A lot of buzz has been circulating around the MVNO and FIRE communities the past couple days since Google officially announced their Google Fi service. Of course, it’s been a mixed reception, but those of us in the know aren’t particularly moved by it. Since it’s on people’s minds, however, I’m going to *ahem* exploit the topic shamelessly and not only talk about it’s possible value, but also how to do nearly the same danged thing for about the same cost without buying a ghastly $650 Nexus 6. That’s right, we’re ‘skatin again!
Now, before we dive into the fun little meaty bits, let’s give props where props are due.
Google Fi – What’s Right About It
Well, for one, the price. It’s unremarkable, but realistic for what it is. The base price without data is a reasonable $20/month for “unlimited” talk and texting, and it’s in line with what you’d expect with a T-Mobile MVNO. The $10/GB price is also right in line with what one would expect from a T-Mobile MVNO. Same thing with their international roaming rates, though their data roaming agreements are a bit nicer.
For those excited about Sprint roaming to help fill in some dire gaps in T-Mobile’s network coverage, do keep in mind that this is a GSM MVNO, and probably done so for the sake of gaining 3GPP UMA/GAN network support for calling. A close examination of the coverage maps seems to confirm that the only Sprint coverage being used is their 4G LTE network, which is a GSM-based network itself despite Sprint’s long-time status as a CDMA carrier. Between the Sprint LTE and other T-Mobile roaming partners, this actually gives a reasonable network footprint for a lot of areas that wouldn’t normally work for either of them independently.
The choice of T-Mobile and Sprint is also very smart as both carriers now offer WiFi calling, or GAN access, on select smartphone handsets. This means that unlike a certain other hybrid mobile/WiFi provider, the service is going to be truly seamless and just work. Given Google’s long time Google Voice integration with both Sprint and T-Mobile, this move in hindsight is a logical one, and a little exciting to finally see a GSM MVNO with proper GAN support. It’s not that I don’t have a problem with VoIP over WiFi as an extension of mobile service, it’s just that there’s better ways to execute it than it has by past MVNOs. GAN is nice as it helps with indoor reception, but its biggest boon is with international roaming.
It’s obviously well thought out, well engineered, and the pricing is sufficiently maintainable to make Google money and potentially keep it around if they ever roll it out to any of their cheaper handsets. If that happens, it will find its niche. That said, it’s also pretty unremarkable for the same reasons that they got right, which is why it’s really not going to revolutionize the mobile industry… but even the miraculous can happen in the mundane.
It’s not something that will make me change my recommendations, though. It’s only middle of the road price-wise, and it comes with a big honkin’ side of exploitative datamining.
Anyway… now that we have that out of the way, let’s explore how to nearly replicate Google Fi today for a tenth of the cost up front, and nearly the same price per month!
Today, I’m going to show you how to piece together your own honkin’ mobile-VoIP hybrid international phone using a $70 Android handset that costs under $30/month using Google Voice/Hangouts right now. You won’t be able to cleanly transition from mobile to WiFi and back on calls with this setup, but Google Voice does let you switch incoming calls between lines using the [*] button. Long-time readers will probably find most of this to be old hat and might have already sussed out how to pull this off themselves, but this is for all you cheapskates and new readers out there.
This is an intermediate knowledge guide for those already familiar with The Guide, so I am going to assume that those reading along are already familiar with how to use and configure Google Voice (GV) and Hangouts, and are reasonably familiar with VoIP.
The Shopping List
- BLU Life Play Mini L190L – $70 Amazon (referral link)
- P’tel Combi Card SIM – $5 P’tel + $20 Unlimited Talk & Text w/250MB Data Plan
- Red Pocket GSMT micro SIM – $1 Red Pocket + $10/GB Mobile Internet Plan
- KnowRoaming SIM Sticker – $30 KnowRoaming + $3/mo. ReachMe service
- CallCentric Free Phone Number – free CallCentric + 1.98¢/minute for call forwarding
- Google Voice – free
Initial outlay should be around $106 for everything, with a recurring monthly baseline cost of $23 a month, plus $10/GB above 250MB and miscellaneous costs for taxes and VoIP incidentals. Of course, some of these things are wholly optional and can be sourced cheaper through Ebay and used, or through other providers for less….
