Use the Force, Paul, or: How I Beat the AT&T Death Star

What a great movie.In case you haven’t noticed, the 21st century is upon us. Aside from my flying car, there are a few other neat Jetson gadgets that I’m looking for that I have, in a way, already found.

One of the other things that I’m looking for is freedom from this ridiculous carrier-centric phone world. There should be no reason that an iPhone (or any other phone, for that matter) cannot be used on other networks (barring technological incompatibilities between technologies like GSM and CDMA). There should also be no reason for carriers to charge me an exorbitant amount of money for “minutes” that I do not use. Before reaching through the void into the world of sweet, sweet data, my monthly phone bill was around $175.00 for two lines, unlimited messaging, 700 voice minutes, and unlimited data. I had almost 4,000 rollover minutes accrued since I re-upped my plan last July (when I got the iPhone 4).

Four. Thousand.

Clearly, the majority of my monthly bill (about $80.00) was being put towards minutes that I was very rarely using. Some months would see both phones using less than 100 minutes combined. I was paying for more minutes than I would ever want to use, but there was no way for me to get a data-only plan on my phone unless I a) could prove that I was hearing-impaired, or b) devised some way to get a data-only SIM card and somehow provision my phone to take advantage of that.

I went with option b.

What I noticed when I first started playing with my first iPad was that the SIM card in both the iPad and iPhone 4 are of the “Micro-SIM” variety, which means they’re just a fraction of the size of a normal SIM card. Surely there had to be a way to use the iPad SIM card in the iPhone, right?

Sadly, a quick swap of the SIM cards yielded no results for the iPhone, and while the iPad could receive data, it couldn’t make any calls. Not that I’d want to hold that up to my head to talk, anyway. I gave up on the idea of a cheap pocket web portal and decided that I’d just start sterilizing my arm for removal.

Fast forward almost a year, over a thousand dollars in payments to the Empire, and I’m fed up. I don’t need this. Time to bust out my Jedi skills on this Death Star.

The key player in all of this is a powerful and evolving service that Google offers called Google Voice. For those familiar with the service, Google voice can be leveraged to free your number from your carrier and place it “in the cloud,” allowing you to open up a new line of service with any carrier, but with a little extra weight behind your bargaining because you don’t have to purchase a heavily subsidized phone. Plans can be purchased on a month-to-month basis instead of on a contractual basis. Negotiating with those carriers can be tough, though, so you’ll have to brush up on your Jedi Mind Tricks.

Porting Your Number

The first thing you’ll need to do is port your number over to Google Voice. For true freedom, this is really the only way to go. When I had separate Google Voice and AT&T phone numbers, people were simply confused when I would contact them from one or the other. They’d constantly be asking me which number was my “real” number, or why I keep changing phones. For my friends, it didn’t matter that much. For my family, it was confusing. I’ve always been on the cutting edge of technological trends, and trying to explain this cutting-edge VOIP service was difficult, especially since my parents have had the same phone plans for the better part of a decade. Porting is easy, but there are a few things you need to know. Here’s what it boils down to:

  1. Porting your number to Google Voice will cancel your current phone line with your carrier. This is effective almost immediately, despite taking a while for the transition to complete on the back end.
  2. Google charges you $20.00 for porting your number.
  3. If you are still under contract with your carrier, you are on the hook for the ETF. This is can be pretty high, depending on how much time you have left before your contract is up.
  4. Text messages will take several days to route properly. If, like me, you sometimes suffer from communication overload, this will be a blessing for you. When people ask you if you got their message, you can legitimately say, “Nope, I was porting my number over to another carrier.” Done deal.
  5. You cannot make outgoing calls using Google Voice. Technically. You can, however, use Google Voice to approximate the normal “phone” experience really well. I’ll go into that soon.
  6. Google Voice software for the iPhone leaves a lot to be desired. It works, it’ll get you where you need to go, but none of it is perfect. I’m sure Google will get around to updating its iPhone app eventually, but it needs a lot of work right now. Just a heads-up.

