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Is it time to ditch your landline?

Tired of watching your phone bill soar as Telstra uses fixed-line rental increases to jack up its profits? Getting rid of your land line is now easier than ever. CNET.com.au weighs up the options.

Introduction
The VoIP factor
Finding your voice
Landline-free options
 
Girl on mobile

Tired of watching your phone bill soar as Telstra uses fixed-line rental increases to jack up its profits? Getting rid of your land line is now easier than ever. CNET.com.au weighs up the options.

As soon as he moved into his new apartment last year, Tom Glasson knew he didn't want to get a land line. "I have a mobile and use it for all my phone calls," says Glasson, a finance lawyer with Allans Arthur Robinson in Sydney and a TV script writer in his spare time. "It just came down to me needing Internet access, and I looked around and realised that there was going to be a better way in case I moved to another apartment."

Rather than investing in the rigmarole of connecting a fixed line and paying the AU$40-odd monthly rental, Glasson decided his Internet needs could be more than satisfied by a wireless broadband service from Unwired. Using Unwired's dedicated modem, he can get online anywhere he happens to be - whether at his apartment, at his office or even while visiting friends or family throughout Sydney.

With the mobile handling voice calls, he has no need for a fixed line at all. Glasson is one of a growing number of people who, disenchanted with the spiralling cost of fixed lines and more likely to use their mobiles for calls anyways, are doing away with a hundred years of history and ditching their landlines completely.

Until recently, this was a difficult luxury: although mobile phones have well and truly taken voice on the road, anybody wanting Internet access needed a fixed line, whether using slow dial-up connections or faster ADSL broadband, which cannot function without the local copper wiring connecting every home in Australia with its local telephone exchange.

A few years back, Unwired and arch-rival Personal Broadband Australia changed that by offering fixed wireless data services at speeds that approximate those of a healthy ADSL connection. They can't match the 20-megabit performance of newer ADSL2+ connections, but for the average user such connections offer more than enough speed for casual browsing (beginning next year, by the way, faster WiMAX wireless connections will boost wireless data speeds substantially).

Just because it's now technically possible to exist without your landline doesn't mean you should rush out and sign up, however; it's possible to pay more than the cost of a landline if you don't pick your services carefully. Take some time to consider available pricing plans and technologies, and you may find your best landline-free option can also be quite affordable as well.

Introduction
The VoIP factor
Finding your voice
Landline-free options
 
Guy on mobile

Finding your voice
If you're like most, the easiest way to go landline-free is to simply use your mobile for all your voice calls.

Assuming you choose this option, however, there are a few things to consider. Most obvious is the pricing plan you choose. For many of us, company-funded mobiles may have made voice a cheap exercise -- but using a company-owned mobile for your personal calls, particularly after hours, may incur the wrath of your expenses manager. Be prepared to cover subsidise your after-hours calls, or consider a separate mobile for home use if your corporate philosophy is inclined towards the frugal.

If you have an ABN, it's possible to get great business rates out of all mobile carriers: with standard plan rates around 10 cents per 30 seconds, calling on these plans doesn't have to be painful. Get a second phone for your partner, and you can use mobile calling perks to call each other for free: Optus, for one, provides free 20-minute calls; Telstra and Vodafone offer similar deals.

You can also nominate a fixed-line number to call anytime at 40 cents for up to 20 minutes. This is great for ringing your partner at work or -- if you're feeling really budget-minded -- nominate the number of a discounted phone card company as your office phone, then enjoy flat-rate national and international calls.

Since calls from your home tend to be longer than the quick did-you-get-my-email calls of a typical workday, such bonus plans can save a lot when you're using your mobile as a fixed line. Another increasingly popular trick is the capped mobile plan, which gives you a certain value of phone calls for a flat monthly fee.

Just be careful: the rates on capped plans usually aren't discounted, which means you'll eat through your prepaid value much faster than if you were on many post-paid accounts. Three's AU$49 cap, for example, gives you AU$230 worth of calls -- but you're going to pay a 25-cent flagfall, 30 cents per 30 seconds, 25 cents for each SMS and 15 cents per minute for voicemail retrieval; similar prices apply for Vodafone's capped plans. Look around, however, and you're likely to get a better call rate -- which is the most important factor when replacing your landline.

A good idea is to sit down with your last fixed-line phone bill and see who you call the most, how much you spend on those calls, when you do the bulk of your calling, and how much you're already paying. Compare this with the limits for capped plans, consider the value an ABN might add to your current situation, and be prepared to change operators to get the best plan for your needs.

There are other issues when ditching your landline phone for a mobile, however. Mobile batteries die after a few hours of talking, so if you're a chatterbox be sure you keep a spare battery -- or your charger -- close to hand.

Mobiles are designed for convenience, not comfort -- and this means that long conversations can be positively painful on your ears and arms. If you're anything more than a casual caller from home, you'll want to invest in a handsfree -- and make it a wired one, since Bluetooth handsfrees have their own finite battery life that can become a problem if you're on the phone a lot. You may also find value in a mobile with a good speakerphone function.

Introduction
The VoIP factor
Finding your voice
Landline-free options
 

The VoIP factor
Mobiles can replace your fixed line for voice calls but, as Glasson found, they can't replace your Internet connection as easily. That doesn't mean they're completely useless, however: many new mobiles can be used as modems for connecting via GPRS. Anything more than the briefest use of GPRS, however, and you'll be throwing your phone out the window out of frustration.

If you're heavy into data and live in an area with suitable coverage, a 3G service from Three, Telstra, Optus or Vodafone may provide a good compromise: most 3G phones can be hooked straight up to a computer to provide fast connections (around 384Kbps) to the Internet, although performance varies considerably.

