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IT'S JUST A MATTER OF TIME UNTIL PHONING IS FREE

The price of home phone service has dropped 30 percent since 1999. Surely, sayeth the analysts, that trend will eventually plummet all the way to zero. Surely, thanks to the Internet's ability to carry your voice, landline phone calls will soon be free.

Already, dozens of calling services promise to slash your residential phone bill by exploiting the Internet. And yet nobody has yet delivered the Holy Grail: free calling, to any phone number, from your regular telephone. There's always a catch.

For example, programs like Skype offer unlimited free calls - but not from your phone. You and your conversation partner have to sit at your computers wearing headsets, like nerds.

Then there are those annoyingly named VOIP services (voice over Internet protocol), like Vonage. You plug both your broadband Internet modem and your existing phone handset into an adapter box. Presto: unlimited domestic calls from your regular phone.

But they're not free. You pay about $25 a month, and you hope that your VOIP company won't suddenly go under.

If you're still forking over $60 or $70 a month for residential phone service, here's a guide to five newer Internet-calling options: Icall.com, Jajah.com, T-Mobile, PhoneGnome and Ooma.

Of all of these approaches detailed below, T-Mobile, Jajah and Ooma come the closest to delivering free calling, to any phone number, from regular phones. Even they are not without drawbacks - but they are certainly enough to keep phone company executives awake at night.

Making the call with your computer

ICall.com

The promise: Free calls to domestic phone numbers.

The catch: Your friends pick up their phones to answer, but you still have to sit at your computer. People can also call you from their phones (iCall assigns you a number, with an extension). But you have to take calls at your computer, not your phone.

Jajah.com

The promise: Unlimited free calls to anyone else who's signed up for a free Jajah account. You use your regular phone. There's no special equipment, contract, monthly fees or prepayment.

The catch: You don't talk on your computer - but you need a Web browser. You begin at jajah.com. There, you type in both your phone number and the one you're calling. In about 10 seconds, weird as this sounds, your phone rings: The Jajah Web site has called both of you, connecting the call from the middle. It works reliably and the voice quality is good, but having to place calls from a Web site is a hassle.

T-Mobile

The promise: Its new HotSpot@Home cell phones make unlimited free calls whenever you're in a wireless hot spot - or when you're at home, since a Wi-Fi router is included. Calls you place to numbers in the United States from overseas hot spots are free.

The catch: Your voice plan costs an additional $10 a month. Only two bare-bones phone models are available for this program, although more are on the way. Free calls are available only in hot spots that don't require a login to a Web browser.

PhoneGnome

The promise: PhoneGnome offers three ways to make free calls through the Internet, all of which should now sound familiar. One works like Jajah, one like Skype, and the third like VOIP: You buy a box ($100) that plugs into both your phone and your broadband modem. The PhoneGnome box, though, entails no monthly fees. If you're calling someone who uses PhoneGnome, the call is free.

The catch: Calls to non-PhoneGnome members aren't free, thought the plans are cheap: $15 for unlimited domestic calls, or $6 a month for unlimited calls to your favorite 10 numbers.

Ooma

The promise: This September, you'll be able to buy an Ooma box for $400. (The price goes up to $600 next year.) Then you can make all free calls to numbers in the United States, all the time, from your phone, without paying anything. The box plugs into both your broadband modem and your telephone. Then you just pick up the phone and dial. It is driven by a nationwide peer-to-peer network.

The catch: The Ooma scheme requires people to retain basic phone service, which, with taxes and fees, costs $24 to $28 a month.

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