Simplify your life and ditch your phone

The Phone Problem

There are lots of problems to mention here. There’s the problem of paying $300-400 for a new/discounted cell phone only to have to also pay $60 a month (or more) for the ability to make it work, all the while married to Sprint (or AT&T or Verizon or whoever) for two years.

There’s the problem that I feel so attached to my phone that every time it makes a noise I feel the need to jump into action, see who is texting/posting/calling and immediately respond, feeling like a modern version of Pavlov’s dog. And, while I am acting like Pavlov’s dog with my phone, there is the problem of the real people who are physically present (mostly my wife and children) who I ignore so that I can quickly jump and tend to my phone.

Of course there are the cat videos, baby videos, and the quizzes that tell me which superhero I am most like. And, while uploading baby photos I have to read the list of “45 Thoughts You Have When Your Friends Upload Baby Pics” (yes, this is a real list).

Then there’s the problem that I no longer know how to find my way down the street without my phone’s GPS giving me turn-by-turn directions. I can’t even go out to dinner without finding a place to eat on my phone and making sure the review are good enough to go there.

Perhaps the real problem is that I actually believe that all these things make my life better. Perhaps the real problem is that the only thing that really bothers me is that I suspect I could pay less than $60 a month to watch these amazingly funny cat videos. Not because I don’t think the cat videos are worth $60/month. Truthfully, I probably think the funny animals are worth much more than $60/month, but I just want to pay less if I can. And then I wonder, what has my life come to?

What I’d Rather Not Give Up

The ultimate goal might be to ditch my cell phone completely. And my tablet. And, maybe my laptop would need to go too. I don’t see a cold-turkey approach working for me just yet. I might be willing to give up watching cat videos while I wait for the green light, but I’m not quite ready to give up carrying an address book that contains just about everyone I know. I still like running errands and being able to text my wife to see if there is anything she wants. I like being able to text my teenage daughter a photo when I see something she might like so I can try to stay connected with her. And, if I don’t have to, I’d rather not give up my turn-by-turn directions and restaurant recommendations.

My Babystep of a Solution

Goal: Reduce my cell phone bill while keeping mobile texting, mobile GPS mapping, and a phone while at home.

I found several cell phone plans and providers that would easily accomplish my goals. You can see a whole list of cheap cell phone providers who lease from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon. Check out Wikipedia’s list of Virtual Network Operators. In particular, I looked at (and considered) the following:

  • Ting seemed very reputable but would probably still cost around $40/month.
  • Republic Wireless seemed very reasonable but had proprietary phones. Republic would have probably cost $20/month.
  • Scratch Wireless is completely free service but the company seemed a little too new.
  • FreedomPop is completely free service and seemed to have some decent reviews (and a lot of bad reviews).

Another service that is worth mentioning is 420 Wireless, “the Nation’s first marijuana-friendly phone service.” They offer several different plans that are worth considering including the “Gram Plan” and the “Pound Plan.” What??!

In the end, I decided to go with FreedomPop. I couldn’t resist the allure of completely free service. I figured it could have issues. In fact, I figured it would have issues, but unlike the issues I have always had with my cell phone, at least I wouldn’t be paying for these issues. Here are the details for what I hope is a permanent solution.

First, I got a Google Voice phone number. This is an actual phone number that can be called from land lines. I can text and get voicemail through this phone number. In fact, the texting is awesome because I can text from my computer (a real keyboard). The voicemail is awesome because Google transcribes it for me, or at least tries to (it is good enough that I can get an idea of what the voicemail is saying).

Then, I signed up for FreedomPop. I ordered a phone from them for $100. FreedomPop seems to makes money by selling more data (I get 500 MB for free), more minutes (I get 200 for free), more text messages (I think I get 300 for free), voicemail (I don’t get voicemail), and other additional options. I made sure I opted out of all these plans (I’m still a little worried that I didn’t and I will get billed). Getting set up took a little fussing with FreedomPop both on the phone and via email support. So far, for a free service, I have really found them very nice, helpful and generally easy to deal with.

