For roughly 100 years, there was only way to make a phone call: through a landline, a network of copper wires that physically linked homes all over the world. If you wanted a phone in your home, you had to tap into these wires, and you had to pay whatever the phone company was charging for the service.
Toward the end of the 20th century, that began to change. First, mobile phones became available to the public in the 1980s. Then, the first VoIP (short for voice over Internet protocol) services appeared in the 1990s. And by the late 2000s, analog telephone adapters (ATAs) such as magicJack made it possible to make VoIP calls over your home Internet connection without any need for a monthly phone bill.
Slowly but surely, these new technologies began to take the place of traditional landlines. According to the National Health Interview Survey, the number of American households with a landline phone dropped from about 85% in 2007 to less than half in 2018. Only 45% of American adults and 35% of children now have access to a landline phone at home.
If you’re one of those 45% of Americans still using a landline, you’ve probably wondered if you really need it anymore. If more than half of all Americans can do without one, could you do the same?
The answer is yes – probably. Mobile phones, VoIP, and ATAs all have their advantages compared with a traditional landline, but they have disadvantages too. So it makes sense to look at all the options, and weigh the pros and cons, before deciding to cut the cord.
1. Going Mobile-Only
Anyone who was around in the 1980s can remember how bulky, heavy, and expensive the earliest cell phones were. They had the approximate size, shape, and heft of a large brick, and you could only talk on them for about half an hour at a time between charges – if you could maintain a connection for that long. Only high-powered executive types ever carried them, and they paid thousands of dollars for the privilege.
Today, all those problems no longer exist. Modern mobile phones are lightweight, have long-lasting batteries, and can maintain a connection almost anywhere – and they cost hundreds of dollars instead of thousands. That makes using a cell phone as your primary phone a practical and increasingly popular choice.
If you want to ditch your landline and rely on a mobile phone, you have plenty of providers to choose from. However, there are big differences in cost between providers. The four biggest carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon – all charge fairly hefty rates for a plan with unlimited talk, text, and data. If you want the fastest and most reliable 5G service, the cost will be still higher.
If you’re looking for a cheaper cell phone plan, you have several alternatives:
- Limited-Use Plans. If you’re willing to accept limits on the amount of data you use each month, you can get service from the four major carriers for less than the cost of an unlimited plan. All four carriers offer plans that provide unlimited talk and text, plus a limited amount of wireless data, for slightly less their unlimited plans. AT&T and T-Mobile also offer minimal-use plans with talk and text only. You can pay a few dollars per month for just half an hour of talk time or pay a small fee for each day or minute of use.
- Discount Brands. The major operators also own and operate budget-priced brands that use exactly the same networks under different names. AT&T owns Cricket, Sprint owns Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, T-Mobile owns Metro by T-Mobile (formerly MetroPCS), and Verizon owns Visible. These providers offer both limited-use plans and unlimited plans. However, they’re not always cheaper than the carrier’s regular plans, so check before you buy.
- Major MVNOs. Mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, are smaller cell phone carriers that don’t operate their own networks. Instead, they lease cell coverage and data bandwidth from the major carriers. Major MVNOs include U.S. Cellular, Consumer Cellular, Straight Talk Wireless, Tracfone, Google Fi, and Republic Wireless. Plans from the major MVNOs aren’t always cheaper than those from the big four carriers and their sub-brands, but some of them can provide limited service for about half the price.
- Smaller MVNOs. In addition to the major MVNOs, several smaller brands offer even lower prices. For instance, Mint Mobile, Unreal Mobile, Red Pocket Mobile, and SpeedTalk Mobile all provide unlimited talk and text, with varying amounts of data, for significantly less than the major carrier. If your phone use varies from month to month, you can choose Ting, which charges you only for the amount of talk, text, and data you use in a given month. And FreedomPop offers unlimited talk and text with minimal data use completely free of charge, though you’ll get dinged with a fee if you go over your data limit.
The benefits of going mobile-only include:
- Simplicity. Assuming you already have a mobile phone, making it your primary phone is the simplest way to get rid of your landline. You can discard the old service without having to add anything new. You’ll have only one phone number to remember, one phone bill to pay, and one set of contacts for all your calls.
