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Cut the cord to trim phone costs

For the tech savvy, a home phone line seems almost quaint because so many of them use mobile phones for calling. But you don't have to be a techie -- or even a cell phone owner -- to benefit from cutting the cord to your traditional phone line.

More people are not only using wireless phones but using their home computers as telephones. After years of modest growth, online phone calling has taken off. Some 24 percent of online Americans say they have placed calls using the Internet, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

One of the main reasons is that those services are free or cheaper than traditional phone service.

Here are the major alternatives to traditional phone service at home. Switching could save you money by allowing you to cancel your landline.

*Cable company. If you want cheaper, high-quality, low-hassle phone service, look no further than the local cable TV company. It will almost surely offer a TV-Internet-phone bundle that could save you money over paying separately for phone service.

And the call quality is likely to be very good, said Andy Abramson, author of the telecom blog VoIP Watch. "The customer will not notice a difference, except for the cost savings," he said.

Call quality is good because the same company is providing and managing your Internet and phone service. "A service provider like Comcast will manage your call end to end," Abramson said.

Service from the cable company is likely to include free long distance to U.S. numbers and many of the features that were traditionally add-ons, such as call waiting, caller ID and voicemail.

While getting phone service from a cable company might be relatively easy, it will probably save you the least money over traditional phone service, especially if it's not part of a bundle with TV and Internet access.

*Wireless phones. Another simple alternative to home phone service is using the wireless phone service you already have. There are considerations, though. One is potentially needing more minutes on your wireless plan to accommodate the time you would have spent on the landline phone.

Reception around your home is another problem some people have. Before cutting the cord, make sure you get reception in all parts of your home where you want to talk. For families, realize you'll force friends and relatives to call a particular person's mobile number, rather than a general household number.

*Femtocell. This isn't a phone service in itself. It's a way to make cell phones work better in the house. Appearing similar to a wireless router, a femtocell device acts as a miniature cell phone tower in your home. It plugs into your Internet router and uses your broadband Internet connection to place and receive calls.

AT&T calls it a 3G MicroCell, Verizon calls it a network extender, and Sprint calls it an Airave. You pay your wireless provider for the device, which can cost more than $200. Or in some cases, your cell carrier will give you a femtocell device for free if you're in a lousy reception area.

In its basic form, there's no subscription fee, but you use up your cell minutes just as if you were on a regular wireless call.

*Ooma. The Ooma Telo device also uses your broadband Internet connection to place and receive calls. It plugs into your Internet router and your phone. Ooma's attractive selling point is you pay once for the device -- about $200 -- and never pay for phone service again.

Well, kind of. You'll have to pay some taxes and fees, which in many areas amounts to $3.47 per month. You can plug in your ZIP code to the Ooma website to determine your monthly cost.

Consumer Reports' most recent reader score for Ooma service was the highest for any phone service, including such landline services as Verizon, AT&T and Qwest. Similar services, such as Vonage and Broadvoice, work the same way but charge a monthly payment that also is likely to be lower than a traditional phone bill.

*Computer-based Internet calling. MagicJack, $39.95, is a small device that plugs into your computer's USB port. You plug in a regular phone line to its other end. You can make unlimited calls, including long-distance in the United States.

Renewing the service in subsequent years costs $19.95 per year. Other calling services typically don't use a telephone but instead require a computer with a microphone and speaker, features that are built in to most late-model laptops.

Skype, the service known for computer video chatting recently bought by Microsoft, offers ways to call regular telephones, both landline and mobile for 2.3 cents per minute, or lower with a subscription. Receiving calls requires you to buy an "online" phone number. It costs extra, $18 for three months, or less with other price options.

With a Google Voice or Gmail account, you can place calls for free -- at least, through 2011 -- by entering a phone number on the computer screen. It will first ring your real phone, whatever landline or mobile phone you choose. When you answer, it then connects the call to your destination phone number. It starts ringing, and you proceed normally with the call.

To receive calls, you can get a phone number for free and set your Google Voice account to ring a real phone -- or more than one -- whenever anybody dials that phone number.

Internet-based phone services typically offer very low rates for international calling.

Keep in mind that the quality of phone services that piggyback on your Internet connection can vary with the quality of that connection -- the faster and more consistent the connection, the better the call quality. And most computer-tethered services require your computer to be turned on to make and receive calls.

Before switching to any alternative provider, be sure to know the drawbacks.

For example, some services won't connect to 911 for emergencies, and some won't work during power outages because they rely on your Internet connection, which requires power. If you use a traditional fax machine or have a home alarm system, make sure each will work with whichever system you switch to.

If you can overcome those drawbacks, however, you can almost surely find an option that's both more affordable than traditional phone service and a good fit for your calling habits.