Some of you are also probably cringing at the idea of having to pay four separate providers to duplicate this service, but all of them have some level of automated billing and prepaid balances which simplifies things after the accounts are initially set up.
About the BLU L190L
Why this phone? Well, it’s a carrier unlocked GSM 3G HSPA+ world phone with two SIM card slots with a 4″ IPS display, a dual core 1GHz Cortex-A7 processor with Mali-400 GPU, 512MB RAM, 4GB storage, a microSD card slot, A-GPS ready, built in FM radio tuner, user replaceable battery, and runs stock Android KitKat (v4.4.2)… all brand new for $70. The battery life might not be the greatest, but show me an Android smartphone that doesn’t need to be plugged in nightly anyway.
It’s pretty sweet for the money, and you could probably do a lot worse if you absolutely needed to buy a new phone. Bonus points for being able to fit it in a pocket, unlike the current trend of phablets.
This is not only a relatively new company mentioned here at Technical Meshugana, but it’s a pretty new company in general as they just exited out of beta testing a few months ago. I’ve not made it a secret that I don’t like to endorse new companies, but this is a creative thought experiment and if these guys get traction, they could be of value to users of The Guide who frequently travel. It’s like Truphone in that it’s an international SIM card, but it’s a sticker that overlays over your normal SIM allowing you to switch between the two without juggling SIM cards and effectively adds on international roaming to your cheap-o domestic MVNO provider.
Although KnowRoaming isn’t as cheap domestically, they are a bit cheaper than Truphone for roaming in Canada and Mexico, so this seems like a good option for a multitude of reasons. It also lets us dedicate one SIM slot in the phone for the core phone services, and leave the other dedicated purely to cheap data packages instead of tying up both slots for domestic and international phone service. Three, count ’em three SIM cards in one phone! BWAHAHAHAHA!
That said, do keep in mind that this is an optional add-on only included for feature parity to Google Fi.
Why the RedPocket Data SIM?
First, I want to point out that the SIM is optional and unnecessary, but people are making a big stinking deal about modular $10/GB data pricing and high speed data with the Google Fi plan. We could go with the P’tel $25 Unlimited Talk, Text & 2G Data plan, or even go up into bigger P’tel plans for more data – but for the sake of apple comparison and the idea of a-la-carte data pricing, we went with a RedPocket T-Mobile SIM to provide additional data on demand-ish beyond 250MB. It’s not a clean solution as you’d need to either use mobile data for incoming VoIP calls while the voice SIM is offline or simply let it go to voicemail while doing serious internutting business, but I at least wanted to demonstrate the possibility and permit the option for cheaper bulk international data rates from providers abroad. It’s basically there to get your mind to think a bit more creatively.
In reality, if you’ve followed my advice already and went on a data diet, the 250MB would probably be overkill already… and you probably wouldn’t even need the $20 “unlimited” talk and text package, and could probably already get away with their Real PAYGO plan as you’d be shopping to fit your known usage levels to keep costs low. Heck, the best part about this setup is that it’s all nicely GSM based. You can mix and match between whatever domestic MVNO and VoIP provider you’d like to do this with, just so long as you can enable call forwarding to GV for your voicemail with the carrier. We’re just going with T-Mobile MVNOs in the examples because they’re cheap and that’s what Google’s doing. Monkey see….
Although you could probably get away with just using Hangouts for making and receiving calls over WiFi, some users have reported a sufficient enough ring lag that they miss answering the call before it goes to voicemail. Given it’s a common enough (though not universal) problem, I figured that we could simply bypass the issue (for those of you who might have it and can’t fix it) by setting up the Android native SIP client to handle incoming calls over WiFi, and just forward the CallCentric number to GV’s voicemail when the client is offline and you’re on mobile data to ensure appropriate and timely ringthrough. Forward ALL the phone numbers to GV!