- Accessibility. When your mobile phone is your primary phone, you always have it with you. All your friends can reach you at any time, and vice versa. You can even take it with you on vacation instead of checking your home voicemail every day to see if you missed any calls.
- Extra Features. Your cell phone allows you to communicate in ways your landline phone doesn’t. You can pass along a quick message by text or email instead of calling and getting tied up in a half-hour chat. You can also engage in video calling and even share photos and documents with your friends as you talk.
- Potential Savings. If you already rely on your cell phone for most of your calls, there’s no point in paying extra for a landline you hardly use. Even the most bare-bones landline service has some basic monthly charges that you can’t eliminate without dropping it altogether. So there’s a good chance you can save money by relying on your cell phone only – although, as you’ll see, that’s not a guarantee.
Going mobile-only isn’t the best choice for everyone. It has several disadvantages, which for some people could outweigh its benefits. These include:
- Potential Costs. Dropping your landline phone service won’t necessarily save you money. If you currently get your landline as part of a bundle with other services, such as Internet and cable TV, keeping your bundle could actually be cheaper than buying those other services separately. Moreover, if you currently have a limited-use cell phone plan, relying on your mobile phone as your only phone might require you to upgrade to a more expensive unlimited plan. You could also pay more for international calls, which aren’t covered on all cell phone plans.
- Call Quality. According to Consumer Reports, calls made on landline phones – corded or cordless – generally sound better than cell phone calls. When you make a call through a landline, you can almost always get a good connection. With a cell phone, the call quality depends on signal strength. A weak signal can result in dropped calls, interruptions, or staticky-sounding audio. Mobile phone networks offer good coverage across most of the country, but that’s no help if your own home happens to be one of the places where you can’t get a clear signal.
- Emergency Calling. If you need to call 911 in an emergency, a landline phone is the most reliable way to do it. When you call from a landline, the dispatcher can tell exactly where you’re calling from even if you don’t have a chance to give the address. With cell phones, dispatchers have to find your location through GPS, which is less accurate. It can show what building you’re calling from but not which specific apartment. There’s also the risk that a dead phone battery or a weak signal will keep you from reaching 911 quickly, costing you precious seconds.
- No Extensions. When you have a landline, it’s easy to put extensions all over the house so that you can always get to a phone quickly. By contrast, when your cell phone rings, you have to get to that one phone and pick it up before it goes to voicemail. It’s also easier for that single phone to get lost, stolen, or knocked out of commission by a dead battery.
- Less Privacy. As noted above, having just one phone means you have just one phone number – but that isn’t always an advantage. When you have multiple numbers, you can give one number to business contacts and reserve the other for your closest friends. But if your cell phone is your only phone, you have to give your cell number to everyone, even the people you’d rather not get calls from everywhere you go.
Is Going Mobile-Only Right for You?
To decide if going mobile-only is the right choice for you, here are some questions to consider:
- Where Do You Use Your Phone Most? If you already do most of your calling on the go, then it makes sense for your mobile number to be your only number. However, if you spend most of your time on the phone at home – for example, in a home office – it’s nice to have a reliable home phone with good sound quality. It’s particularly important if you have any trouble getting a cell phone signal inside your home.
- Do You Have Any Medical Conditions? Accurate 911 location service is more crucial if you have any medical conditions or disabilities that make a medical emergency more likely. In a CBS article, Trey Forgety of the nonprofit National Emergency Number Association recommends landlines for people with medical conditions who live alone.
- How Much Does Audio Quality Matter? For most people, the audio quality on a cell phone is good enough to understand the other person on the line. However, the better sound quality of a landline phone could be important if you have hearing loss or if there’s a lot of background noise in your home.
- Will It Save You Money? Having just one phone is a money-saver for many people, but not for everyone. Before taking the plunge, figure out how much you’ll actually save if you ditch your landline and how much more you might have to spend on cell phone service.
