Toll-free connections

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It's hard to believe–in this hyperconnected society–but I recently had a relative wanting to call me who didn't have a cellphone and had access only to a pay phone. Within 10 minutes, and for $10 a month, I had set up my own toll-free number.

It's yet another trick made possible by the booming business of sending voice calls over the Internet. Techies know it as VoIP, for Voice-over-Internet-Protocol; most consumers just know it saves them money. But many early adopters don't realize the extra benefits of Internet calling—like turning voice mail into E-mail, taking your phone number with you on the road, or sophisticated screening that can send every call from your ex to a busy signal.

An instant 800 number is a prime example. No more negotiating with your local telco, or even forethought, required. I went to tollfreemax.com and quickly set up a toll-free number that automatically rings through to my home phone. The $10 a month comes with 100 minutes, probably more than enough for my brief needs, and extra minutes can be added at 6 cents each. To encourage me to burn minutes, the service comes with a number of extras that I don't need now but that could be helpful to a small business: different voice mail boxes, receiving faxes, and setting up conference calls. My number, by the way, actually begins with "888," as the site charges an extra $15 to get an 800 area code.

A good place to start is thebesttollfree.com, which details and rates some leading plans among the dozens that provide similar services. Some are more sophisticated and expensive, others simpler and cheaper, and all of them offer yet another way to stay connected.