CNET to the Rescue: New tech for old phones

The home phone is not dead, at least not yet. We discuss VOIP and other technologies that make fixed phones more useful, and save you money. With Maggie Reardon of CNET News. Bonus: Road tests!

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
6 min read

Today, we're going to spend some time on a topic that doesn't get much coverage but that affects pretty much all of us: Our home phones. You can just get phone service from your local telco and buy a phone from the local Best Buy without giving it much thought, but there really are a lot of interesting and cost-saving options for consumers, and we're going to talk about them today. We have a special guest to help out, as well: CNET News senior writer Maggie Reardon, dialing in today via phone alternative Skype, from New York.

If you have a tech question for CNET to the Rescue, call us with your questions to get on the next show: 877-438-6688. No question is too basic, so if you've got a tech problem that's been getting under your skin, please call us and we'll try our best to help you out. The next Rescue after this will will air January 12, so if you have a critical problem, ask a 14-year-old geek, and then drop a line to let us know what your problem was and how it was fixed.

If you have a tech question for CNET to the Rescue, e-mail rescue@cnet.com or call us to get on the next show: 877-438-6688. No question is too basic.

Watch this: CNET to the Rescue: New tech for old phones

Episode 29: New tech for old phones

First, a road test

The Google Cr-48:

  • Instant
  • Great for google, web
  • Not fun like iPad
  • no good for games, vids
  • Great competitor to Windows netbooks

Phone tech

This show is based in part on this email question from Videodred: I don't want to pay Maw-Bell no more. I am not talking about cellular coverage expensive boosters are out of the question. I listened to the podcast about cutting the cord, but nothing was mentioned about phone systems. I would be interested in ya'll thoughts about Skype vs VOIP vs Magic Jack. What is the best way to use skype and google voice to simulate a landline when I have poor cellular signal indoors.

Maggie, What's the simplest way, and the most ma-bell-like, to replace home phone service?




Comcast VOIP (also Verizon FIOS, uVerse, etc.).

What about emergency calls?

How about Skype?


Another road test here by Rafe: I was using PhonePower on a second line at home. It's really cheap and it's reliable, but I found voice quality and lag very poor. When I kvetched about this publicly before, the CEO contacted me to do some troubleshooting, and advised me that my setup had the PhonePower box on the wrong side of my router. So that's one of the things you have to think about with a VoIP system.

Let's talk about Google Voice--how can it help to improve landline system or lower phone rates? Other similar services, like Voxox?

Finally, one more road test. We've talked in previous shows about using cellular boosters in your house to make a mobile phone work even if you have poor in-home coverage. There's another solution that I've been using recently that leverages the fact that in many houses, you might have poor cell coverage everywhere, but it might be good somewhere. In my house, my office is upstairs and cell coverage is good. Downstairs, no so much. So I recently bought a Panasonic KX TG6582 cordless phone. It's your standard cordless landline phone except it also acts as a cordless handset system for your mobile phone, over Bluetooth. So I park my iPhone next to the base, and then I can pick up and make cell calls from anywhere. It really works, and I like it a lot.

Your questions answered

Mike in Toronto: How does so-called Wi-Fi triangulation work to obtain geo-location data? From what I can tell, there is no "triangulation" involved, and the lat/lon info must be being "injected" by the ISP. In fact, even if it were "triangulating", the access point(s) would still need to know their own locations. The reason I say this is because at home, there is only one Wi-Fi signal available (mine) and none others even remotely in range. Yet all of my non-GPS enabled devices (ie. laptops, iPod Touch etc.) show me dead on top of my house. I've checked my router (D-Link DIR-655) and there's no setting I can find that has turned on any kind of location awareness.

Is there some sort of "master table" linking IP addresses to lat/lon coordinates that services like Google Maps refer to? If so, that means that my ISP is publicly announcing my precise location (kinda creepy). I'm not sure this is the case, because I still show my actual precise location even when using a VPN that comes out on the public internet hundreds of miles away.

Rafe: Mike, here's the thing: Your router doesn't know where it is. But Google does, Apple might, and a company called SkyHook Wireless exists solely to know where you are. The way Wi-Fi location works is that companies like these drive around in GPS-equipped cars, recording Wi-Fi signatures from routers along with the GPS coordinates they are recording. That's how they know where you are. If you want to test this, move your router to another spot where it's the only one around. It'll still show you at your old location--until the cars drive by and re-locate you.


John Haller: I am confused. I am 66, traveling in an RV from Montana to Florida, staying in RV parks, some with Wi-Fi, some not. I have a MacBook, an iPad with Wi-Fi, and an iPhone 3GS. I am on a Cellular One with a data and voice plan since AT&T doesn't have service at my home. Question: When I am on Wi-Fi, are phone calls still just phone calls or data because I am on Wi-Fi. And when roaming, are they still phone calls? Is the voice plan I have superfluous, and am I charged for each call?

Should I just turn off the phone part (put it into airplane mode) and get another phone with Verizon which is pretty much nationwide, and save money on phone calls because I'd be back on a plan? I was just contacted (this morning) by Cellular One and they advised me that my data roaming was up to $700.00 and not finalized. Data roaming has no allowance apparently and there is not data roaming plan available. Phone does have 450 minutes allowance nationwide.

Rafe: Data and voice are separate and different. On a modern mobile phone, all voice calls are charges as minutes. Data is a different deal and is charged by the amount of data. You need a nationwide plan! What I would recommend for you for voice is a phone on a better service, perhaps Verizon. If you want a smartphone, get an Android device. Then it won't matter what state you are in. Or, get a good simple Verizon phone for calling and get an iPod touch for apps and WiFi access. That won't bite you on the roaming front.


Bill Morgan: How can I make Vista start up faster and shut down faster?

Get Windows 7


RobbieR: During episode 28 the use of a registry cleaning program was discussed as a help in tweaking computers. I am very confused on this subject as I hear conflicting views from credible sources, some condemning the use of registry cleaners as unnecessary and possibly dangerous and others recommending specific programs as beneficial. Can you shed some light on this issue? And thank you for this show, I always learn from it.

Rafe: Yes, you can do real damage with a bad registry cleaner, and in theory should never use one. But in the real world, what this show is about, things aren't so clean. I'll tell you now that CCleaner can help. Just don't go overboard on other cleaners.