Your Guide to Understanding Telephone Service Options
Consumers have relied on landline telephone service for more than a century. For much of this time, basic landline phone service was consumers’ primary and only method of telecommunication. Technology has created more communication options available to many Ohioans. In addition, the term landline is no longer synonymous with basic telephone service. Since only basic local exchange service is regulated in Ohio, consumers need to understand the differences and that changing services can affect important consumer protection rights. The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC), your residential utility consumer advocate, has developed this fact sheet to explain your options for phone service.
Basic Local Exchange Service
Basic local exchange service, sometimes referred to as BLES, is the simplest landline phone service available to consumers. Local lines, including service connections to other providers, as well as service and safety concerns are handled by the local telephone utility. Customers can make local calls, but additional services like long-distance, Caller ID, voicemail, or other services are extra. Ohio law provides consumer protections for BLES customers including, required timelines for new service installations and repairs, other service standards, bill credits for extended outages as well as disconnection and reconnection rights. OCC’s Your Guide to Telephone Disconnection and Reconnection fact sheet provides more information.
Many telephone companies can now increase rates for basic service at any time, and yearly price increase caps are no longer in effect. Income eligible consumers may be able to obtain a discount on basic service through the Lifeline program. OCC’s Telephone Lifeline Programs in Ohio fact sheet provides more information.
Many local phone providers bundle features and services for a discount. Before bundling, ask how it will affect your current service. Accepting bundled services may negatively impact the consumer protections. In addition, some bundles may require you to use internet-based phone service or VoIP (see below). VoIP service may not be subject to the same standards as regulated service. Systems that rely on traditional landline service, like security systems or internet access, may also be affected by the bundle.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
Often confused with landlines, consumers with high-speed internet (broadband) can receive their phone services through Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP or digital phone service). VoIP calls are placed over an internet connection. Special equipment, like a phone adapter, is needed to make and receive calls using VoIP technology with your landline telephone. The equipment can be supplied by your provider, but it may come with charges, including for setup.
Consumers with internet service through their telephone or cable company already have the option of using VoIP through those providers. You should be able to keep your phone number if you switch to a VoIP service.
VoIP offers sound quality similar to traditional landline service. Unlike traditional landlines, VoIP may not work during a power outage. Problems with your computer, internet connection, or VoIP equipment may also affect your ability to make and receive calls. In addition, security systems or medical alert systems may still require a traditional landline to operate.
Ask VoIP providers about their policies on service quality, back-up power availability, and customer service issues like billing and out of service credits. Remember VoIP is not subject to the same rules and regulations as local or long-distance phone providers.
Wireless phone service
Wireless or cellular phone service allows residential consumers to stay connected just about whenever and wherever they want. Wireless service providers usually offer a variety of calling, texting, and data plans.
There are advantages and disadvantages to using wireless service instead of landline service. One advantage to wireless service is mobility. You can take your phone with you wherever you go. Unlike traditional landline service, wireless service is not required to have back-up power, so a disadvantage is that it may be unavailable during power outages. Another disadvantage is sound quality, which may be worse than landline service. Additionally, home security systems and medical monitors often require a landline to communicate with the monitoring office.
Some parts of Ohio lack wireless coverage. Check the wireless providers’ coverage maps for the areas in which you want to use the service before choosing a provider. But know that a map that indicates coverage does not necessarily mean optimal service is available. Most wireless providers’ coverage maps include disclaimers about the accuracy of their maps. In some locations, you may experience dropped calls and poor connections when using a wireless service, especially inside buildings. If a friend or family member has a provider you are considering, ask them about coverage and signal quality. You may want to ask them to test the provider’s signal strength at your home and other locations where you need to make calls.
Before choosing a wireless provider, know your usage habits, like how many minutes you spend making and receiving calls, the number of texts you usually exchange, and the amount of internet data you use monthly. Consider if multiple phones are needed for family members. Wireless plans vary and you may pay overage charges if you are not careful. Be sure to ask about and compare all details. Although many wireless plans no longer require contracts, there are plans and services that can lock you into lengthy commitments. If you make changes or cancel early, you could be required to pay an early termination fee.
Prepaid wireless phones are an option that you may want to consider depending on your usage habits.
The bottom line when choosing any provider—not just wireless—is do your homework, especially the math behind the bill.
How to choose a phone provider
When deciding what service provider is best for you, research all available service options and compare prices between providers. You should also consider other factors such as convenience and customer service. Review your current provider’s bill and answer these questions with members of your household that use the service.
- How often do I make local calls? How often do I make long-distance calls? International calls?
- Do I use a local phone company or a wireless provider for local calls? How do I make long-distance calls?
- How much do I currently pay per month for all phone services (e.g., local, long-distance, wireless)?
- Do I receive separate bills for each service (e.g., local, long-distance, wireless) or just a single bill?
- What features currently appear on my monthly bill? Do I use them?
- Are there any features that I could use for privacy and/or convenience but do not currently have? (e.g., Caller ID, Call Blocking)
- Do I use my phone for safety and security reasons or for internet access?
- Will changing my provider affect my high-speed internet (broadband) service or other services?
If you are considering switching telephone service providers, make sure you inquire about the calling area, monthly service charge, repair and maintenance policies, any installation or equipment charges, and about any additional services offered by the company. You should ask about the amount of any taxes and surcharges that will be on your bill and if there is a switching or early termination fee. Make sure that the services and plans offered by the provider meet your calling and budget needs.
You can keep your current telephone number in many parts of Ohio, but you should make sure that you can, and determine how to ensure that happens before deciding to switch service providers. Also, you should find out if you need to keep your current service until after the switch.
Questions to ask when switching phone providers:
- Is there a sign-up fee?
- Are there promotional offers and what happens when the offer ends?
- What is the contract period?
- Is there a switching or early termination fee?
- How will I be billed?
- What will my total monthly bill be (including all fees, taxes, and surcharges)?
- How are billing discrepancies handled?
- Are customer service representatives available 24 hours a day?
- How many customers are served by the provider and how large is its service territory?
- Are there payment assistance programs, such as Lifeline, available if needed?
- Is there a program for consumers with medical needs, such as priority repair schedules for consumers with serious medical conditions?
- Will eliminating my current service affect other services I need (i.e., security systems, medical monitors, or internet access)?
- Can I keep my current phone number?
- Do I need to keep my current service until after the switch?
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