Ask Daley: The End of Google Voice & Republic Wireless

Hey everybody, I’m climbing back into the saddle here and starting off with a question from a reader about Google Voice, the Republic Wireless plans and my past advice. Chris P. writes:

I have read almost all of your postings here and on MMM, and have come to respect your opinion on the subject of saving on communications. I know that you have rallied against Republic Wireless but I was curious what your opinion of the $10 plan now that Google Voice has been restructured. I need a phone for calls and text and I am fine with only using data with WiFi. I am not sure if there would be a cheaper alternative. You say that you use P’tel and spend $10 a month but then also pay for VoIP I assume, and I feel like with Ting I would be in the same situation. With any other plan, I would most likely be looking at $10 plus the monthly cost of a VoIP. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Thanks for writing Chris, I’ll see if I can help you with your question!

First, let’s clarify the prices within my household. Both my wife and I are spending between $10-15/month on mobile service with P’tel combined. That’s about $5.00-7.50 a month per line or person per month. Our home phone service runs us $8/month (after E911 fees) with Future Nine. That brings our entire phone costs to an average of $18-23/month, and for that price we get mobile data as well (a little goes a long way in usefulness), which works out roughly to $9.00-11.50 per person a month.

As much as Google Voice has been restructured, for the time it is still mostly the same beast that it ever was. You can still send SMS messages for the cost of data and make calls with it for free so long as you have an incoming phone number it can route to that doesn’t cost you additional money to operate.

As for why I propose keeping a home phone line in addition to a mobile line? My reason is two-fold: one, it’s a financial savings (especially for families) by helping to reduce mobile costs; two, it provides someone the ability to reduce the expectation of being on-call 24-7-365, which also helps reduce mobile costs.

If you’re single and are looking to use GV as your primary contact number, both of these reasons tend to become less relevant. Now, this doesn’t mean that you still can’t save money using VoIP and/or GV in your mobile setup. After all, the biggest savings is with “incoming” calls if you can get ’em free or cheap over a VoIP line. This is also why it’s important to actually know how many minutes per month you actually use, and how much of that is truly mobile service you need in relation to home-based service. Knowing these numbers helps you to be better informed about your options.

This is where services like CallCentric‘s free incoming NY State phone number come in handy, or a service like Localphone which provides “unlimited” incoming calls and a DID for $1.00/month. Since I believe in supporting companies who do make these sorts of offers without datamining, I’d highly recommend at least signing up and putting a few bucks on the account for outbound calling, even if you don’t regularly use it as such.

The newest GV app for Android is basically a fancier version of their stripped down lite mobile phone web interface, and you can set what your incoming phone number is to something other than your mobile number tied to the phone within the interface. This means you can do callback from the app to any number, including one of the two previously mentioned free to cheap DIDs with free incoming calls which you will have proper SIP credentials for, allowing you to use it with anything from CSipSimple or Acrobits on a smartphone to a Grandstream or Obihai ATA device. This can then permit you to keep your mobile costs to what is actually needed, and keep most of your remaining GV calls both inbound and outbound free.

That said, given what you’ve said about what you’ve read of my advice, you also know how I feel about GV as a service, and how I feel about free or paid services in general where datamining is involved. The call quality and reliability isn’t even good enough for free, and the privacy concerns are not insignificant.

Which brings us to your question about Republic. It’s important to understand why I still oppose Republic, even today despite so many of the changes and improvements they’ve made to the service. There’s still three major points to the argument: the legal contract, the service quality, and the price. Call quality (even over WiFi) reminds me too much of the low-tier VoIP services like MagicJack, and mobile call quality is worse. They’re just low quality calls. The legal agreement is ugly, with too many nebulous points and heinous financial penalties for violating those nebulous points along with plenty of weasel words. As for the price, let’s dive a bit deeper on that one.

$5/month+tax WiFi only: There’s plenty of “unlimited” VoIP providers already operating on open standard SIP protocols priced around this point, many of which offer SMS support as well. You can replicate this with any smartphone you like without buying their equipment. If you need emergency fallback mobile service, there’s both GSM and CDMA MVNOs that can cost as little as $2.50/month to keep active. Republic may provide plan toggling (up to three times, IIRC), but if you’re regularly switching between the two bottom tier plans, you’re looking at dropping just shy of $10 a month after tax anyway.

$10/month+tax mobile voice/SMS only: Of the four plans, this is the only option that’s even mildly compelling, but odds are if you know your actual mobile usage, it’s probably not compelling enough to save a price difference of less than $10 a month to avoid its overall shortcomings if you know how all this stuff works and is wired together (that’s where The Guide comes in). Bonus, rolling your own solution will let you have limited mobile data as well for those prices. The any phone you like argument once again applies, as it will continue doing so. There’s also some interesting newer providers worth noting on the Sprint end to consider such as RingPlus and ItsOn/Zact‘s relaunching service apparently coming in August, which appears to provide far more granular service buckets than Ting without the mobile roaming network support costs. There’s also Kajeet (Sprint) and Liberty Wireless (T-Mobile) if the biggest issue is needing a lot of SMS messages and minimal talk time. Additionally, there’s also services like FreedomPop and TextNow to consider if Google Voice is on the table as an alternative usage option. (Note: RingPlus, TextNow and FreedomPop are providers who explicitly utilize revenue from datamining to provide services below market cost, in similar used terms as Republic’s own Privacy Policy.)