I didn’t really draw attention to CallCentric in the TruLocalPhone post because I didn’t want the sort of cheap nickel-squeezers who’d be inclined to read it abusing CC’s goodwill and free services without giving anything back… and that was a stingy nickel-squeezer article. Since this is more geared for people actually paying for what they need (though it’s still a bit cheap), and you’ll need to pay for the possibility of call forwarding to GV with CC, we might as well list one of the superior products from The Guide. Of course, this is optional. You don’t actually need to do the CallCentric account if your Hangouts app rings long enough for you to answer it while on WiFi.
My always professional legal representative took a few minutes out from eating bananas and throwing his filth this afternoon to remind me to tell y’all that this is technically a thought experiment, and not guaranteed to 100% work exactly as described. Trying to reproduce this untried setup, despite all reasonable logic dictating that it should work, may cause: alopecia, color blindness (both protanopia and tritanopia), a DVR season pass for Party Down South, night terrors, uneven tire wear, parvo, unibrow, jimmy legs, and belligerent flatulence. As such, don’t try this at home. You’ve been warned.
Okay, clearly, your primary number will be with Google Voice. This’ll be the number you give away to everybody, and you’ll be forwarding all the other services to use Google Voice for your voicemail. This setup will have between three-to-four total phone numbers, but only one (the GV number) will matter and need to be kept up with once you register the others as forwarding number destinations with GV.
First, you’ll get your P’tel account set up and get GV set up to handle voicemail for it.
Then you’ll stick the KnowRoaming SIM sticker on the P’tel SIM and get that mess set up, too. From that point, you’ll probably need a little extra help getting GV set up for voicemail on KnowRoaming after getting your ReachMe phone number from them, so here are the universal GSM codes. You’ll want Call Forwarding, All Conditionals: *004*[dest]#, which should be the same as the T-Mobile/P’tel instructions.
Next step will be getting CallCentric set up to forward to GV when offline, you’ll want to set your Call Treatment Status for call forwarding to “Not Registered”. Then you’ll want to register your CC phone number with GV and set up the native Android SIP client for use with your CC account.
Lastly, get your Red Pocket data card activated, set up, and stuffed into the second SIM slot if you really want to do that, too.
It’s pretty well just getting the accounts registered, autopay set up (where available) or sticking a few bucks on the prepaid account to keep the wheels greased for a year or so, and set up call forwarding to Google Voice. You get that done, the trip is all downhill from there fiddling with data connection settings on apps and conditionals in Hangouts.
What Have We Wrought?
For a little bit of effort, we have effectively created an unlimited talk and text mobile phone with a baseline of 250MB of mobile data and the ability to make and receive calls over both mobile and WiFi networks from the same phone number for $23 a month, with the option to buy mobile data at $10 a GB and roam internationally as well for really cheap… a hybrid unlimited global mobile phone at the same price (or potentially cheaper) as Google Fi, with all the features but GAN call hand-off, minor button mashing to switch between networks, and single provider billing – all on a phone that costs 1/10th of the Nexus 6.
This too is nothing really remarkable when you’re already familiar with the guide and the MVNO options on the market, and it’s not much different than the other setup done last Summer to show how unremarkable Republic’s pricing actually was when you offload everything to WiFi… but it does remind us what a little lateral thinking and creativity can do when you actually know what pieces are available and how you can fit them together.
It’s also great from the standpoint of now knowing another easy method to handle cheap international roaming while using your cheap domestic MVNO that doesn’t provide international services itself.
Isn’t technology grand when you’re just a little crazy and know how to bend it to your will?
Go forth and save, gentle readers!
Rotary Telephone photo by Nate Steiner and licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).