KELLNER: Ma Bell’s death knell

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Almost since the dawn of time - or at least since the beginnings of the “Phone Company” as a unifying force in society - there has been an effort to break free of the monolith’s grasp.

Let me start with an old story: Early in 1989, five years after the breakup of the AT&T “Bell System,” Dennis Patrick, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was testifying before the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, then-Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings, South Carolina Democrat. The topic was giving the “new” AT&T, basically a long-distance and computer company, “price caps” within which it could make money on your calls to Aunt Gertie.

“Ah, ah, Mistah Chairman,” Mr. Hollings drawled, in his best Foghorn Leghorn manner, apparently with residential customers on his mind: “Mistah Chairman, if we give AT&T these price caps, will they still come out to fix the phones?”

Mr. Patrick, charming and suave, cooly demurred. Those of us in the room who wrote about the telecommunications biz - the few, the proud, the nerdy - rolled our eyes: Half a decade already had passed since “Ma Bell” came out to fix anything at home.

Two decades later, it’s not AT&T that’s divesting local telecommunications companies - it is, in some cases, the consumers. Comcast is almost constant in its pitches to customers and prospects about bundling its cable TV with Internet and telephone service. Ditto for Cox and RCI, the area’s other main cable firms. Verizon can’t really tell customers to flush itself, but by offering (very good) high-speed Internet and cable TV, it’s able to thumb a corporate nose at the cable companies.

Into this fray steps T-Mobile USA of Seattle, a unit of T-Mobile International AG, which itself is the mobile communications subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG, a global, Germany-based telecommunications company. For $10 a month, on top of your current broadband Internet charges and whatever T-Mobile cellular service fee you pay, starting at $39 per month, you get a phone line with unlimited calling in the United States and Canada. There are all sorts of requirements, including the use of a special T-Mobile Internet router that contains a SIM card that lets the T-Mobile data network know you have a voice phone attached.

I’m not a T-Mobile cellular customer, but the folks there let me play with the system nonetheless. And I like it: Call quality, reliability and connections are very good, but is it enough to make me divorce my present carrier?

Here’s how it worked: I plugged the SIM cards into the T-Mobile router, that router into a wall outlet and my Internet modem/router, and I charged up the V-Tech wireless phone T-Mobile recommends for the service. (The firm says most cordless and any wired phone will work; they just like the V-Tech’s features and power.)

Once the knee bones and thigh bones were connected, I “heard the word of the Lord,” as the old song goes, or, more accurately, a dial tone. Ringing up my father in New York City, the call was as clear as anything Verizon has ever delivered. (Sorry, guys!) The T-Mobile router also beams wireless Internet throughout your house; security-conscious users will want to lock that down by setting up a password system for access.

As with any Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, or VoIP, service, which is what the T-Mobile product really is, there are concessions. Emergency 911 service must be set up by providing T-Mobile with your “physical,” i.e., street, address. If you move, they need to know that. It’s a minor hassle versus a carrier such as Verizon, but it’s something to remember.

Unlike the VoIP service of McLean-based Lingo, for example, you don’t get free calling to Western Europe with the T-Mobile product, which seems a bit odd given its German ownership. Of course, the Lingo service, which I’ve also used and also enjoy, is $25 per month, but only requires broadband and not a cell account.

And compared with Verizon’s FiOS bundle of cable,

super-duper-high-speed Internet and phone service, the T-Mobile offering might be redundant (the Verizon deal includes free U.S. long distance) or insufficient (there’s no cable component from T-Mobile; your present broadband provider may lack video, too.) It’s enough to make your head spin.

How to make a buying decision? If you’re already a T-Mobile customer, and get your broadband Internet from, say, a cable company, the add-on for what used to be called a “land line” might make a lot of sense. The service quality is very good, the cost seems reasonable - as long as you remember that every telephone service has its share of added taxes - and it was easy to set up.

The bottom line with all of this isn’t necessarily glamorous: We’re talking about what telcos call “plain old telephone service,” or POTS, after all. But when you need a phone, you need a phone, and this is a good way to get POTS without tying up a cell phone and burning those minutes while sitting in your living room.

Who are you calling? E-mail mkellner@washington times.com.

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