Getting the Best Deal
If you decide that going mobile-only is the right move for you, look for a plan that gives you the most bang for your buck. Figure out how much time you actually spend on the phone each month, and then look for a plan that covers that amount of usage for the lowest possible price. A 2019 article in PC Magazine recommends suitable cell phone plans for different levels of service and cost.
2. VoIP Services
Voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, is a means of making phone calls over the Internet. Essentially, it converts your voice into a digital signal that can travel through the Internet like any other type of data. If the phone you’re calling is a standard voice phone, the digital signal gets converted back to sound at the other end.
There are several ways to use VoIP. You can use a special VoIP-enabled phone, or you can hook up your regular phone to a digital adapter. You can also make calls directly from your computer to someone else’s with a microphone and a set of headphones.
All these methods also require a broadband Internet connection, which could be a problem for some people. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), over 92% of Americans “have access” to broadband Internet service. However, Microsoft reports that only about 50% of Americans are using the Internet at broadband speeds.
The most common way to get VoIP service at home is through your Internet or cable TV provider. In fact, there’s a good chance that what you think of as your landline right now is this type of VoIP service. According to CBS, only 20% of American households are still hooked up to “true” landlines – the old-school copper wires that used to be the only type of telephone connection. The other 25% of households with landlines are actually using VoIP through a cable or fiber-optic connection.
A 2019 report in PC Magazine says that for most home users, getting VoIP through their cable provider is a good value if it’s part of a bundle that includes phone service, TV, and Internet. However, if you’ve already canceled your cable subscription, it could be cheaper to sign up for a separate VoIP service that you can add on to your existing Internet service. These services generally come with an adapter for your phone, so you don’t need any special equipment.
Here are some of the choices available for home VoIP service.
- Vonage. Vonage is one of the oldest VoIP providers. Its Vonage North America plan provides unlimited calling to the U.S., Canada, and Mexico for less than the cost of an unlimited mobile phone plan. You can also get a worldwide calling plan for a few dollars extra. There’s no charge to sign up, and you can keep your own telephone and phone number. And if you’re not happy with the service, you can cancel within 30 days and get your money back. In a 2018 review of telephone services, Consumer Reports gave Vonage an overall rating of 80%, with good marks for quality, reliability, and customer support. However, Vonage gets mixed reviews from users at GetVoIP and VoIPReview, with many complaints about reliability and customer service.
- AXvoice. AXvoice boasts that it offers the cheapest home VoIP service to the U.S. and Canada. It’s a bit more expensive than VOIPo for unlimited calling, but you’ll pay less if you select a limited plan with 200 minutes per month or a pay-as-you go service with a per-minute fee. All plans come with features such as voicemail, call forwarding, caller ID, and the chance to keep your phone number, but AXvoice’s money-back guarantee is good for only 15 days. This service gets mostly good reviews at VoIPReview, but there are some complaints about customer service.
- VoIPLy. VoIPLy boasts that it’s the No. 1 residential VoIP service in America. It provides unlimited calling to over 50 countries for less than half the cost of Vonage North America. There are no setup fees and 24/7 customer support. VoIPLy gets ratings of about 4.5 stars out of 5 on both GetVoIP and VoIPReview, with high marks for reliability, voice quality, features, and customer support.
- PhonePower. With PhonePower, there are three ways to sign up for unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada: prepay for a full year, sign up for a one-year contract, or get no-contract service by the month. Depending on which option you choose, your monthly rate could be anywhere from 20% to 50% of the cost of an unlimited mobile plan. PhonePower also offers several international plans that vary in price depending on how many countries you can call without limits. All plans come with a free cloned second line (allowing you to make two calls at once on a single line), the option to keep your current number, and a 30-day money-back guarantee. However, PhonePower’s ratings at GetVoIP and VoIPReview are only about 3 stars out of 5, with iffy reviews for reliability and support.
- VOIPo. If you pay up front for a two-year contract, residential service from VOIPo is just about the cheapest way to get unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada. The service also includes 60 minutes of free international calls per month, plus a variety of features. These include caller ID, call waiting, the option to keep your phone number, and a 30-day money-back guarantee. Reviewers at GetVoIP and VoIPReview give the service only so-so ratings, particularly for call quality and reliability.
