How To Make Free Phone Calls & Have Cheap or Free Phone Service
Recently my wife suggested that we try Roku and drop our very expensive cable service. This got me thinking about one other service that is really expensive: cell phones.
Our cell phone bill and cable bill combined could have paid for a very nice new car. This seemed ridiculous to me. So, I started looking for ways to reduce the cell phone bill and started to think that maybe I could get it for free.
The path to free phone service was long and painful, but it was rewarding in the end and worked surprisingly well. If only someone had told me what I’m about to write here.
Getting free cell phone service has some issues. Cheap phone service is much easier to accomplish. Here are the main issues:
- Lag – You will have to use a free voice over IP service such as Skype, GrooVe IP or Talkatone. Some services are better than others, but they all had at least a little lag for me. GrooVe IP was the worst for me at about a full second. Skype and Talkatone were very minimal at about half a second.
- Static – Every voice over IP service had at least a little crackle in the connection from time to time. It was very sporadic and often I would have a crystal clear connection for 5 to 10 minutes at a time with a little hiss or crackle for a second or two. The static was so minimal that I quickly got desensitized to it and no longer notice. Also, I’ve not heard any complaints from others about it.
- Echo – On my end it’s pretty much crystal clear all the time, but sometimes the other person can hear their own voice echo back to them. It is typically very faint and seems to be minor. Most people don’t seem to be getting the echo or they aren’t noticing it. There are settings in various VoIP (voice over IP) applications that you can play with to try and negate the echo. I made some adjustments in the beginning and that seems to have helped.
- Data Plan – For me to use VoIP, I need access to the internet through either WiFi or a phone data plan. WiFi is great except it’s not going to work unless I’m at home or near a hotspot. Data plans aren’t free, so that is an issue. But, with Google Voice taking messages for me, I can live without the phone until I get home or to the next hotspot. There I check my messages and respond. Also, the phone rings even when I’m not at a hotspot and if I recognize the number as being extremely important, I have the option of answering right then and there and getting charged a minimal amount. For me it’s $2.00 for the entire day. Once I’m charged that day, I don’t have to pay anything else for the rest of the day and this includes data usage such as surfing the web.
- Skype Funky Number – This issue bothers me the most. This was only a problem with Skype, but since it seems to work the best of all the services, it was an issue for me. Talkatone and GrooVe IP use Google Voice which acts as a broker of sorts and allowed me to keep my phone number that everyone is familiar with. Skype creates a funky number that seems to change. So, when I call someone else using Skype, they see a strange number on their caller ID.
- Google Voice Instant Message App Not Showing The Count – Google voice is awesome, but the app on my Android doesn’t show me a count of how many unread messages. You know that little red number that shows up on an icon for mail? Yep, that is missing. So, I have to either go in and look or have Google Voice also send me an email when I get an IM. Not a big deal for me as the email is sufficient warning of an unread instant message.
Now – How To Get Free Phone Service
This is just one way, but I think it’s probably the best. Here is what I did.
- Sold My iPhone On eBay – Doing some research, it seemed like a good idea to get away from what feels like a very proprietary phone (iPhone) and going towards a more open phone (Android). I’m not certain this was the best move, but it seemed to work well for me and I’m glad that I did it. The Android has Google Voice built in and launches seamlessly when the phone is booted up. I suspect this might have been an issue on the iPhone and figured with how locked down the iPhone is, there would be more issues as well.
- Bought An Inexpensive Android (Samsung Dart) – These phones are incredibly inexpensive. I bought mine new for under $140 with no contract. You can get them used for about $80 on eBay. It works fantastic. I’m able to get on Google Play (the iPhone version of the App Store). It has tons of apps. One warning though, you might want to spring for an Android that at least runs the Gingerbread Operating System. The Dart only runs Froyo so I can’t get some of the cooler newer games such as Temple Run and Words with Friends. If this is important to you, then you might look at the Samsung Exhibit II. It has Gingerbread and is priced far below most smart phones at $200. The nice thing about these phones is that there is no contract that locks you in. Also, if you damage one, replacing it won’t cost you $500 to $700 like some of the other phones.
