Ask Daley: About Google Voice and Viber

Welcome to the first installment of a new feature here at Technical Meshugana I’d like to call Ask Daley. Today’s question comes from Louis:

Hey Daley,
I had a quick tech question for you… I was thinking about the Google Voice program for my phones… I tried to find info on it but I’m not sure I understand… Is this a service that actually lets me talk for free anywhere? Or is it like the app I recently downloaded called viber that requires wifi to talk and text for free?  I don’t have access to wifi at work (which, sadly, I’m at most of the day and am not tethered to any wifi signals while I’m out and about)… So, I was thinking that if this actually let me talk free it would be awesome… (frankly, it sounds too good to be true)

Any input would be greatly appreciated.


Thanks for writing!

Google Voice is basically a VoIP-based call-forwarding service with an SMS messaging bridge, primarily designed to forward calls to multiple phones when someone calls your Google Voice number. The free long-distance thing basically only works if you initiate calls through the website and have a phone line to use with the service that doesn’t actually cost you anything to receive calls on.

Some clever folks have hacked workarounds to Google Voice to get them to work with third party apps basically turning Google Voice into a sort of full VoIP service itself combining SIP trunking, a SIP account and a GV dialer so you can use your smartphone or computer with an internet connection as the phone device instead of using an actual phone like other VoIP services. These are apps like Talkatone or the GV support and link utility included in SIPdroid that try to integrate the Google Voice service into your phone.

There’s some downsides with this, of course, the worst being that you’re handing over your Google sign-in credentials to a third party company to basically get “free long distance” calling. Second, you’re heaping another laggy telephony communications layer onto the whole mix to use a service that already has call quality issues. Third, these calls are only “free” in that you’re not using “telephony” minutes so much as you’re paying for the data used, and some wireless providers will consider using VoIP/SIP traffic as a violation of your Terms of Service contract and could suspend or terminate your account for using it. Even if you’re allowed, in the case of VoIP telephony? The best codecs used average about 500kB a minute with GSM (the same quality codec as regular wireless calls), which over a wireless data connection through say PlatinumTel, works out to about 5¢ a minute, identical to their per minute calling rate, and you get an ever higher dose of radiation off the phone using a data connection than you would normally with a voice call as data signals require a higher broadcast strength. Of course, a couple of these concerns are mitigated using a WiFi connection, but then you get into additional security concerns on public WiFi hotspots with your credentials and not knowing how password authentication is being done with some of these apps, etc. etc.

Google Voice’s killer feature is call once, ring everywhere and free SMS messaging for the price of data. There are some regular VoIP providers like VOIPo who offer these features as well (though SMS is still in beta), and the first one usually goes by a name similar to “global call hunting”. Truthfully, I’ve been with Google Voice since the Grand Central days. It has a lot of caveats, and it’s not a service that fills me with rainbows and puppies thinking about or recommending to others. If you want to call long distance “for free” and you don’t care about call quality, you’d do far better with a dedicated proprietary option like netTALK’s smartphone app or spending a bit of money on a VoIP service at home (with public SIP configuration settings allowing you to bring your own device) and either forwarding calls to your cellphone number or installing a SIP client like SIPdroid on your phone to connect to your VoIP service when you’re on WiFi. You ultimately get what you pay for in services. Free’s rarely a good deal.

So yes, it is a little too good to be true… but it can be useful in certain applications if you’re willing to put up with the call quality and the privacy invasion.

As for Viber, Viber is similar to Kik in that it’s dependent upon both parties using the application to utilize the services over your data connection, but extends beyond text messages and into voice as well. It’s great for saving on SMS messages and phone minutes if you (and your friend both) are in a WiFi hotspot and signed up and using Viber, but it’s a pretty one-trick pony and has the potential of getting you in trouble with your data and minute usage on a prepaid account if you aren’t careful or restrict network access for the application to WiFi only.

If you really want to make low cost calls or SMS messages to anybody you want without much hassle, you need to use services and applications that utilize the existing telephone and SMS infrastructure through a data connection. That means finding an open standards VoIP provider that handles both services, or using proprietary services like netTALK or Google Voice with various workarounds, or trying to convince others to join you on yet another dedicated social networking service.

Hope this clears things up for you, and may you have a great Thanksgiving weekend!

Photo entitled “Question mark in Esbjerg” by Alexander Drachmann and licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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