Over the past couple years I have blogged about a number of individual methods you can employ to avoid data roaming charges, avoid SMS roaming charges, eliminate long distance charges, and reduce cellular voice charges. Now, a number of elements have converged to make it finally possible for you to ditch your cellular voice plan altogether.
1. Flex-Rate Data Plans
With the advent of iPads and tablets, many of Canada’s mobile phone carriers have made it possible for you to purchase a data-only plan with a flexible rate that automatically up or down-scales depending upon your monthly usage. Both my voice and data usage vary from month-to-month, but a traditional mobile phone data/voice plan charges you a fixed rate for a minimum amount of usage, forcing you to pay for something you don’t often use.
2. Free or Cheap iPhone SMS/Voice Apps
There are several free iPhone apps that now offer free or cheap voice and/or SMSing. Many of these started out offering SMS or voice or an inbound number, but most of these have converged now to offer all of the services of a traditional phone line.
3. Network Quality
In the past, the quality of voice-over-IP used to be inferior to traditional land line or cellular voice calls. Now, due to improvements in bandwidth and codex’s, I find the opposite to be true.
4. No longer US-centric
iPhone apps offering free US-based inbound phone numbers have been available for some time. It has only been during the last year that some of these apps have begun to offer free phone numbers in Canadian rate centres.
In 2010, Canadians paid, on average, $57.86 per month for mobile phone and data service. That was about $1 less than 2009, and some of the credit for that reduction was given to new low-cost carriers that launched that year – Wind Mobile, Public Mobile, Moblicity and Videotron. The new low-cost carriers come with a caveat though – many of them operate on different frequencies, so they don’t allow you to use popular handsets like the iPhone, and their networks tend to be centred around the major downtown areas of Canadian cities, so coverage is spotty at best.
The fact is, its difficult to get away from using a major carrier in Canada due to their vast coverage. There is an easy way to reduce your monthly phone bill to as little as $5 with just a little leg work, and few trade-offs. (My recommendations are purely for iPhone users by the way – I’m sure similar apps exist on Android, however I’m an Apple fanboy.)
1. Start with a VoIP app
There are two apps that I’ve been working with (and have written reviews for) for a year or more now, and they have both grown to include robust feature sets.
Formerly known as Dell Voice by Fongo, the free Fongo app truly replaces any existing voice phone line, whether landline or mobile. Its features include:
- Free Local Canadian Inbound Phone Number
- Unlimited Free Calling Across Canada (700 cities within 30 major metro centres)
- Unlimited Free Messaging to other Fongo Users
- Free Voice Mail and Caller ID
- 911 Calling
Optional Add-on Features Include:
- Visual Voicemail (99¢ per month)
- Unlimited Canada-Wide SMS Texting ($1.99 per month)
- Unlimited Canada/US-Wide SMS Texting ($2.99 per month)
- Low Worldwide Long Distance Fees
All fees are collected in-app through your iTunes account, so there’s no need to provide a credit card.
An additional important feature of Fongo is its support of Local Number Portability. For a one-time $25 fee, Fongo can port your existing home or mobile number over to your Fongo account, so your friends and family can continue to contact you seamlessly using the same phone number they always have.
The Fongo app truly replaces the full feature set of your existing phone line, and it works equally well over 3G/4G or WiFi.
text+ is another app I have used extensively. It was the first one to offer a free inbound Canadian phone number and free SMS texting.
Fongo has surpassed text+ in its feature set in recent months, however text+ still offers a number of compelling features
- Free Canadian inbound phone number
- Free Canadian/US inbound and outbound SMS texting
- Free Outbound Calls to US numbers
One major feature currently lacking is voice mail, and only a limited number of free minutes are included. You can earn additional free minutes by viewing ads, or by purchasing them (a bundle of 75 minutes is $1.99).
If you primarily receive inbound calls, and are an avid texter, text+ may be more suitable than Fongo for your needs.
Because both of these apps can run concurrently with your voice plan, try using them for a while first before taking the plunge. Set your mobile phone call forwarding to your Fongo or text+ number to get a true feel for how effectively the switch will work.
