No Vox.

How I learned to stop worrying and love not having a phone.

Almost as soon as I got an iPhone, I realized that, barring some very specific use-cases, I didn't really need a traditional voice telephone anymore. I could take care of most of my communications and connectivity with a data connection on a wifi-only iPhone. But AT&T won’t sell you a data plan for the iPhone without tacking on a pricey voice plan.

Then, when the iPad came out, I got a data-only plan for iPad at $25/mo from AT&T as well. Since then, I've been perplexed as to why my AT&T iPhone voice-plus-data plan (the cheapest one that AT&T offers), clocks in at around $100/mo—it seems that AT&T places a ~$75 premium on the one or two voice phone calls I make a month.

So some time ago I resolved to do away with the traditional telephone—and the even-more-hated mobile telephone bill. This seemed quite doable by porting my mobile number to Google Voice. With Google Voice, I can have people call me on the same number I've used for the last ten years, but Google Voice either forwards that call to whatever phone I tell it to, or allows people to leave a voicemail (a practice I strongly discourage, and I tell people so in my recorded greeting, which I swiped from John Scalzi). For the few VMs that you do get, Google transcribes and sends the voicemail transcription to my inbox (YMMV with this—Spanish translations, for example, are laughable). Additionally, Google voice also forwards SMS messages to my email, so I can receive traditional text messages in my email inbox as well.

When I started considering going phoneless, the first thing I started doing was to strongly encourage other people to not use my mobile number to reach me. I had to do nothing in most cases, since most of my communication with the world happens through email, IM, iMessages, or video services like Google Hangouts and FaceTime, but one crucial edge-cases remained: Mom. She loves her yappetty yapping on the phone. Regardless, I taught her how to use FaceTime on her iPhone, and she’s become a convert.

So how does it work? It’s a bit convoluted to set up at first, but once it’s running, it’s great.

Incoming vox calls: A burner phone, then nothing

Google Voice sort of requires that you have an actual, honest-to-goodness phone, for forwarding incoming calls, and the Google Voice app on iOS doesn’t actually make calls (WTF, I know). So I bought a cheap, long-lasting-battery feature phone with an eink screen (thanks for the tip, @andrewsavikas), and set it up with a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go plan for $30/mo. I only paid attention to it when I knew I might get a call—mostly when ordering takeout from, or when ordering an Uber car. Talk about edge-cases. Otherwise, it lived in my backpack when I’m traveling, or at home in a drawer when I’m in NYC.

But by the time that first month ran out, I realized that I actually didn’t need the burner phone, since Google Hangouts and Talkatone (more below) were handling my incoming and outgoing VOIP needs. These days, the burner stays at home, in the drawer, in case of emergencies.

Speaking of emergencies, the one large caveat to this setup is that you lose the ability to make localized 911 calls. This is a risk I’m willing to take (under the assumption that, since I mostly move through dense urban places, I can shout “Somebody call 911!” and somebody will, in fact, call 911), but it might not be a comfortable tradeoff for everyone.

Outgoing vox calls: Skype, then Talkatone and Google Hangouts

I originally had set up Skype caller ID to show my mobile number, so I’d call people from my iPad (or, more rarely, from my iPod Touch) using my bluetooth earbuds—they never knew the difference (but I did—the call quality on VOIP services is so much better than AT&T). I had Skype set up to automatically buy Skype credits when they run out—I paid them about $20 total between November 2012, when I started doing this, and May 2013, when I stopped using Skype.

The Skype app on iPad isn’t particularly good at being persistent, so incoming calls were always hit-or-miss (mostly miss), and I was using the burner to field that need. It also felt super clunky to have a separate app apart form the official Google Voice app (which does not do VOIP, and is not a universal app, which really sucks) for making calls.

Then I discovered Talkatone, an iOS universal Google Voice client app which also does VOIP via Google Chat, so if you set your incoming calls to be forwarded to Google Talk instead of an actual phone in Google Voice, you receive all calls on the app. The premium version costs money (I believe it’s like $20/year), but it’s well worth it, imho: its connection is very persistent, so I’m not worried that I’ll miss calls, and it also has the additional benefit of being an all-in-one SMS and Voicemail client for Google Voice, as well as a Google Hangouts client. I’ve been using it all summer, and despite the UI being a bit janky, I’m quite happy with it.