Be careful if you take this option, however: data limits on many 3G plans can lead to big bills if you use them too much, and you will also be limited to the call pricing of those 3G plans. High latency and variable performance also makes them unsuitable for applications like online gaming -- something that may also cause problems if you elect to go with a dedicated Unwired or PBA option.

The idiosyncrasies of adding data to a mobile voice service have driven many people towards the opposite approach, adding voice on top of a serviceable wireless broadband connection. Pick up a voice over IP (VoIP) service from a company like MyTel, engin, Talkscape, or myriad others, and you can get a voice line just by plugging in your normal router into the wireless broadband modem (these services also work with fixed broadband services, but since these require ADSL -- and hence a fixed line -- we're focused on wireless here).

There are a few caveats to this approach, however. First, most providers will force you to use a new VoIP number, although this is changing as regulations around linking VoIP and conventional phone providers continue to improve. It shouldn't be long, however, before new legislation extends local number portability to VoIP services, something that will also become possible using ENUM technology currently in trial.

Another issue to consider: you'll need a VoIP access device, which will add AU$100 to AU$200 to your initial connection cost. Even then, however, you should break even against a fixed line within about four months. Many VoIP-capable devices also offer security, wireless LAN and other extremely useful features.

Finally, you need to consider your Internet usage patterns to make sure your data plan allows enough extra downloads per month to accommodate your phone usage. Look for a wireless broadband plan with as high a limit as you can get for the money you're willing to spend; Unwired's AU$39.95 plan, which provides 2GB of downloads per month with a decent connection speed, is the type of plan that should cover most people's voice calling and regular Internet downloads.

"To run a real-time, data hungry protocol like voice, you need to have the bandwidth," says Romain Bonjean, CEO of VoIP provider iVox, which is recruiting wholesale partners to push into the VoIP market with a range of small-business and residential services. "The evolution of [the land line] has been bottlenecked very efficiently by Telstra so they could sustain their revenue, and that bottleneck is happening at the last-mile level. Once that gets freed [by regulators] we're going to see the market growing massively."

Sign up for a VoIP provider, and you get your own local number and all the benefits of VoIP -- including 10-cent untimed nationwide calls, cheaper calls to mobiles, and cents-per-minute international rates -- without having to pay Telstra a cent. Furthermore, VoIP services typically forego the call connection charge of around 30 cents, which can quickly inflate your fixed or mobile bill.

Monthly VoIP service fees are a fraction of those for a land line: MyTel, for example, costs AU$9.50 per month or AU$5.95 with a AU$19 minimum spend commitment. Many providers are moving towards all-you-can-eat calling plans like those of Vonage in the US, which will further improve the appeal of VoIP.

Adopting VoIP also lets you use 'soft phone' applications that bring your land line onto your notebook or handheld PC, allowing you to bring your phone line with you even if you're travelling. Use a VoIP-aware router and you can even improve the quality to the point where you, and the people you're talking to, won't notice the difference.

Sydney-based technical writer Neil Roodyn took this approach when he returned from the UK last year. A frequent traveller, Roodyn and his partner invested in an engin VoIP service and Unwired wireless service. The net result: around AU$60 a month gets him a full-speed broadband connection, discounted phone calls and local number that he can use anywhere.

"This has cut out all the pain that we've previously had with Telstra," he says. "When we leave the country and come back in, we just plug in and have the number. Sometimes it's not as great as a land line, but it's a lot cheaper than getting a Telstra or Optus line in."

Introduction
The VoIP factor
Finding your voice
Landline-free options
 

Landline-free options
Add up your local phone line and ADSL service charges, and you're probably paying AU$70 or more per month for basic voice and data service - before you've even picked up the phone. Shopping around can slash this price, but be sure to consider a variety of options - including a better mobile plan - and factor in all of your telecommunications costs for a fair comparison.

Here are a few alternative services to consider:

Vendor Connection type Monthly access fee Call cost Telstra fixed line Fixed Approx. AU$35 Approx 20c / min STD
Approx 35c / min to mobiles
Approx 25 cents local calls
International: from approx 20c / min
Flagfall on all STD / mobile calls Personal Broadband Australia Wireless broadband AU$29.95 (200MB data)
AU$44.95 (500MB data)
AU$74.95 (1GB data)
Other plans also available N/A Unwired Wireless broadband AU$19.95 (200MB data)
AU$34.95 (600MB data)
AU$39.95 (2GB data)
Other plans also available N/A Three NetConnect Wireless broadband AU$29.00 (100MB data)
AU$69.00 (300MB)
AU$99.00 (600MB)
AU$129.00 (1GB) N/A MyTel VoIP AU$9.50 (home)
AU$5.95 (SOHO, AU$19 monthly commitment) 10 cents untimed local / STD
26c / min to mobiles
US/UK/CA: 2.9c / min
HK/SG/NZ/CN: 3.9c / min
Japan: 5.9c / min
No flagfall Engin VoIP AU$9.95
AU$20.00 (inc 100 local/STD calls, 23c / min to mobiles
AU$29.95 (inc 250 local / STD calls or AU$25 credit)
AU$50.00 (inc 450 local/STD calls, 20c / min to mobiles) 10 cents untimed local / STD
27c / min to mobiles (less on plan)
US/UK/CA: 3.5c / min
HK/SG/NZ/CN: 3.5c / min
No flagfall Talkscape VoIP From AU$89.95 12 cents untimed local call
9.9c / min STD
29.9c / min to mobiles
No flagfall