Tag Archives: Google Voice

The latest on my quest to reduce my cell phone bill

I’ve been working hard to reduce my cell phone bill. Here’s the latest

reduce my cell phone bill

My continued quest to reduce my cell phone bill — you can never have too many smartphones around.

It was way back in July when I last talked about my attempts to reduce my cell phone bill. If you’re looking for ways to bring down your monthly costs and are still dealing with an overpriced monthly contract plan, it may be an interesting read for you.

Back then I had begun testing a VERY low-cost cell phone structure, combining a Freedom Spot Photon 4G Mobile Hotspot with very low-cost prepaid (but auto-renewing) cell service from AirVoice. Total cost: $10/month. The trick is to move your main number to Google Voice and use the AirVoice number only for emergencies.

I’ve done quite a bit research since then on possible low-cost cell phone options and tried to keep track along the way. The results of my search for ways to reduce my cell phone bill are below, if you want to just jump ahead.

But first the update on my FreedomPop+AirVoice super cheap solution. The positives were that I could keep my same phone, which I was happy with, the low cost and the fact that I had no contract. Not being under a contract left me free to easily test without being committed to two years stuck with one carrier.

The negatives were that I had to pack a separate piece of electronics around all the time (not that big of a deal), and that the FreedomPop’s coverage was extremely limited (much bigger deal). Basically it gets a nice, strong signal in the main city, but anytime you leave the heavily populated areas, say 15 miles from downtown in any direction, it completely loses its signal. That actually became something a big pain any time we took a road trip. (One additional pain was that I got a lot of spam calls via the AirVoice number, which I found odd.)

So while I got used to the hassles of this set up  and didn’t even think much about it after a while, I began to consider my next test. There is a bit of a price war going on right now so real prices for cell phone service have been dropping rapidly, just as I predicted they would. So it’s pretty easy to find a solution for around $30 these days. But I wanted to save even more!

Giving Ting a try

My latest attempt at reducing my cell phone bill was to sign up with Ting. I canceled my AirVoice plan (I still use the FreedomPop from time-to-time as it has more utility for me than just supporting my cell phone.)

Ting has one of the most interesting models for reducing cell phone costs that I’ve so far found. I highly recommend trying it to just about anyone because it’s very likely they could save you a lot of money right away.

The way Ting works is they bucket your actual usage and charge you for what you actually used. Duh! Why has no one done this before? If you check out their Rates page, you can click the various boxes in their grid and the page will compute what your bill would be.

I’ve been using them for two billing cycles now and both bills were less than $12! That’s pretty sweet, given that I’m willing to pay up to $30/month if needed. And, remember, this is a no-contract carrier, so anytime I decide I’m unhappy, I can walk.

I did have to buy another phone because Ting uses Sprint’s network and my old phone was an AT&T phone. I picked up a used one for $120 — about what I can get for my old phone. I haven’t sold my AT&T phone yet, just in case I decide to try something else. So right now I own a Sprint phone and an AT&T phone.

Google Voice is still the backbone

It’s important to keep in mind that keeping my cell phone costs so low is only possible because I use Google Voice as the carrier for my main phone number. All my texting and most of my calls are done via Google Voice. The only data I use via Ting is when I can’t reach my home or other WiFi, which given that I’m home most of the time is rare.

Google Voice works pretty well for the most part. I love the transcribed voice mails and it’s very handy to “move your phone” by simply logging on elsewhere.

Phone conversations are sometimes choppy and there is that annoying slight delay that causes the two people to occasionally talk over each other. But, hey, it’s free, right?

You can read up more on how Google Voice works in my last post.

You get what you pay for

So this solution is not without its hassles. I’ve experienced delays in sending and receiving text messages, calls via Google Voice where the other party is very frustrated they can’t hear me (they say I’m “breaking up”). Calls were much more reliable before I got this Sprint-based phone to use with Ting. With everything else being the same — same WiFi, same App, same location — the call quality was much worse with my Samsung Galaxy SII than my HTC Vivid. I believe that this is because the WiFi receiver is not as powerful in the Galaxy.

Frustratingly when on a recent call with a consulting client, I had to give up on Google Voice and call her via my Ting line. She said it sounded MUCH better — and then that call dropped. Embarrassing! (Note that I’m not necessarily saying Ting is lacking because of this. We live on the back of a hill and always have weak cell phone signals here.)