- 1-VoIP. Home VoIP service from 1-VoIP is a bit pricier than most providers’, both for unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada and for worldwide calling. However, it comes with over 40 features, including a free email account, 2GB of cloud storage, virtual faxing, and robocall locking from Nomorobo. This service isn’t covered on VoIPReview, but users at GetVoIP give it 4.5 stars, with high marks across the board for quality, reliability, support, features, installation, and price.
- Skype. Microsoft’s Skype is a software program that lets you make calls from your computer. You can make video calls with the aid of a webcam or audio-only calls with a headset. Skype’s free chat feature lets you make video calls to any other computer that has Skype installed, but you can also use the program to make and receive calls to a regular phone. You pay just a few dollars per month for unlimited calling in the U.S., or a bit more for calls to all of North America. You can also choose a pay-as-you-go option called World Skype Credit to make calls worldwide.
- Google Voice. Another software-based option is Google Voice. It lets you make and receive voice calls from your mobile device or computer for free. One catch is that you can’t use this service without having at least one existing phone number, either mobile or landline. You link that number to a new Google Voice number, and when someone calls this number, the call comes in on all your devices simultaneously. According to VoIPReview, Google Voice offers low international calling rates, numerous voicemail options, and easy call blocking. It can’t be your only phone line, but it can make going mobile-only a more affordable option.
Switching from a landline phone service to VoIP offers several advantages, including:
- Lower Cost. If you get VoIP as part of a bundle with your Internet and TV service, you’ll pay less than you would by buying all three services separately. If you currently get landline service from your TV provider but don’t qualify for a bundle, you can probably save money by dropping the phone service in favor of an inexpensive VoIP service such as VoIPLy or AXvoice. Software-based services, such as Skype and Google Voice, can even be completely free.
- More Features. Most VoIP services come with features that typically cost extra on a traditional landline phone, such as call forwarding and caller ID. And many VoIP services offer features you can’t get with a typical landline phone, such as video calling or forwarding of voice messages to email.
- Portability. Many VoIP services can work through your mobile phone as well as your home phone number, so you can use them wherever you go. That can make calling home cheaper when you’re vacationing overseas. Also, it’s easy to keep your phone number when you move.
- Easy Installation. All you need to use VoIP is a phone, a broadband Internet connection, and an adapter that’s usually included with your VoIP service. You can easily hook everything up yourself, so there’s no need to make an appointment and wait for a service person to show up and connect you.
If you’re thinking about switching from a traditional landline to VoIP, be aware of these possible downsides:
- Call Quality. Voice calls don’t always sound as clear over VoIP as they do over a traditional phone line. Some reviews on GetVoIP and VoIPreview complain of problems such as static, dropped calls, and interruptions in audio.
- Power Outages. Unlike old-fashioned copper landlines, VoIP can’t work without electricity. That means that during a power outage, you lose your phone service along with your access to email. VoIP providers can offer a backup power supply, but most do not.
- Internet Service Interruptions. Because VoIP works through the Internet, it’s only available when your Internet is working. That can be a major inconvenience if the Internet goes out, because you have no way of contacting your provider about the problem.
- Emergency Service. Like mobile phones, VoIP isn’t always a reliable way to connect to 911 emergency service. The FCC warns that VoIP calls sometimes incorrectly route you to an administrative number rather than the emergency line or fail to transmit your phone number and location. You also risk being unable to reach 911 during a power outage or Internet service interruption – two things that are likely to happen during a severe storm when emergency service is especially vital.
Is VoIP Service Right for You?
Replacing your landline with VoIP could be a good idea if:
- You Have a Reliable Internet Connection. VoIP only works if you have a broadband Internet connection, and it’s only as reliable as that connection is. So if you lose your Internet connection frequently, signing up for VoIP means you’ll lose your phone service frequently too.
- You Don’t Bundle Your Services. If you get your landline, Internet, and TV service in a bundle, then what you call your landline is probably a VoIP service from your TV or Internet provider. Dropping it to switch to another VoIP service means you’ll lose your bundle, so you probably won’t save money. But if you get your Internet and phone service separately, you can probably find a VoIP service that’s cheaper than what you’re paying for your landline now.
