Well, maybe not totally free, but Wi-Fi is changing the way we think about communications. If you still have an old land-line type of phone at home, you are already behind the times. Cell phones have all but killed the market for home phones. No longer do you call someone's house, but now you call a person. Each person has their own cell phone and their own cell phone number. (Anyone still remember party lines where one phone line was shared among several houses?)
In the old days, you would call up the phone company for your area and order phone service. Whatever they decided to charge is what you paid. First through operators and manual switchboards and later through electronic switching devices, a direct connection was made between your telephone and the telephone you were calling. The wires used for this direct connection could not be used for anything else during your call.
Then someone figured out you could digitize the voice calls, and place them in packets to be sent over an IP network such as the Internet. (Think of small sections of your voice conversation broken up and placed in individual containers.) At the other end, the packets would be placed in the correct order, opened, and the voice call reassembled. The network could handle many different voice calls at the same time as well as different types of data. Hence Voice Over IP or VOIP was born.
Using this technology, companies like Vonage, MagicJack, the cable companies, and others started offering phone services and at a rate much lower than the phone companies. (MagicJack offers service for $35 per YEAR.) You do need high-speed Internet service for these services to work, but most people already have that.
With the proliferation of smartphones, companies such as Google, Skype, and MagicJack started offering apps for their services. These apps allow you to use the companies voice services without using minutes from your cell phone package while you are using WiFi.
Roll Your Own Free Phone Today
It's really rather easy to have a free but somewhat limited phone today. Find someone bragging about the latest smartphone they just bought and get them to give you their old one. Do not activate service with the cell phone company. Download the free MagicJack or possibly some other VOIP app and start making calls anywhere you have WiFi service. The downsides are that it is complicated to receive calls without an actual MagicJack account. You also must be near an open Wi-Fi network. If you have Wi-Fi at home and at work, you could make calls from either place. But on the road between the two places, you can only call 911 on the tradition cell phone system.
Hybrid Phone Systems Today
Republic Wireless, a startup cell phone company in North Carolina, developed the idea of combining cell phone technology with Wi-Fi technology. Using specially modified Motorola phones, the company offers service over Wi-Fi when available, but then automatically switches over to the Sprint cell phone network when Wi-Fi is not available. By offloading most of your voice and data traffic to Wi-Fi, they offer plans that are much cheaper than traditional cell phone plans. For instance, I pay $25 per month for unlimited 3G data, voice, and text messages. They also offer cheaper plans that give you unlimited service over Wi-Fi, but place restrictions on your usage of the Sprint cell phone network.
T-mobile is also advertising a phone that combines the two technologies. But they are marketing it from a different angle. They are trying to convince you to use your Wi-Fi network to effectively extend the range of their cell phones into areas where traditional cell phone signals are weak. (Such as the basement of your house or office.)
Apple's latest offering touts Wi-Fi calling as one of it's features. But the cell phone service providers must support it in order for it to work.
What is Coming Tomorrow
The future looks bright for cheap hybrid phone plans. But right now, there are competing technologies vying for market share. The T-mobile phones and the Apple phones will not work on the Republic Wireless networks. Neither will the Republic Wireless phones work on the T-mobile or any other network. Undoubtedly over the next few years, there will be more development of the technology, buying and selling of the companies making the technology, and hopefully some industry-wide standards emerging. This should all add up to better and cheaper phone service for all.