I’m looking forward to the day that Google gets its act together with integrating Google Voice with Google Hangouts. The Hangouts iOS app is much more polished than Talkatone, and I’d love to use it for my VOIP calls in addition to chat and video Hangouts, like I do on the desktop computer.

Text messages: iMessage

Most of my people are on iPhones, so most text messages come in through iMessage by default, which is synced across my iDevices and my Mac. For that one dear friend who is on an Android device (hi Leo), I simply use the SMS feature on Google Voice via Talkatone.

The missing link: mobile data

So using VOIP services like Google Voice/Hangouts and alternatives like FaceTime and iMessage to replace my telephony needs is all well and good, but it all falls apart as soon as I leave the warm embrace of my home or office WiFi network. Let’s face it: free, ubiquitous WiFi is a unicorn, at least in the US, where telcos like AT&T work very very hard to kill any municipal WiFi efforts that might undermine, or undercut their outdated and overpriced offerings. So if I’m out and about, without a data plan on a phone, I’m disconnected. This is not an acceptable state of affairs.

Initially, I would pay AT&T $50 a month for the 5GB iPad data plan with the mobile hotspot feature, which allows me to share that connection with my iPod touch (I’ve found that sharing the connection over Bluetooth is much, much more stable and persistent than sharing it over WiFi, FWIW). $50 is much better than the $150 I used to fork over to AT&T every month (for the iPad plan and for the ~$100/month iPhone plan), so that was a step in the right direction.

This worked well for me, since I generally carry my iPad Mini everywhere, but there were times when I really just wanted to grab the iPod Touch and go. Additionally, I started to measure my usage when I’m out and about, and I really don’t consume that much data, normally—the $50/mo plan was excessive, but AT&T’s cheaper plans didn’t include the mobile hotspot ‘feature,’ which does nothing to ameliorate my perception of AT&T as greedy bastards out to extort as much money as they can out of me.

Enter Karma.

Karma is sort of like Dropbox, but for bandwidth instead of storage. You buy a tiny mobile hotspot (like a MiFi, but smaller and prettier) for $100, and you pay for your data as you go, to the tune of a not-unreasonable $14 per gigabyte. The data never expires—if I buy 1GB,I don’t have to use it up in a month or anything like that—so I can just top off when I’m running low. I just connect all my devices (usually an iPad Mini, an iPod Touch, and a MacBook Air) to the Karma via WiFi and I’m ready to go.

To make it even sweeter, the Karma hotspot allows other people to jump on and use the connection. This doesn’t eat into your own data allotment, since people need to buy their own data to get online through your Karma device (at 14 bucks a gigabyte, it’s not a bad deal if, say, you’re stuck in an airport). However, Karma sweetens the pot with a beautiful non-zero-sum arrangement: when someone hops onto your Karma device and connects, you get a bonus of 100MB added to your available data allotment. Pretty cool, no?

Karma has good connectivity in the three US cities I find myself in the most: New York, San Francisco, and Portland OR. But their coverage isn’t ubiquitous, and their network isn’t always available in rural areas (they use the Sprint network, iirc).

So while I’ve turned off the data plan on the iPad Mini, it’s good to have it as a backup, since I can fire up the data connection and sign up for a grossly overpriced data plan from AT&T in a pinch. That said, I’ve only had to do that once—since I got my Karma, I haven’t had to send AT&T any money, and I’ve only spent like $28 on data with Karma (you’d be surprised how many people hop onto your Karma device—and give you bonus data in the process—at airports).

Conclusion: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, AT&T.

At this point I occasionally pay $14 for some data to Karma, but that’s it—I have no other mobile connectivity costs. I also pay no money directly to any big telco (except for the occasional iPad data plan purchase for backup purposes when I’m outside of Karma coverage). And that’s a big deal for me: aside from the exhorbitant and hard-to-justify cost, these big telcos are sleazy, corrupt predators.