- Selected A Pay As You Go Plan – When buying the Dart, I made sure that I wasn’t locked into a contract. Again, I did this by buying the Dart outright and picked my service. The Dart came with T-Mobile. My wife had T-Mobile in the past and said her experience with them was good. I did compare plans later, and it turns out they do have better or similar price plans than the other services I looked at (Wal-Mart, Virgin, and AT&T). The plan I picked is really simple. If I make a call using T-Mobile (versus my WiFi in combination with VoIP), then I get charged $2.00 for the day, but can use the phone all day without any further charges. This includes data usage for internet surfing.
- Setup Google Voice – This was pretty easy for me. They charged me a one time fee of $20 and ported my primary phone number into Google Voice. It took a full 24 hours, but Google was able to disconnect my service with AT&T. Once that was done, I was able to go into Google Voice and have it forward future calls to my new phone. I also turned off the forwarding of instant messages within Google Voice because T-Mobile charges for them. To get instant messages see the next step.
- Installed Google Voice On My Phone - Actually, if I remember right, this was already installed on the Android and it’s just called “Voice”. Note, this is just “Voice” and not “Google Voice”. That was confusing and cost me a bit of time figuring out. Now, if someone sends me an IM it will show up under this app. As stated up above, the flaw here is that the little red number doesn’t exist for this app, so I can’t tell when I have new messages. To get around this, I went back into Google Voice and clicked the option to have me emailed when I get an IM. Hopefully Google will patch the Android application in the future. Not a big deal for me though as I don’t get that many instant messages.
- Installed GrooVe IP – It turns out I could have just installed Skype and been done with it, but GrooVe IP had one big advantage. With GrooVe IP, when I make a call, my primary phone number shows up on the receiver’s caller ID. With Skype, it shows a number that doesn’t even look like it’s being called from the U.S.
- Installed Skype – GrooVe IP is okay, but it has more lag than Skype. I installed Skype and use it for talking to my wife or friends / family as they are more tolerant of the strange number. Also, the reception seems better for me than GrooVe IP.
- Test Test Test – You need to watch it. My carrier seemed a bit sneaky to me. It took a while to work out the kinks. First I was getting instant messages forwarded to my new cell phone through the carrier and getting charged. Turned that off in Google Voice, but then next I realized that checking voice mail on my new phone was costing me minutes. Now nobody has the new number, but there are mis-dials and my OCD just can’t handle looking at the icon that says there are voicemails in my box. To get around this issue, I call my voicemail through Skype.
- Patience – If it seems like it’s not working, be patient and think it through. My wife uses her phone a lot more than I do, so for her, we just signed up for the $50 a month unlimited plan. This really threw me off though when I started calling her through Skype and got horrible reception. I became very frustrated and nearly gave up, but then discovered that this wasn’t Skype’s fault, but T-Mobile. On our new phones, there is an application installed by default called WiFi Calling. This was done by T-Mobile and it defaults to being on. So at home, my wife was calling over the WiFi and not the cell towers. Well, apparently, T-Mobile WiFi calling doesn’t work well as the service was awful. To fix this we just clicked on the Android App that T-Mobile had installed and turned it off. Problem was solved and calls are now crystal clear almost all the time.
- Acceptance – During this process I quickly realized that there is no way my free service is going to be as good as something I pay for, but this is okay. The main limitation is that I can only answer calls when I’m at a hotspot such as my house, work, or some commercial places. The other significant limitation is that I have to use a voice over IP service such as Groove IP, Talkatone, or Skype. These tend to have a little lag and sometimes issues with reception. Tweaking the settings in each of the apps can help to decrease echo and lag, but that requires patience and work. For me, it was worth the effort and sacrifice.
That is the short version of what I went through. It was exhilarating to think I might be able to avoid a phone bill and I’m happy to say it worked out better than I had hoped. After tweaking the settings on Groove IP, I am able to make very clear calls. The person on the other end typically can tell something strange is going on, but I’m just upfront with them about what I’m doing and most don’t have an issue.
So, my portion of the phone bill went from about $70 a month to $0.
If you have any advice or questions, please feel free to comment.
Ah, and here is the phone I purchased. While it uses the older Froyo Android Operating System, I find it has enough apps to get the job done and I’m happy with the savings. If you want the Gingerbread OS, you could try the Samsung Exhibit II for about $200 depending on where you buy it. Besides the newer Android OS, it also has a faster processor and much better camera.