So I’m still testing. I can deal with a little bit lower quality, but I do need reliability. I don’t talk on the phone very much but when I need to, it had better be there.

The app world is still pretty shaky

I have found a lot of difference between the various apps that exist to support Google Voice. There are three that I’ve tried: TalkaTone, GrooveIP and Spare Phone. TalkaTone was godawful. I suppose I should try it again, but my experience was so bad I cringe thinking about it. For quite a while GooveIP was great, although I was hoping for some software updates to correct some problems in maintaining a connection to Google Voice. They actually did improve that massively in a few later updates, but unfortunately they also seem to have screwed up the call quality. Just a few days I dropped that to try Spare Phone. Spare Phone is a much simpler app and has been working pretty well lately. It’s still too early to make a final judgment, but I like it so far. My only complaint is some scratchy call quality on my end. People I’ve talked to haven’t complained yet, so time will tell.

Other ways to reduce my cell phone bill

While it has some great benefits, using Google Voice is a fairly extreme way to drop your cell phone costs. By channeling the majority of your calls and texts through Google, you can greatly bring your costs down if you choose a low-cost cell phone.

There are some other ways to go, though. A few honorable mentions from my research.

  • Red Pocket Mobile 
    Red Pocket Mobile offers coverage on both GSM and CDMA networks so this could save you from having to buy a new phone if you want to test out a low-cost cell phone carrier.
  • Republic Wireless
    While I’m a huge fan of the Ting business model, the Republic Wireless model is probably my second favorite. Republic works by utilizing WiFi for its calling the majority of the time and then uses a cellular network when WiFi is unavailable. They cleverly switch seamlessly (UPDATE: Maybe not seamlessly — see comments) back and forth between the two networks so you don’t notice the switch. Thus they’re able to keep their monthly prices low — $25 for a standard plan. The big negative, of course, is that you have to use their proprietary phones to make this work. That means buying another phone for as much as $300. Assume you’ll keep your phone for two years and convert that to a monthly price and that’s another $12.50/month. So you’d basically be back to $37.50/month, which is no longer one of the cheaper options. If you can be disciplined and keep your phone for four years, that’d effectively put you at $31.25, but, again, that’s basically the same as many of the carriers below. If I could get a Republic Wireless phone cheaper, I’d be all over this. But if you need to buy a new smartphone anyway, this could be a good option for you. 
  • FreedomPop
    FreedomPop is really shaking things up in the industry by taking the price right to zero. Free data, Free texts and free voice — all of which are very limited — could be just the ticket for a light user. Based on my mobile internet experience, however, I’d be very worried about the coverage map. Hopefully this spreads and helps bring down the cost for the entire industry. 

These days there are many ways to reduce my cell phone bill so I don’t think I’ll ever need to pay more than around $30/month. I’ve been lower than $12 for around six months or so and while I can’t say it’s completely bulletproof, at this price I can handle some hiccups.

Here is a table I put together based on my research of low-cost providers. Take a look, explore. Your mileage may vary, but as long as you stay away from any long-term contracts, you can test a few different options until you find a good fit for your situation:

Lowering my cell phone bill: No-contract cell phone options

TingVariesVariesVariesVariesI love the Ting model -- a true pay for what you use structure.
FreedomPop200 minutes500500MBFree! (If you stay under their usage limits)Check the FreedomPop web site for details on their free phone plan. The Freedom Spot Mobile Hotspot is available at Amazon.
Republic WirelessUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$25/month (3G)Republic Wireless has a unique offering heavily utilizing WiFi to enable calling. Based on the network speed desired, Republic has plans higher and lower than shown here.
AirVoice WirelessUnlimitedUnlimited100MB$30/monthAlso check out their other plans. There are quite a few viable options available for low cost.
ChitChat Mobile250 minutesUnlimited250MB$20/monthChitChat offers mix-and-match style pricing. Take a look at what you need and see if one of their plans would work for you.
Simple MobileUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$25/month
Consumer Cellular200 minutes1000100MB$25/monthConsumer Cellular is oriented toward the senior market. Many mix and match options to choose from.
I-Wireless200 minutesUnlimited200MB$25/monthOwned by grocery chain Kroger.
T-Mobile Prepaid100 minutesUnlimitedUnlimited$30/month
TracFone Wireless200 minutesIncludedIncluded$30/monthSeveral plans offer triple minutes with phone purchase. They also offer some pay as you go plans. Many of their offerings include bonuses in minutes and texts. It may be worth investigating their options if you think they might work for you.
Straight Talk Wireless1000 minutes1000Unlimited$30/month
H2O WirelessUnlimitedUnlimited500MB$30/month
Virgin Mobile300 minutesUnlimitedUnlimited$35/month
Go Smart MobileUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$35/month
Net 10 WirelessUnlimitedUnlimitedUp to 500MB$40/month
MetroPCSUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$40/monthOwned by T-Mobile
GoPhone500 minutesUnlimited200 MB$40/monthAdditional data can be added to this plan for $5/MB. They also have other plans available.
PTEL MobileUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$40/monthA $35 plan is also available without high speed internet.
Boost MobileUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$55/monthBoost also offers a gimmick where you can drop your bill by paying on time.
AIO WirelessUnlimitedUnlimitedUnlimited$55/monthOwned by AT&T
Verizon Wireless PrepaidUnlimitedUnlimited2GB$60/month
Red Pocket MobileUnlimitedUnlimited100MB$30/monthAlso has a basic $10/month plan. Red Pocket offers both CDMA and GSM so you may be able to bring your existing phone regardless of your current carrier.
Prices and details shown here are subject to change. Some links include affiliate links so I may get a few cents if you make a purchase.

How much are you guys paying for cell phone service these day? What service are you using to keep cell phone costs low? 

My quest for a lower cell phone bill

How we saved $120 on our monthly cell phone bill

iphonexAt some point in the year 2007 I was kicking back watching a flickering image on a bulky CRT television when a breathtaking commercial appeared on the screen.

It was for a product called an “iPhone” and after viewing the ad I unfortunately spent the rest of the evening in the hospital seeking medical help for my four-hour erection.

For years I’d heard that Apple was developing a phone, but that alone didn’t prepare me for watching two fingers zoom in on a digital map. Life would never be the same. My once-amazing Motorola Razr blinked at me softly in the same way a pet might look at its owner before taking one sad, final drive to the vet.

Fortunately for my little Razr, I had at least enough willpower to hold off on buying that first generation iPhone. I’ve been around Apple products for long enough to know that they always hold back some must-have features for later generations. I also have been well aware how overpriced they can be. So I held off as long as I could while the days of my T-Mobile contract ticked down.

When the iPhone 3 was announced, I knew it was time. I was out of contract finally and the latest iPhone awaited. My wife and I hopped into her car to head to the AT&T store to surrender to the irresistible siren call of unlimited data and a full internet experience on a portable device.

With shiny new phones iPhones in hand, mine in black, hers in white, we proudly strode back to her car, excited to try out the new device. I literally watched the dot on the digital map as it moved in real-time all the way home. I spent days ruining my vision discovering new apps and exploring the world through this magical device.

My love for my iPhone waned when Apple pushed out the 4.0 iOS update to my phone, rendering it nearly useless. It devoured the battery within minutes of standby and it would take 3-4 seconds for a character to appear on-screen after being touched. The phone was basically dead. And we were furious that Apple would screw over their own customers like that.

So we trudged down to the AT&T store and bought new phones. We were allowed to retain our unlimited data package if we signed a new contract. Still angry with Apple, I got a new Android phone and my wife got a new Windows phone. And things were OK. I mean it bugged us how much our family plan cost, but what are you going to do, right?

Well, when I finally left my crappy corporate job last year to get ready for Pretired Baby, we wanted to tighten up our finances everywhere we could, but we still had quite a bit of time left on our two-year contract. It didn’t seem we had much choice but to wait.

Our perspective changed, however, when my wife recently got a new job. A job that came with an employer-paid brand-new iPhone. I decided to take the plunge and go for the cheapest possible cell phone plan I could.

Unlike when I was working as a big-shot, always-on, digital marketing genius, I no longer needed to have absolutely reliable cell phone data. I needed a smart phone, yes. I conduct most of my consulting work via email and my clients demand near-instant responses. And, let’s be honest: Once you’ve had a taste of life with a smartphone there is no going back.