$25/month+tax “unlimited” talk/text/3G data: Sprint’s 3G data network’s pretty rough and the throughput isn’t all that great, nor is the data coverage all that great geographically, especially in rural areas (Sprint and T-Mobile have the smallest native data/service footprints). Also, nobody needs “unlimited” data. 500MB is a comically large chunk of data for most folks if you don’t stream media and you use offline GPS. At best, they’re barely any cheaper than any other “unlimited” talk and text with limited data package MVNO offerings after taxes are factored, and if you actually know your usage needs, you can even get more data for the money if you don’t need the minutes and don’t mind the Sprint or T-Mobile data networks.

$40/month+tax “unlimited” talk/text/4G data: Again, the Sprint 4G network is even tinier than their 3G network. Of course, the legal contract with Republic does define exceeding 5GB of data as abuse in violation of the AUP. This brings us back to the others if you actually need that much fargin’ data without the risk of a punitive $500+ contract fine. Cricket (AT&T) does 5GB of 4G LTE data and throttled 2G/EDGE data speeds above that at $55/month. There’s plenty of other options in the same price range offering 3GB unthrottled with “unlimited” after at slower speeds (such as with GoSmart Mobile), which is still more data that most undisciplined mobile data users actually use per month in this country, and you can still pick any phone you like with most of these other options.

Even at slightly higher costs per month on any of these plans through alternate providers, the difference is frequently less than $5/month between them. That price difference is usually offset by the additional cost of the proprietary handset over the course of two years, so it’s clearly important to factor equipment investment as well.

It’s also important to remember that most MVNOs (excuse America Movil’s brands, Republic and Ting, IIRC) roll their taxes and regulatory fees into their monthly prices as well, so as the only taxes paid on top of the quoted price is local sales tax, which is far less than the taxes and regulatory fees tacked on top. I’ve seen anywhere between 15-40% in taxes and fees charged to a Republic handset bill, and have seen those taxes and fees reported by users run higher dollar for dollar spent through Republic than some traditional postpaid mobile or landline accounts.

This isn’t to say there aren’t advantages to Republic. There is the fact that you don’t have to set anything up yourself as it’s one device. You do have the option to change plans and back mid-month. You also have the ability to transition from WiFi to CDMA with calls and vice-versa, but how often does that actually occur for most folks? Given the alternatives, however, and the actual prices involved… you can see why I still don’t find them compelling for the price given the drawbacks, especially since you’re pretty much on your own with support either way. At least the DIY path opens enough of the system up that you can actually troubleshoot and repair if need be.

Anyway, you haven’t really given me enough details on your usage to be able to say that for certain you’re absolutely looking at spending at least $10/month for mobile service plus the additional cost of a VoIP account, so I can’t assess if your conclusion for your usage habits is incorrect.*

What I can tell you though is that there’s a lot of full VoIP options ranging from free to $5/month or less for “unlimited” incoming and up to 1500 minutes outbound, and 5000 minutes in/out for under $8/month from the VoIP providers name-checked in the Guide. There are some VoIP providers that offer DIDs for free, and most others that do PAYGO only charge between $1.00-3.00 a month for that phone number depending on the exchange. Some offer free incoming calls, and only charge for outgoing. Some will even let you set your outgoing CID number to anything you like and not require you to pay for a DID. One of these is the earlier mentioned Localphone, who I haven’t covered and fully researched yet even if I really should. They have DIDs for $1/month with unlimited incoming minutes, and outgoing starts at 0.5¢/minute with that same outgoing CID configuration freedom, and their reviews over at Broadband Reports seem promising if not a bit scant.

You can also go with a proprietary device like the Nettalk Duo paired with an Android or iOS handset with their SMS app installed, which allows you to do “unlimited” talk and SMS for $60/year ($5/month). Of course then you’re dealing with the same sort of call quality as Republic, but you’ll have other VoIP features available such as call blocking and filtering as well as complex call forwarding rules.

What I can also tell you is that if mobile service is minimally needed, you can maintain a mobile account for as little as $2.50/month (cheaper the plan, more expensive the minutes) with the same MVNO providers I’ve mentioned in the Guide, and $5-10 can be a pretty healthy chunk of time at 5¢/minute or less, especially if you can offload most of your SMS messaging to data. Of course, this doesn’t apply to Ting, but I typically don’t recommend Ting unless you’re either coming off of Sprint and EcoMobile isn’t an option, Verizon roaming coverage is required along with requiring Sprint as the primary carrier, and/or you’re doing multi-line accounts.