- You Also Have a Mobile Phone. Relying on VoIP as your only phone service probably isn’t a good idea. There’s too much risk of being cut off from emergency services – and everyone else – during a power outage or an Internet interruption. However, if you currently have both a landline and mobile phone, you can swap your landline for VoIP while keeping your cell phone as a backup. And with many VoIP services, you can keep your cell phone usage low by primarily using VoIP.
Getting the Best Deal
If you decide to drop your landline and switch to VoIP, start by figuring out what kind of coverage you need. If you never call outside the United States, then a plan that provides unlimited calling in the U.S. or North America will meet all your needs. If you make international calls regularly, then figure out which countries you call most often and look for a plan that includes those countries in your unlimited calling area.
Once you know what you need from a plan, compare providers to see which one can offer you the best deal. Check out the comparison pages on GetVoIP and VoIPReview to see the features of several different providers at a glance. These sites show monthly cost, setup cost, available features, and ratings for each provider.
Before signing up for any VoIP service, check the reviews. See what they have to say about the provider’s call quality, reliability, and customer service. A company that offers a rock-bottom price but is impossible to reach when there’s a problem won’t make you happy. It’s probably worth paying a few extra dollars per month for service you can count on.
3. Analog Telephone Adapters (ATAs)
When you use VoIP with a standard telephone, you need some sort of adapter to convert the analog signal received by the phone to a digital signal you can send via the Internet. If you get VoIP through your cable company, this adapter may be built into your cable modem. However, if you use a stand-alone service, you need a separate device called an analog telephone adapter, or ATA. These small devices receive signals from your phone through a phone jack, convert them, and send them out through either an Ethernet cable or a USB cable hooked up to your computer.
When you sign up for a VoIP service, the company generally provides an ATA. The cost of this device is included in your monthly bill. However, some companies do business a different way: They sell you the ATA up front, then provide phone service at little to no cost. Over the long run, this can work out to be even cheaper than paying for VoIP service by the month.
There are several stand-alone ATAs on the market with varying prices and capabilities. One major difference between them is the type and number of phone ports they offer. Every ATA contains at least one Foreign Exchange Subscriber (FXS) port, which is similar to the wall jack a landline plugs into. You connect your phone to this port instead of the wall jack, and the ATA receives the phone signal and converts it to a digital signal.
Some ATAs, called dual-FXS adapters, contain two FXS ports, which allows you to hook up two landline devices at once. They’re a good choice if you have a home office with both a phone and a fax machine.
Other ATAs contain both an FXS and a Foreign Exchange Office (FXO) port, which is like the input jack on your phone. You can use the FXO port to connect the ATA to a traditional landline through a wall jack so that you can make VoIP calls over an old-fashioned landline. Some people like to do this so that they can use their Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) as a backup in case of a power outage. However, if you’re only buying an ATA so you can get rid of your landline service, you shouldn’t need an FXO port.
The most popular ATAs today include:
- MagicJack. The magicJack was the first stand-alone ATA, and it’s still a popular choice today. Its latest model, the magicJack Go, provides a year of free, unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada, with no additional taxes or fees, for less than the cost of one month of unlimited mobile phone service. You get one year of service when you purchase the device; after that, you can renew for either one or three years (you’ll save money by opting for three). International calls cost extra, with rates varying by country. You can also use the magicJack App to make free calls from your smartphone. An additional perk of the magicJack Go is that its small size makes it easy to take with you when you travel abroad, so you can make calls home to the U.S. or Canada for free. MagicJack’s service gets mixed ratings from Consumer Reports; its value is top-notch, but reliability and call quality are only so-so, and tech support and customer service are subpar. Users on VoIPReview agree, giving magicJack an overall rating of only 2 stars out of 5.