I also needed to be able to make reliable outbound cell phone calls when needed now that we have no home phone line. With a baby in the house, 911 access is critical.

What I no longer needed was “unlimited data.” Nor do I need unlimited texting or a large number of minutes.

So in summary, my requirements:

  • Some sort of data package
  • Ability to make outbound calls reliably
  • Cost as low as possible
  • And I didn’t want to buy a new device

After doing quite a bit of research on the various options out there, I decided to try something pretty radical: Combine a very cheap monthly cell plan with a “free” mobile internet device. All of this built on a foundation of Google Voice.

Here’s how it works.

Everything you need for a $10 per month smartphone plan

Everything you need for a $10 per month smartphone plan

  • I transferred my phone number to GoogleVoice and make all my calls through that now.
  • I signed up for a $10/month prepaid plan from AirVoice Wireless. This plan comes with 250 minutes for 30 days of service. You can set it up with an auto-replenish so it essentially acts as a contract plan (with no contract).
  • Combine that package with a Freedom Spot Photon 4G Mobile Hotspot (Black)*, a small WiFi box that becomes my data package. The FreedomPop deal is interesting. I paid $95.99 for the device and get 500MB per month at no additional cost. I justified this purchase because I actually have long-needed a way to have cheap, handy WiFi available when I use my laptop or iPad in client meetings.

It took a few weeks to get everything dialed in and I have it working OK now, although I’m still tweaking the set-up all the time. It’s important to note that if it’s absolutely critical that you have reliable phone service, this set-up is not for you. It’s also not for anyone who doesn’t have the time or stubbornness to make it work.

Critical apps to make a lower cell phone bill possible

I needed a few Android Apps for this to function well. Here’s what I’m using right now:

  • Google Voice App – You make the majority of your adjustments to Google Voice actually through the web-based system, but you’ll still want to get the App. I think the App is actually better for iPhone than for Android for whatever reason. With Android, you can set it up so the phone asks you if you want to make a call with Google Voice or via the cell phone. I find it a little hacky. However, I’m currently doing all texting via the Google Voice App and it works pretty well.
  • Groove IP – This app substitutes for the Google Voice App for making and receiving calls. I first tried TalkaTone based on some opinion I read online, but the voice quality was terrible (a lot of delays and cross-talk) and the interface was very poorly designed. Groove IP felt almost like any other phone and the voice quality has been outstanding. Unfortunately there are some problems (see below).
  • WiFi Priority – This app is allows you to set WiFi priority dynamically so that the phone connects to various WiFi signals in the order you determine. This is important so I don’t use up my FreedomPop data allocation while I’m at home. It also saves me from having to constantly adjust settings on the phone or remember to turn off the FreedomPop. Occasionally it doesn’t switch correctly and I have to manually connect. Not sure what’s causing that, but it definitely is not 100% reliable.
  • Group Ringtones – Not strictly necessary to this structure, but a nice enhancement, Group Ringtones lets you adjust ringtones based on who is calling — but group based, not individually based. My main use for this has been to set up a spam contact group so that I didn’t have to deal with all the spam calls that I started getting on my new AirVoice number (more below).

Now this set-up only works because of one important fact that cell phone providers don’t want you to think about: You have WiFi available almost anywhere you need your phone these days. Think about the two places most people will be using their phone: 1) Home 2) Work. In both places most will have WiFi available. That leaves a very small number of available hours where you have no WiFi. Those are the only times where it may make sense to pay for a data plan.

The Savings

Our bill to the bloodsuckers at AT&T was $130/month. Since my wife’s phone is now completely covered by work, her half was taken care of. That left my $65. Plus we had a cancellation fee to the dicks at AT&T and that was $346.

So expenses were $462 to get set up: the cost of the FreedomPop, a Google Voice activation fee, plus the AT&T cancellation fee. I also bought a few apps to make the system run smoothly, maybe $6 total. And, of course there is the $10/month AirVoice expense. So we should break even in 3-4 months, about three months ahead of our contract expiration so the total savings will be around $340 by breaking our contract early. Ongoing, we will have another $120/month in our pockets. If we took my wife’s surprise free phone service out of the mix, the savings would be just my half — just $55/month. I’d have to wait a full six months to break even, about when my contract would be up. But since we did have the free phone from her work, it made sense to try this a little earlier than I otherwise would have.