Only you can run the numbers, and it’ll be up to you to determine if the cost differential and the setup is worth it or not versus the call quality and the shortcomings of the alternative, but depending on the actual needs and the services utilized, it’s still quite possible to easily roll your own quality hybrid VoIP/mobile setup for around $10/month that would beat out the call quality of any pre-assembled provider, but you have to actually run the numbers to gauge viability, and that means knowing what you actually use per month instead of just relying on the “unlimited” crutch.

You could likely go even cheaper if you cut corners on quality and possibly use datamine-subsidized services, but then you’re literally only saving a couple bucks over going Republic with all the same caveats, it’d just be easier to go Republic – not that this is a ringing endorsement. There’s just significantly diminishing returns on money saved for the quality sacrificed down at this end of the price spectrum, and selling your soul to advertisers for a cheap discount is foolish. Some people are fine with compromising quality and reliability or privacy while chasing after the cheapest provider offering that particular siren song, but that’s not me, and that’s what separates my advice from the dime-a-dozen MagicJack, Republic and StraightTalk recommendations stuffing the internet. Cheaper might potentially be off the table if quality is left on it, but the alternatives are likely to be superior for the same money invested.

I know I haven’t entirely answered your question outside of my personal valuation of the Republic $10 plan in relation to the alternatives, but I’m hoping that by presenting the information that I have, you (and others) can now better make that judgment call for yourselves… because I would be lying if I didn’t say their $10 plan can be compelling under certain circumstances to a few folks.

Hope this helps!

Part Two!

*As this Ask Daley was actually part of a greater e-mail exchange, let me include the follow-ups from Chris and my replies:

I do not really need data because I have WiFi at work and at home and can live without it the rest of the time. I use about 100 text messages a month and 100 minutes of talk. I could tailor another plan to fit these needs for $10 but with the Republic plan it is prepackaged essentially.

If you’re only using on average 100 minutes and 100 texts a month total in phone usage with no data, mobile or home, you can easily go cheaper than Republic without sacrificing qualityor complicating the setup and dragging VoIP into the mix. That’d only average about $7/month on P’tel, and Airvoice’s $10/month plan would eventually bank enough rollover even after just three months to effectively give you F-you minutes to burn… and in the case of Airvoice, I’d recommend AT&T network coverage over Sprint even with Verizon roaming 95% of the time.

So, after researching coverage in my area it appears Sprint is the best. I actually have Verizon now and my cell phone constantly cuts out as we live on a canyon. I am going to give the Republic $10 plan a 30 day trial period first to see how it works and then port my number over if I like it. I think that the combination of Sprint and WiFi calling with be good for my situation. The problem I would have with P’tel or Airvoice would be the same problem I have now with Verizon. So my particular situation I think I need the option of WiFi calling so I would have to bring a VoIP into the mix. I will let you know how it goes.

As a cautionary word of advice, don’t put a great deal of stock in coverage maps for areas such as your own, as reality frequently runs counter to them. I cite my own parents experiences as evidence. CDMA maps from both Sprint and Verizon show they should do better for them than AT&T or T-Mobile. Their home and about a 200 yard radius from it is a CDMA black hole for everything but an incredibly weak US Cellular signal. The GSM coverage maps from both AT&T and T-Mobile showed weaker coverage (T-Mobile nearly non-existent), but reception is fine for both, and AT&T being the strongest with T-Mobile still being quite serviceable. Of course, if you’ve used AT&T out at your place in the past and know from experience that it simply won’t work, ignore this bit of advice, but…

If you have a Verizon handset, I suspect it’s likely a smartphone, and a 4G LTE phone at that. It’s possible that depending on the specific make and model that it may already be carrier unlocked and AT&T GSM capable due to FCC spectrum licensing rules.

I know you’ve already committed the money to Republic, but if your current Verizon handset can support it (actually supporting GSM service), order an Airvoice SIM card off of Ebay for a buck, pop it in and see if it’ll work. Low risk and cheap to try if everything lines up.

Closing

We discussed more after this point, but that brings us current to the relevant discussion. Chris, I hope all my advice has helped, and even though I’m not a huge Republic supporter, I hope your choice works for you where the alternatives might not. At least you’ve gone into it educated, that’s the most important part. I hope you keep us all posted as you try out your options, and if you have to return the Republic handset, I hope they don’t ding you too hard with their return policies.

Go in good health, all of you!

-Daley

 

Feature article 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).

1 thought on “Ask Daley: The End of Google Voice & Republic Wireless

  1. Here are a couple of more crummy things I’ve discovered about MagicJack (I’ve actually been with them for quite a few years now).

    They almost always drop my call at about the 60-minute mark. Then I will try to call the person back and will get a busy signal even after repeated attempts. They block access to conference call numbers. I was glad I had a cell phone handy at the time, so I wouldn’t miss the conference.

    I’m shopping around for something new, so all your information is very helpful. Thanks.

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