Want a simple way to shrink your smartphone costs? All you have do is trim back your monthly minutes -- and that doesn't mean you have to talk any less.
Yesterday, I shared some thoughts about my experience with ditching the traditional carrier-centric smartphone model and moving to a prepaid setup. I'm now paying about a third of what I used to pay for cell service -- a savings of $600 a year. Part of the way I get my bill so low is by using a low-minutes plan and utilizing free Google services for the majority of my voice calls.
To be clear, you don't have to go the low-minutes route in order for prepaid to pay off, but cutting back on your minutes is obviously one way to make your bill even lower. The prepaid plan I use -- one of T-Mobile's Monthly 4G offerings -- costs $30 a month for 100 minutes and then 10 cents a minute for any minutes beyond that.
Here's how I make it work:
1. Google Voice
Google Voice is the focal point of my communications setup. I'm not going to get into the specifics of the service here, but in a nutshell, it serves as a managing hub for all of your phone calls. You pick a new phone number (or "port" in your existing one), then tell Google Voice where to send your calls and when.
Google Voice has a lot of other useful features, but the forwarding element is what's most relevant to this discussion. The only number I give out to people these days is my Google Voice number, and that allows me to control where my calls go and what device I use to answer them.
(If you aren't familiar with Google Voice in general, you can find a good overview of the service on Google's official Voice website.)
2. Free Google VoIP service
You may be aware that Google offers free voice calls -- you know, the functionality built into Gmail and Google Talk -- but what you might not realize is that you can harness that service to effectively create a fee-free VoIP phone line for your home and/or office. No hassle, no bills, and -- at least in my experience -- landline-like call quality.
The secret is a little $40 device called the OBi. OBi is a small box that plugs into your Internet router. After a simple PC-based setup, OBi connects to your Google account and acts as a portal for your Google VoIP service. You can even connect the device to two separate Google accounts if you want to have multiple Google Voice numbers coming into the phone.
Once everything's connected, all you do is plug a regular landline-style phone into the OBi, and for all practical purposes, you have a fully functioning phone line at your fingertips. When you pick up the phone, you'll hear a dial tone just like you would on any normal landline. When you place a call, it comes from your Google Voice number -- and when someone calls your Google Voice number, the phone will ring. You even have caller ID and call waiting. Most important, the time you spend talking on the line is in no way connected to your cell phone and doesn't use any type of limited or billable minutes.*
In my house, I have a multihandset phone base hooked up to the OBi (just a regular landline-style cordless phone -- nothing special). The perk there is that it has several "extension" handsets that work elsewhere in the house, just like they would with a regular landline; since they're made to work off the main base, they only have to plug into a regular power outlet and they're good to go.
It's up to you to decide when your Google Voice number rings your OBi-based line and when it doesn't. In your Google Voice "Phone" settings, the device listed as "Google Chat" controls the OBi line; just click the "Edit" button beneath it, and you can set things up however you like.
[UPDATE: In May of 2014, Google pulled the plug on the free service that OBi had utilized. There's still hope, though: With a few minutes of setup, you can keep using OBi to get simple and cheap service that's very similar to what Google had provided. See my OBi-after-Google transition guide for a detailed look at what's involved.]
Or you can take things a step further, like I do...
3. Location-aware call forwarding
Android's jam-packed with power -- so why not take full advantage of it? I use an app called Tasker to monitor where I am and handle my call-forwarding (among other things) automatically for me.
Tasker is a ridiculously powerful tool. There's plenty of documentation available about the app and how it works, so I'll leave the basics up to you to figure out -- but the key to setting up location-based call-forwarding is combining Tasker with a third-party plugin called Locale GV Settings. (As its name implies, the plugin also works with Locale -- another automation app that's quite similar to Tasker. I prefer Tasker, personally, but either one will do the trick.)
In short, I have Tasker profiles set up for different locations in my life, and depending on where I am, Tasker adjusts my phone's settings and tells Google Voice where to send my incoming calls. The GV Settings plugin allows it to do this.
For example, my "Home" profile is set to activate when my phone senses it's within reasonable range of my home Wi-Fi network. (The app periodically toggles Wi-Fi on for a few seconds to look; the effect on battery life from that is pretty minimal.) When activated, the profile enables Wi-Fi on my phone and -- via the GV Settings plugin -- tells Google Voice to ring my OBi box and not my cell phone. When I'm no longer in reasonable range of my home Wi-Fi network, the profile deactivates and those settings are reversed.
The result: Anytime I'm at home, my calls are automatically forwarded to my house's Google-based VoIP line (i.e. the OBi). As long as I'm at home, my actual cell phone never rings and I never use any cellular minutes. When I go back out, meanwhile, calls come to my cell phone and the home phone doesn't ring. People calling are never aware any of this is going on; as far as they're concerned, they just dial my number and I answer.
Tasker costs $6.49; the GV Settings plugin is four bucks. As far as I'm concerned, they're both worth every penny.
4. Phone-based VoIP calling
The final tool in my minutes-reducing arsenal is a VoIP calling app for my Android phone. I rarely end up using this, personally, but it's certainly a good option to have at hand.
GrooVe IP lets you use the free Google calling service right from your smartphone; instead of using cellular minutes, you place calls over Wi-Fi or your 3G/4G data connection (the free version limits you to Wi-Fi only). The call quality isn't always great -- it really depends on the strength and consistency of your connection, and Wi-Fi is usually a bit more reliable than 3G/4G -- but it's frequently good enough to get the job done, particularly if you're in a stationary position (and thus more likely to have a consistent connection).
In general, though, the call quality is nowhere near the level of what you get with the OBi VoIP line setup, which is why I opt to use that whenever I can.
[UPDATE [5/14]: How to make free VoIP calls on Android -- without Google]
So there you have it: my (not-so) secret ways of using free Google services to shrink my phone bill. Like with the prepaid smartphone stuff or almost anything tech-related, they won't be for everyone -- but hey, they might just work for you.
*Two footnotes: (1) Google has currently committed to providing the free calling service through at least the end of 2012. The past two Decembers, Google has made announcements that it would extend the free service through the following year. It's too soon to know if it'll do the same this year or not; it's entirely possible the company could change its mind at some point and decide to start charging a fee for the service. Given Google's history and typical business model, it'd be pretty surprising if it suddenly decided to start charging any significant amount for the service, but it's impossible to say for sure. (2) Google currently has the free calling service available only to users in the U.S. and Canada. Sorry, international friends.