I then set up set up Google Voice and my new FreedomPop phone. Here are the steps I’ve taken that I think will work for me:

  1. I ported my number from Sprint to Google Voice. This cost $20, but it means I should be able to keep my phone number if FreedomPop turns out to be a bust or goes out of business. Porting the number immediately signaled Sprint to cancel my Sprint service (this seemed weird to me).
  2. I picked a number from FreedomPop. When I first signed up with FreedomPop they were out of numbers from my area code, so I changed this to my area code a few days later using FreedomPop’s online tool (and paying a fee of $5).
  3. I installed Google Hangouts on my computer and phone. I installed Google Dialer on my phone so I could make/receive Google calls from my phone and not just the computer.
  4. I recorded a greeting and set up my voicemail in Google Voice.
  5. I linked my FreedomPop phone to Google Voice. This allows me to forward calls to my Google number to my FreedomPop number. Since I can answer Google calls on my phone, this seemed unnecessary. But, it turned out that Google Hangouts doesn’t seem to run very well on my phone, so this step is somewhat useful.

That’s it! Texting works great–I usually just text through Google and not FreedomPop. I can send/receive these texts while on wireless or on mobile data through Google Hangouts. If I’m home, I can phone from either my computer or my phone and the phone call runs over my wireless. Same if I’m at work. If I’m mobile, then the calls run over data (there is no cell service, it is all voice over IP). Voicemail works great through Google Voice and their transcriptions are helpful.

When I read reviews of FreedomPop, there were lots of complaints about the mobile phone service. So far, it seems acceptable. I expect I will eventually get annoyed, but then I’ll remember that I was willing to give up watching cat videos and talking on the phone while in the car.

Finally, GPS. First, Google Maps do not actually seem to demand much data. But I wanted to do better so I found a few no-data GPS applications. The apps I suggest you try are: Here (an app developed by Nokia), OsmAnd (OpenStreetMap) and Maps.Me (also uses OpenStreetMap data). These all work offline and they will all give you turn-by-turn routing. I haven’t decided what I like best. None of these are as good as Google Maps, but I think I will eventually find at least one of them acceptable.

The Future

At this point in time, I really like the solution I’ve found. I love the thought of not paying anything for cell phone service (even if I actually have to pay a bit when it all works out). But, what does the future hold to really address the life-problems introduced by being a cell-phone-cyborg? I can think of a couple of steps that I hope I eventually have the strength to take:

  • Ditch the cell phone and use only Google Voice on my computer. If concerned, I could get a mobile pay-as-you-go hotspot for mobile data when I thought I really needed mobile data (such as when on longer road trips).
  • Get a driving GPS for my turn-by-turn directions. I am likely to do this anyway, which I suspect I would use mostly on longer road trips.

Update October 2015

Overall I’m thrilled with my phone situation. There are a few small issues and things I’ve learned:

  • My older Samsung S3 has been great. Its a great little phone with plenty of speed and memory. My previous phone was a HTC One, which was (and is) supposed to be an awesome phone. I like the Samsung S3 a lot more. BUT, the Samsung keeps wanting to update and when I try to update there isn’t anything to update. I suspect that this is because FreedomPop install a custom rom or something like that. So, I just ignore when the phone tells me to update.
  • I’ve been able to keep my data to about 300Mb per month. This has been pretty painless. The main personal restriction I’ve taken is not texting photos and uploading photos to facebook when I’m on data. Now I just wait to have wireless to do this.
  • On my phone, you can restrict mobile data to only certain apps. Do this on “Settings–>Data Usage”. The biggest data sucks are now Google Play Services and Android OS. I think disabling mobile data on these will cause some issues. But, I did restrict mobile data on tons of other things like Facebook, maps, etc. You can play around with this.
  • FreedomPop will actually give you another 500Mb of free data if you find some FreedomPop friends. You can probably find some random friends by googling FreedomPop friends. I did this and found a list of random people that I just added and got my free 500Mb. I now get 1 Gb of free data every month. Its going to be difficult to go over this.
  • Google hangouts is still working great for my calls. The calls are okay when I’m on data but for any real conversation I make sure I’m on wireless. And, I now do most of my real calls from the computer now. It just seems easier.
  • One issue with Google hangouts is that phone calls (and texts) now ring on every phone, tablet and computer. Its a little weird and annoying, but not terrible. I think I can transition any phone call from device to device, but I haven’t played around with that too much.
  • More on Google hangouts texting. Texting through hangouts is great! I can text from the computer, tablet or phone. So, my texts have now turned more into emails. I text more and its all easier from a computer.
  • This could be a big plus for many. I understand that FreedomPop now has a “Premium” voice service that costs something like $5/month and this allows non-wireless calls to go over Sprint’s voice network instead of the data network. This should make FreedomPop’s voice calls as good as Sprint’s and therefore a reasonable alternative for most people. I’m happy with the completely free service and am not paying for any upgrades.

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