March 18th, 2012 by Sumit
This is part thought experiment, part we’re-almost-there, and part holy-wow-you-could-actually-do-this-today. For a long time I’ve been frustrated at how wireless providers have wanted to charge us separately for voice, text, and data, and recently even more for tethering, when in fact it’s all just data. Well, we’ve now reached an interesting point in the dicing up of such plans, the evolution of portable devices, and IP/telephony bridge services that interesting possibilities are now available, albeit with some caveats.
Here’s the basic idea, though the tech-savvy amongst you will have figured it out from the picture already: you carry a WiFi-enabled device as your handset – it could be an iPod touch, a Kindle Fire, or ideally an unlocked/off-contract smartphone with its cellular radio turned off. You also carry a tiny “MiFi” or similar device which is meant for tethering users, which talks 3G to the cell tower and allows 3-5 WiFi connections from devices/computers. You make and receive your calls with Skype and receive text messages via Google Voice.
As a nominal setup, let’s consider the iPod Touch 4G 8GB ($188 at Amazon) as a handset. With a front-facing camera and built-in speaker and microphone, it’s the most powerful phone form-factor for the price. Of course an unlocked smartphone (iPhone, Windows Phone, Android) would work even better, but unless you already have one from a previous contract they can be expensive to buy off-contract.
You’ll also need an AT&T MiFi Router (on AT&T you now have to go with the Elevate 4G, $70 on a 2-year contract and $270 without); the only plan available is $50/month for 5 Gigabytes, which should be more than enough for all the phone calls and smartphone-like surfing you can do in a month. The device is tiny (4x2x.7 inches, 3.6 ounces) and acts as a portable WiFi hotspot – you just connect your device (or laptop) to the hotspot and you’re on the internet. It’s supposed to last for 5 hours of active use, but you’d only be using it a small fraction of the time – however, to receive calls it would always have to be on. It’s not clear whether it will last all day if it’s idling most of the time.
There is a cheaper option – if you get a 3G ipad, you can get the $30/month 3 Gigabyte plan, but that’s an awfully big cellphone to be carrying around.
Placing/Receiving Voice Calls
While outbound IP telephony, i.e., the ability to call physical phones over the internet, has been available to consumers for some time now via services like Skype, a relatively recent development is inbound calls. Skype now allows you to get a “Skypein” phone number in the area code of your choice which maps to your Skype account – when someone calls that number, all your devices/computers will ring. If you have the Skype app on the iPod touch with background notifies turned on, the device will ring even if it’s in standby mode. It’s not free, though – I recently procured such a number, and it’s $60/year ($5/month). For another $3/month you get unlimited US/Canada calling; if you subscribe for a year you get a discount on the Skypein number too so the whole deal is around $6/month (thus the total price of $56/month in the title).
This won’t be the phone number you’ll give people, though; read the section below to see why.
While Skype lets you send outgoing text messages, you can’t receive incoming texts. Fortunately, Google Voice has this among its many handy features. The way Google Voice works is that you get a universal phone number (again, in the area code of your choice), which you can map to any phone number you wish; you can’t actually make calls through Google Voice itself, but you can receive/send text messages for free. If you install the Google Voice app on your device, you can route phone calls to your Skype number but receive/send text messages in the app. You can also set up Skype so the Caller ID will show the Google Voice number. As with the Skype app, when you receive a text message in the Google Voice app you’ll get a notify that will “wake up” your device and play a notification tone, even if it’s in standby.
The Google Voice number, then, is the phone number you’ll give people and the number you’ll text from. That way, if they call or text you, you’ll receive it with a notify from either the Skype or Google Voice app respectively.
Upsides and Downsides
There are some obvious pluses and minuses with this scheme. Let’s start with the minuses, as they’re pretty significant:
- There’s the extra bulk of carrying both the handset (iPod Touch) and the MiFi hotspot – this is likely the dealbreaker for most people.
- There’s no 911 service; you’d have to call police/fire/etc. directly and they’d have no way of figuring out your location without your telling them.
- It’s unclear whether the battery for the hotspot would last all day under sparse usage – you may have to carry a second battery, adding further to the bulk.
At the same time, there are some unique advantages as well:
- Cost – $55/month is a pretty good deal, considering that voice 450/data/text/tethering would cost you $40+$30+$20+$20 or $110/month.
- Tethering for you and your friends – since you’re carrying a hotspot in your pocket, you can connect your laptop or allow your friends to do the same.
- Limited tracking/eavesdropping – since you’ll be having all your communications over secure channels, there is less opportunity for AT&T to track/eavesdrop. Not that this is a particularly big concern.
The Better (Future) Solution
Clearly, one would want the handset and the MiFi hotspot combined into one compact device. It turns out this magical device already does exist – it’s called a smartphone! Unfortunately, since AT&T (and the other providers) will not treat such a beast as a data-only device, i.e., it’s not possible for you to buy a data-only plan without voice, the cost becomes at least $90/month, and $110 if you want tethering as well. Other providers like Virgin do offer cheaper plans (oddly enough, at the magic $55 pricepoint I came up with for this scheme), but it seems from online reports that their coverage/data rates are pretty spotty compared to AT&T.
The real consumer-friendly solution, then, would be for all wireless companies to sell data-only plans for their phones, or follow Virgin’s lead and offer a single low price for all of it. That’s not bloody likely, though – surely they will keep charging people extra for voice minutes as long as they possibly can. In the interim, while the solution outlined above is admittedly hacky, it would actually work today, so it is an option. At the least, it’s something to think about.