2. Establish a Data-Only Plan
The only difference between a tablet/iPad plan and a regular mobile phone plan, is that the mobile phone calling side of the account is not active. All of the regular Internet-based features will function properly, but the indigenous “Phone” app will not.
Once you have decided that Fongo or text+ can provide your voice calling needs, it’s time to change your mobile phone plan. The most cost-effective way to accomplish this is to establish an iPad or tablet plan. All the major carriers have similar competitive offerings:
Bell’s Tablet Flex Data plan offers 10MB of data for $5/mo, 250MB for $15/mo and 5GB for $35/mo.
Rogers’ Flex Rate Plan offers 10MB of data for $5/mo, 250MB for $17/mo and 5GB for $37/mo.
Telus’ Flex Data Plan for Tablets offers 10MB for $5/mo, 100MB for $10/mo, 500MB for $20/mo or 5GB for $35/mo.
The great part about flex plans is that you only pay for usage, so if you leave the country for a month and don’t use your plan, you only pay $5. If you have a month of heavy usage, you only pay $35 for that one month. You aren’t paying unnecessarily for data you aren’t making use of, like you would with a normal month-to-month plan.
Rogers’ Fido subsidiary, Bell’s Virgin Mobile and Solo subsidiaries, and Telus’s Koodo subsidiary all offer similar data-only plans.
With a data-only plan, your carrier will provide you with a SIM card that you will install in your iPhone. If you do not have an unlocked phone, you will need to purchase a SIM and sign up for a data plan with the carrier from whom you originally purchased your phone, otherwise you will need to pay the carrier to unlock your phone to accept other companies’ SIM cards.
One other caveat is that as of the date of this post, the SIM they provide will be suitable for an iPad, which means it will be a microSIM. This SIM is compatible with the iPhone 4 and 4S. The iPhone 5, however, uses a nanoSIM. You can either ask your carrier to activate the account using a nanoSIM, or you can use a SIM cutter to trim the larger microSIM down to the smaller nanoSIM’s dimensions.
How much data will I need?
The rule of thumb with voice-over-IP is that a 1 minute phone call typically takes 0.5MB of data. So, if you currently spend 200 minutes per month on voice calls, you should plan for 100MB of data consumption for voice calls.
How much will I save?
Obviously depends upon your current plan, but lets compare with Fido since they have a fairly compelling unlimited plan offering right now.
For $57, Fido’s Talk, Text and Data plan includes unlimited calling, unlimited texting, and unlimited Canada-wide long distance and 2GB of data. If we use 300 minutes as a baseline for the average amount of mobile phone calling per month, we can fit that amount of calling into the major carriers’ $15-$20/mo data plans, plus an additional $2/mo for Fongo texting. Thus for a similar feature set as Fido’s $57/month plan, we can achieve the same capabilities and usage for $22/mo or less.
Also remember that whenever you are within coverage of a WiFi network- at home, at your office – Fongo will traverse that Internet connection rather than consume your carrier’s data plan. If most of your calling is done at home or the office, you may barely make a dent in your mobile data flex plan.
One other caveat to be aware of is that applications like Fongo and text+ require a constant connection to a central server. This means the app is always running, and as such is always consuming processor time. This means that using a VoIP app will slow your iPhone and consume more of your battery than the traditional cellular voice capabilities of your iPhone. Plan to have chargers or backup batteries wherever you go. I typically always carry a mophie slide-on battery pack for my iPhone 4S.
The added benefit of all of this is, if you are an avid traveller and have followed my prior instructions to obtain inexpensive SIM cards for other countries, all of your Fongo/text+ services carry with you wherever you are in the world. Thus, if you’re relaxing on the beach in Mexico or are travelling on the Underground in London, you can initiate and receive phone calls through your Canadian phone number with no additional charges, other than those related to the local carriers’ data usage.
Do NOT roam on your Canadian carrier’s data flex plan, as their international roaming charges are horrendous. If you haven’t read my prior blog posts about obtaining SIM cards for the US, Mexico, Spain or the UK, go back and do it now.