- Ooma Telo. The Ooma Telo uses a technology called PureVoice HD, which delivers very clear sound with minimal lag time. It also has an advanced voice compression algorithm that reduces the amount of bandwidth needed for a VoIP call by 60%, leaving you more bandwidth for other activities. In addition to standard phone features such as voicemail, call waiting, and caller ID, the Ooma Telo works with smart home devices such as the Nest thermostat and Amazon Echo smart speaker. It comes in two models: the Ooma Telo and the Ooma Telo Air, which can connect via Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. Both of these cost significantly more than the magicJack, but both provide unlimited nationwide calls with no monthly charge. However, you must still pay a few dollars per month for taxes and fees, which vary depending on where you live. You can also make international calls at low per-minute rates. Consumer Reports gives Ooma top marks for value and above-average marks for reliability, call quality, tech support, and customer service.
- OBiTALK. ATAs from OBiTALK cannot provide phone service on their own. However, they can work with up to four different VoIP services at once, including the free Google Voice service. That allows you to make calls within the U.S. and Canada for no cost and international calls at low per-minute rates. One catch is that Google Voice doesn’t support 911 calls, so you must pay a few dollars per month for an OBiEXTRAs subscription to get this service. OBiTALK offers several ATA models, including the one-port OBi200 and the two-port OBi202. Both models fall in between the magicJack and Ooma in price. They include features such as caller ID and call waiting and also support fax service.
The main advantage of using an ATA for your phone service is its low cost. Although you must pay up front to buy the ATA, you’ll pay very little per month once it’s hooked up. That means an ATA can be cheaper in the long run than either mobile or monthly VoIP service.
For instance, let’s say you pay $70 for an Ooma Telo and $4 per month for taxes and fees. That makes the cost of service over two years $166 – less than $7 per month. Very few monthly VoIP services can beat that price. The longer you keep using your ATA, the more cost-effective it becomes.
Relying on an ATA for phone service has most of the same disadvantages as paying for VoIP by the month. It requires a reliable broadband connection, it leaves you vulnerable to power outages, and you may not be able to get reliable 911 service. Also, call quality isn’t great with some ATAs.
Is an ATA Right for You?
Like a monthly VoIP service, an ATA can be a good choice if you have a reliable Internet connection at home and a mobile phone to use as a backup in case of interruptions in your power or Internet service. And since the cost savings of an ATA can be even higher than those of a monthly VoIP service, it can be a good deal for you even if the current cost of your landline is pretty low. However, if you’re currently bundling your services, an ATA probably can’t save you money.
Getting the Best Deal
If you spend a lot of time traveling overseas, a magicJack Go could be a good investment. The amount you save each year by calling home for free could be enough to pay for the device, even if you hardly ever use it at home.
However, if you’re mainly looking for an ATA to replace your landline service at home, it’s probably worth paying a bit more for one of the Ooma Telo models. Their better call quality, reliability, and service should be enough to justify the cost. An OBiTalk ATA with Google Voice and OBiEXTRAs is another possibility, but since there are no professional or user reviews for this combination, it’s harder to know what to expect from it.
Although giving up a landline is an increasingly popular choice, it isn’t the right choice for everyone. After all, nearly half of all Americans still have landline phones, and many of them have good reasons for holding on to them.
People interviewed by CBS give several reasons for preferring to have a landline. One person said she likes having it as a backup in case a cell phone gets lost or damaged. Another relies on landline service for his home security system. Some like the peace of mind of having a phone line that provides reliable 911 location service and won’t go down in a power outage. And some said it’s cheaper to keep their bundled services than to ditch their landline while keeping cable.
Also, for some people, a landline phone simply feels more comfortable. Some people like the simplicity of a phone that’s just for making calls, without all the extras of a smartphone. Others appreciate having one phone line that’s for the whole family, instead of separate phones for everyone. That can be particularly important for families with young children who aren’t old enough to be trusted with their own cell phones yet but still need a way to talk to friends and relatives.
The bottom line is: If you’re happy with your landline service – if it’s reliable and isn’t costing you an arm and a leg – then there’s nothing wrong with keeping it. However, if you hardly ever use your landline and you’re holding on to it mostly out of habit, there’s a good chance you can do without it. Between mobile phones, VoIP service, and ATAs, you can likely find some way to connect for less money without sacrificing quality and reliability.
Do you still have a landline phone? Why or why not?