July 7th I cancelled the account I’ve had with AT&T for the past twelve years and embarked on an experiment to see if it was possible to go carrierless and retain a somewhat normal existence. I’m happy to report after 30 days that this situation has worked surprisingly well. This post will summarize the key things I learned over the last month and offer some helpful nuggets of advice for anyone contemplating doing the same.
The goal in cutting my mobile phone service was very simply to eliminate a non-critical expenditure in the effort of getting extremely lean financially while working on our startup. I had used skype on my iPhone prior to the switch and knew that it handled calls well. My concerns were primarily whether running daily phone calls over Skype via iPhone would be annoyingly cumbersome.
I have an oldschool iPhone 3GS, a Verizon 3G Mifi mobile hotspot (grandfathered in under the unlimited bandwidth plan they used to offer) and the Google Voice and Skype apps on my iPhone.
The Switch Process
I ported my AT&T number to Google Voice for $20. Doing so automatically triggers the cancellation process w/ AT&T. You’ll want to check what your early termination fee is if you’re still under contract – mine was $70 so I more than covered it in the past month. It took a day for the number port to complete during which time all SMS messages sent to my phone blackholed. SMS apparently doesn’t work like email where it will keep retrying to send until it goes through. It took about 3 days before I began receiving SMS after the port. Once completed I spent another $20 to keep my previous GV # as an alternate phone (it was printed on all the business cards I had recently ordered and I like the idea of keeping separate business & personal #’s).
Unfortunately the GV app alone on your iPhone won’t enable you to send and receive calls. You’ll need to setup a Skype account if you don’t already have one and get an online number to be able to forward your GV # to. Skype offers a $3/mo option that gets you unlimited calls in the US. With the Skype number configured as the primary forwarding number in GV I was now able to receive and send calls from my iPhone.
- The obvious benefit is that this eliminated a $130/mo phone bill.
- There is an undeniable psychological win in saying FU to AT&T.
- I’m navigationally-challenged and rely heavily on the iPhone for directions. The good news is the GPS is a true GPS and works via satellites (the cell tower triangulation is apparently the fallback method when it can’t acquire a GPS signal). This means the location-based features continue to work in spite of not having a cell carrier.
- An indirect result of going carrierless was that I picked up all the benefits of using Google Voice. Transcribed voicemails is an awesome feature that eliminates listening to long messages.
Now, the not-so-good:
- You lose the ability to send picture messages over SMS. This isn’t a huge deal and I’m sure there are apps out there that give this capability. I haven’t really missed this – it’s easy to just email photos but if you rely upon sending picture texts for some reason, this is something to consider.
I have no 911 emergency dial. This is an acceptable risk for me but if you have dependents or frequently commute through dark allies, losing this might be unacceptable.UPDATE: apparently 911 does still work – thanks Dave for the clarification. Now I can continue to live dangerously!
- Call quality is flaky over slow connections. Skype degrades the call quality when you have poor connectivity. It hasn’t been a problem yet but there have been a few instances when I’m working over a shady connection that I have to relocate to continue a call. The Verizon Mifi has been surprisingly good for calls with the exception of about 10% of the time it just seems to be unreliable. If you have a 4G mifi card I’m sure this isn’t even an issue. The answer when making important calls is to plan ahead to be working over a solid ground-based wifi connection for the call.
- Unfortunately there’s no way to disable voicemail on Skype – this is a known shortcoming and a lot of people have complained about it. So to ensure that GV handles your voicemail the workaround is to enable call screening on GV (formerly known as “call presentation”). It’s only mildly annoying but means you’ll have to answer calls and click the “1″ button to patch the person through.
So here are some random tidbits of advice based on what I learned:
- Use Google Talk when in front of computer and save on outbound calls. I went through $9 in calls over the past 30 days on the pay-as-you-go plan. If you have the unlimited plan then this is irrelevant but Google Talk is free for US calls and you can offload some of your paid outbound calls to GT while you’re in front of the computer.
- You need to setup Google Contacts for caller ID to work. This is simple/obvious but you need to have all your contacts loaded in GV for it to be able to associate names w/ calls and text messages. Skype will automatically pick it up from your Contacts in the iPhone so inbound calls should still register with a name.
- If you’re calling someone who happens to have Skype the call quality is way better if you can just use Skype instead of Skype->phone.
- Get the Chrome extension for google voice. It’s pretty slick – it gives you a toolbar button that lets you quickly make calls and check messages.
- You need to remember to launch Skype when you restart your iPhone to keep it running in the background. Otherwise your phone won’t ring when you receive a call- you’ll just get the missed call alert via GV. I have it running on both my phone and computer and will typically just answer via the computer when I’m on it. What’s neat is the iPhone earbuds w/ the mic will work for talking on the computer and actually perform pretty well even in a noisy coffee shop.
- The battery life on the Verizon Mifi is about 5hrs which is not enough to last all day. You should turn it on when in transit and switch over to a local wifi hotspot when you get where you’re going. If you forget and leave the Mifi on all day you’ll kill the battery. It has a USB input so you can get a standard cigarette lighter USB charger if you do a lot of driving.
The bottomline is this setup has proven totally adequate for my situation. There is some admitted flakiness over slow connections and annoyances like lack of ability to send SMS picture messages, but it’s 90% of the service for literally 6% of the price. Ultimately the factors you’ll need to consider in determining whether it’ll work for you are
1) criticality of 911 emergency calling 2) tolerance for occasional call flakiness 3) guilt level for not supporting your phone carrier. In tight economic times, saving $130/mo is significant – I would be re-examining my core business if I were a cell phone service provider. If anyone else has cut the cord and successfully run a similar setup I’d love to hear what your experience has been and if you have any hacks you made that improved it.