Using Voice over WiFi to Contain Cellphone Bills

by Brian McConnell

I spend a _lot_ of time on the phone, usually several thousand minutes per month, although this is spread across several different devices and accounts. I have a mobile line, a POTS line, VoIP service from Broadvoice, and an 800 number.

Recently my travel patterns changed, and as a result, I found that I was spending a lot more time on my cellular phone than I was aware of. A rude surprise in the form of a $500 phone bill awoke me to this fact. I normally don't even bother to read my phone bills if they are more or less in line with what I expected to pay.

I am generally not a miser with phone service. Time is money, and if I am not being gouged, I don't have time to call "customer service" over a few dollars. However, I don't like getting clocked with "overage" charges from my mobile provider. I am currently with T-Mobile, and am quite happy with them overall. They provide a good mix of services at reasonable prices, provided you don't go over your monthly allotment (if you do, additional minutes cost $0.40/minute, which is pretty steep, although this is the norm in the US for cellular airtime).

Much of the time I spend on my mobile phone is spent at other clients' offices, coffee shops and the like. I am usually stationary at these locations, and can use wi-fi combined with my Broadvoice VoIP account and XTEN VoIP client to make phone calls. Since I spend a lot of time at airports and other locations with paid wifi hotspots, I signed up for T-Mobile's $19.95/month hotspot plan.

At first $20/month for yet another internet access plan seemed steep, but then I realized that if I moved a fraction of my cell calls to wifi, it would pay for itself with only 50 minutes of usage per month (50 minutes times 40 cents/min). I figured, conservatively, I spend several hours per month in airport lounges, otherwise dead time that is perfect for returning phone calls. Within a month, my cellular use dropped back below my 1400 minute cap on daytime usage, saving me at least $200 per month relative to recent bills, and making my $20 month spend on T-Mobile wi-fi look like a bargain.

Voice over Wi-Fi is not a replacement for cellular, but if you are a heavy phone user and frequently use the phone in stationary settings like airports, this is a viable strategy for keeping your phone bills under control. It isn't free, but if you pair wifi with a flat-rate VoIP plan such as Broadvoice's Unlimited World plan, you can call pretty much anywhere in the developed world for a capped monthly rate.

This is why I think cellular providers will be smart to embrace dual mode cellular+WiFi devices. The ideal package will be something like this. $50 per month gets you unlimited domestic and international calling to select countries via SIP, combined with a mobile phone that can latch onto WiFi networks. Whoa? $50 per month sounds steep. Yes, but not really because that bundle would include: flat-rate VoIP service that would normally cost $20-30 per month separately, license for a SIP client on the mobile phone, and perhaps access to the mobile operators own network of WiFi hotspots. Bonus points if this also included the option to use PC based softphones with the same SIP login credentials.

This is a smart strategy for two reasons. First, it will enable the telco to offer power users an attractive product where they would otherwise be forced to look at other options. Second, it is the nail in the coffin for POTS lines. If my T-Mobile phone would work with my home Wi-Fi service, especially if I could have a wired SIP phone linked to the same account, I could finally get rid of my increasingly less useful POTS service. I got rid of SBC DSL several years ago (thank God), and now would like to give my POTS service the heave-ho.

Fixed-mobile convergence was a big theme at this year's GSM expo, so the major carriers are clearly thinking about this. What remains to be seen is if any of them will launch a product that is truly innovative with aggressive pricing, or if they will botch this by coming out with an overly complicated, overpriced and not very attractive product (as they've done with streaming video).