID information that you do not accept calls from folks who refuse to give you the number from which they are calling. ACR is useful protection against telemarketers and other annoying/harassing callers. You want it. Vonage is one Internet phone service provider that does not offer ACR.

"Free" always has a catch. Most Internet phone service providers provide ATAs free to new customers. But most also charge a cancellation fee if you close your account within a year - or two years, in Vonage's case. Coincidentally, the cancellation fee is often equal to the retail cost of an ATA. Be sure to ask about cancellation fees before signing up with anyone.

You deserve to get the most out of your services, whether it's high-speed Internet, phone, cable, or HDTV. Digital Landing is here to help, making it easy to find out everything you need to know about digital services for your home.

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