The problems

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there. I’ve been testing this set-up for a month or so and it’s not without its pitfalls. To be fair to all of the companies involved, they weren’t designed for this. This hack is pretty extreme and is, in fact, pretty shaky. So shaky that once I reach the break-even point in a few months, I’m going to probably give it up for something a little more expensive. Issues I’ve found are:

  • The FreedomPop is the weakest link in the chain. Hey, it’s free, what do you expect? Most importantly, the coverage map is extremely limited. This was my concern before I bought it but not being able to find any info out there I decided to give it a try. What I found is whenever I leave the main urban core, the signal disappears. This is not a worry from the perspective of making an emergency call since that’s what the AirVoice is for. However, this renders the map function useless (kinda important when you’re on the road) as well as any other data. No texting anyone that you’ll be late, no checking email, no looking up an address. No checking traffic reports.
  • I’ve been experiencing a lot of crashes with the Groove IP app. They’ve been so random it’s been hard to figure out what’s causing them. Also annoying is that I sprung for the paid app, but the free version had actually been much more stable. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I’m hoping for an update soon.
  • My phone has dropped a lot of calls, apparently because of a “feature” that turns off the WiFi when the screen goes black. I was able to change that setting but unfortunately that in turn causes poor battery life.
  • It’s fairly slow reconnecting to Google Voice as I switch between networks. In fact Groove IP often won’t connect to Google Voice at all until I restart the phone. Sometimes I have to restart the FreedomPop as well (or instead of). In general maintaining a reliable connection to Google Voice just isn’t happening. I’ve never spent more time restarting and checking things. I’m constantly checking for the Groove IP icon to make sure I’m connected (in itself problematic as that indicator is not always reliable.
  • Once I got a new AirVoice number, I started getting spam calls almost immediately. I quickly learned to never answer that number unless I recognized the caller, but occasionally I forget and answer it on instinct. Apparently having a prepaid number labels you as a poor person because the calls I’ve been getting and in-app ads are for things like immigration services and debt reduction services.

So, in short, I’m going to keep testing and saving for awhile longer, but I need more reliability than I’m getting. I know I can get some minimal data for at least $35/month at AirVoice, but $10 sounds so much better! I’ll be sure to keep you updated as I continue my quest to lower my cell phone bill. Other alternatives are Republic Wireless,* which looks VERY appealing and is exactly what the industry needs, but I don’t particularly want to buy a new phone, when my current one works great. Other good options include payLo by Virgin Mobile*, Net 10 Wireless*, Straight Talk Wireless* or PagePlus. Since these are no-contract plans, I may give a few of them a go and let you know how they work out.

The really good news is that Google Voice combined with cheap monthly data options (and the spread of public WiFi) are quickly dismantling the cell phone providers’ overpriced billing structures. I fully expect the average price for a monthly cell phone bill to drop to $20-$30 in 2-3 years.

The only thing I know for sure right now is I’ll never be trapped in another two-year contract again.

UPDATE 8/23/13: Still using this configuration but things have smoothed out quite a bit. The FreedomPop is still the weak link in the set-up so reliable incoming phone access outside the main urban area is nonexistent. However, the GrooveIP software has been working a bit better lately. My main complain right now when I stay within the city core is the switching between my home WiFi and the FreedomPop. It takes awhile to find the connection and sometimes the GrooveIP seems to just give up even though the WiFi is connected. I’ve missed a few calls after returning home from an outing because the GrooveIP lost its connection when I came into the house (as the phone correctly switched the higher-priority WiFi), but it never connected again. Therefore I frequently have to connect manually just to make sure it’s ready to receive calls. Once in awhile I’ll have to do a full reboot of the phone to clear everything out to get it to connect up properly. So, overall, still pretty sketchy, but it’s easy to see that as the technology catches up, this will be the default for all phones. I’m going to give it awhile longer before I seek out a more reliable data connection, but I’ll be keeping my Google Voice foundation for the foreseeable future.  

Update 10/4/13: Good overview of using Google Voice via a computer here. If that would work for your lifestyle, that will get  you to $0 per month!

Update 1/31/14: Be sure to head over and see the update to this story: The latest on my quest to reduce my cell phone bill

*Affiliate link

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