Smart phones

I emerged from the dark ages late in life, getting my first cell phone at the end of 2011. It was a smartphone, which is fun, but if a laptop and WiFi are nearby then I can text (or even call) people more conveniently from the computer, which after all has a real keyboard. (If you don't text from your computer, see Unifying your phones below; texting from a phone while a laptop idles a few inches away is an incongruous anachronism.)

Nevertheless I appreciate a smartphone; it does things computers can't and it comes in handy when I'm on the go. Stuff I like: contacts and calendars and emails sync-ed to my cloud; voice navigation; streaming my music library from the cloud; pointing at stars to identify constellations or at loudspeakers to identify songs; tracking speed and distance for cycling, skiing, or jogging.

But high monthly fees can be offputting. So I chose a Virgin Mobile plan for $25 per month. It offered unlimited data and 300 minutes of talk, which was enough for me. And there's no contract. (New customers must now pay $35 for that plan.)

After two years (December 2013) I jumped to a better deal -- as well as a far superior phone, Motorola's Moto X, whose technical specs may not be impressive but whose performance on the ground outclasses nearly all other phones -- namely the $10 per month plan from Republic Wireless. The plan offers unlimited minutes and text but there are two catches:

  1. The phone is a specially modified Moto X that supports VoIP calling. In other words if there's WiFi available your call will be carried by default on WiFi rather than cell. If there's no WiFi the call falls back to (Sprint's) cellular network. In my experience a good VoIP call outshines a cell call, but a poor VoIP call is worse.
  2. At that $10 price you get no cellular data, just calls and text. That means if you're generally around WiFi (which is faster than most cellular networks) this plan may be for you. If not, then read on.

You can switch plans (up to twice a month). So, when I travel within the US I switch up to the $25 per month plan, which provides unlimited 3G data. That comes in handy for GPS navigation to unfamiliar destinations. And when I'm outside of the US I switch down to the $5 per month plan, which constrains me to WiFi (unlimited calls + data + text), but the constraint doesn't matter because anyway there is no Sprint network. The plans you choose are pro-rated according to the number of days you use them. (If you decide to try Republic Wireless, here's a referral link which gives both you and me a $20 credit.)

There are other economical plans. T-Mobile has a $30 per month no contract 4G plan albeit including only 100 minutes of talk; you can even use an unlocked phone you bought elsewhere. (Also keep in mind that 4G means different things to different people.)

Another contender -- again if you are willing to pay for an unlocked phone -- would be Simple Mobile's $40 per month, unlimited everything plan

Finally if you're not a heavy phone user, consider a pay-for-use service like Ting, whose rates can bottom out at as little as $6 per month. Like many other MVNO providers (including Republic Wireless above), Ting runs on Sprint's network.

Dumb phones

If you aren't a heavy phone user and don't need a smartphone, prepaid dumb phones are even cheaper. ("Prepaid" means the same thing as "no contract." It's a weird word, "prepaid," to mean not having to worry about contracts, credit checks, or early cancellation fees.) Two of the value-oriented nationwide carriers are Net10 and Tracfone. You pay by the minute, a great deal if you shop around and buy them in bulk, as low as 3 1/3 cents per minute. If you don't use your minutes up you can carry them over. The phones themselves are cheap too. Just the ticket for important but infrequent conversations. My wife had one for years, at a cost of $10-$15 per month and a mountain of unused minutes, before we spoiled ourselves with smartphones.

Land lines

We finally gave ours up. For as little use as it got it was hard to justify even the cheapest plan. We replaced it with a VoIP account. There's nothing special about our provider. ($11 per month, but you can do even better; there's plenty of competition) With a VoIP carrier you still use your existing landline handsets; instead of plugging them into the phone jacks in your walls you plug them into the phone jack on the device your carrier mails to you. (That device in turn plugs into the internet, for example into your home router.)

Unifying your phones

The practice of trying to reach people by guessing which of their phones to call became antiquated back in 2005, when a free service called GrandCentral came on the scene. You gave out a single phone number once and for all. When people called that number it rang all (or some) of your phones, depending on how you set it up. Thereafter you could charge through life acquiring new phone numbers and giving up old ones willy-nilly, as many as you want, without having to tell anybody.

Grand Central was acquired by Google in 2007, which re-branded it as Google Voice in 2009. It's still free, does more than ever (any browser becomes one of your phones, including free outbound phone calls, voicemails transcribed to text, and text messaging), and is worth a look. For example, in many cases it's more convenient to read a voicemail than to listen to it.

Conference calling

Nowadays a lot of us are conferencing for free via Skype or Google Hangouts. Sometimes though a participant insists on or only has a traditional phone. Here are some free alternatives for including that individual in a conference call.

  • You may have used so-called "free" conference calling services, where everybody dials a common phone number and enters a PIN to join the conference. These services are actually traffic pumpers -- all of us telephone consumers are subsidizing these companies whether we use their services or not.
  • In the spring of 2012 a startup called ÜberConference entered the scene. Not only does it forego traffic pumping, it provides sophisticated tools for organizing and administering conference calls. The basic plan is free.
  • Also, Google Hangouts now provides an option to add a participant by inputting their telephone number.

Free conferencing has become the norm today.



--- Updated 8 July 2014