Setting Up Seamless Calling

This is tricky. I’m not going to lie, I was extremely frustrated with my calls until I explored my options a bit. You can benefit from my experimentation here.

Google Voice isn’t a phone. Instead, Google Voice connects phone numbers together. For the tinfoil hat crowd out there, this might be a dealbreaker. Google is going to have your voice passing through their servers, period. There’s no way to do this without having Google act as the middleman. I don’t care about this, because I figure they’ve got enough data on me already. If you’re already here, though, you probably don’t care too much about that.

Because Google Voice doesn’t actually make any calls, you have to find a reliable way to receive calls on your phone without actually paying for minutes. I found the solution in a couple places. Skype and TextFree are all services with various degrees of free and paid options that provide VOIP service. Of those two, I’d say that TextFree is definitely, unequivocally, the best option I tested. The basic process for both, however, is the same. With Skype, you’re going to need two paid plans to properly route calls. One plan to allow unlimited incoming and outgoing calls, another to give you an “online number” that people can call. The combined cost of these two services is around $60.00. Not bad, especially considering that this gives you a year of unlimited calling to US-based numbers. You then need to add your newly-purchased Skype number to your Google Voice settings. Under normal circumstances, Google Voice would then call you, ask you to enter the code it displays on the screen, and you’d be all set. This is where it starts to break down,

I will say this as plainly and clearly as I can: Skype’s app is horrible. When I say horrible, I mean absolutely awful. I don’t know if they gave the coding and design over to a bunch of blind, epileptic monkeys or if they’re really just that bad. At this point, if they told me the monkey story, I’d say it makes sense. The fact that this software got out the door under human watch, however, is not good. There are so many failings, but here’s the biggest one: the Skype app doesn’t use Apple’s standard push notifications, it uses some sort of bastardization of local notifications. The end result is that 9/10 attempts to contact you will be lost to voicemail, and 9/10 attempts to contact someone else will result in that person being greeted by dead air. I could really go on and on, but it’s best you read my review on iTunes. It’s scathing.

Assuming you can get the verification to work, you’ll be all set to make and receive calls from your new Google Voice number. Google Voice acts as the middle man – it contacts you first; when you pick up (if Skype actually notifies you there’s an incoming call, that is), Google Voice rings the other number. Skype’s call quality is high, probably the highest of the possible apps I tried, so it wins points there.

The other solution is TextFree with Voice for iPhone. TextFree, as far as I can tell, is almost flawless. TextFree allows you to receive unlimited incoming calls, which is perfect. Once again, “placing” a call through Google Voice actually tells Google Voice to ring the number you select (TextFree), which then pops up on your screen as an “incoming call.” When you answer the call in TextFree, Google Voice rings the other party. This, however, is almost flawless. TextFree with Voice uses Apple’s standard notification system, so the incoming calls pop up instantly. It’s amazing. And it’s free. No monthly or yearly costs if you don’t want to pay. I dropped $6.00 to eliminate the in-app ads, because I feel like the developers made a damn good app.

There are other VOIP solutions that you can pair with Google Voice, but these two were the best I’ve found so far (even though the Skype app is made of fail). If you have any questions about this, email me, I’m happy to help.

The final steps to making your phone work with an iPad SIM can be found here.

I’ve gone from paying $175.00 a month to $75.00 a month for two phones, unlimited texting, and all the voice I can eat. My data usage (including the occasional video chat on 3G) comes to about 2-3 GB/month, which means that I get the occasional $10.00 overage charge for an extra gig of data. No big deal. Wifi is, as always, free, so I don’t pay for data when I’m home or at a Starbucks banging out posts.

The other thing this does is changes the feel of the iPhone from a phone to a portable web portal. This actually makes a huge difference in how I interact with it. Instead of pulling it out to make calls and send texts, I use it like an iPad mini, and it makes total sense this way. All data, all the time.

Plus, I get to be a rebel. Can’t put a price on that.