How One Wireless Warrior Makes Phone Calls Without Paying a Carrier
For the record, Pablo Defendini called in for this interview from the West Coast, and chatted with GottaBeMobile for half an hour from his 917 phone number. That might not sound like such earth-shattering stuff, until you look at how much — make that how little — he’s spent on phone service over the second half of 2013.
Before he made the big leap off the cell phone gravy train, sometime around May, Defendini paid AT&T about $100 a month for voice and data. Now, using a tiny mobile hotspot known as Karma, he’s paid $28: not as in $28 per day, week, or month, but just $28. Period. This humble sum bought him 2 GB of data he’s managed to nurture (and even grow) over the last several months.
“It’s a bit byzantine to set up initially, but once you have it down, it’s really, really simple,” says Defendini, a graphic and interactive designer who divides his time between New York City and San Francisco. “The iPhone has a phone app you pull up to make these calls, what I use works the same way but it’s not a phone app; it’s a Google Voice client. I just pull up the app, punch in a number and make a call.”
On the one hand, ditching your relationship with a big cell phone carrier might seem downright unpatriotic, given all the recent bluster about the new iPhone 5S and 5C. But Defendini says it’s worked out great for him: He makes and fields all the calls he wants without having to fork over huge sums of money each month.
So how does he do it? Read on, and we’ll reveal all.
To call up GottaBeMobile, Defendini used a combination of Google Voice and his iPad Mini, though he stresses that he could’ve just as easily made the call from his iPod Touch or MacBook Air. Using Karma, he can pay for data as he goes, though the service also allows other people to hop on his hotspot—and he gets 100 MB of data added to his account every time someone does that. (Good karma, indeed. Their pocket-sized hotspot device, by the way, required an initial investment of $100.)
“The way Google Voice works, this used to be my AT&T number,” Defendini says. “Google Voice now has ownership of it and if you call it, I can tell Google Voice where to forward that call — say to another cell phone. Instead, I’m routing it to Google Chat. It works the same way you would set up a hangout or a video chat.”
If you’re curious about the exact details of Defendini’s non-cellular schematic, which he says he concocted himself, you can check them out in this blog he posted last month. At that point, the setup was still a bit unproven, but with each passing week, Defendini proves that it can work as a longer-term solution to forking out hundreds of dollars to the major telcos for access to their mobile network.
He says the inspiration came to him during a trip to Europe in March. That trek made him realize how easy it could be to make calls with data plans instead of wireless contracts. (While overseas, he simply bought new data plan SIM cards every time he had to switch coverage areas.)
“When I started thinking about doing this, I looked at my phone and I looked at my iPad,” he recalls. “Then I looked at the AT&T data plan for the iPad and saw that it was only $25 a month. So what’s the magic in the other $75 a month to be on the phone network? And the answer is: there isn’t any.”
For Defendini, this realization also came with a good measure of contempt for the way the big phone companies do business. “The telecom industry in the U.S. runs really a terrible system,” he insists. “You’re locked into certain carriers for long periods of time and exorbitant fees. But in Hong Kong and Europe, you can swap out SIM cards, get on any network you like, and it’s easy. American networks are just protectionist.”
They’re also pretty heavy handed, he adds, about opposing things like FaceTime (which AT&T disallowed at first on its 3G network) and free, municipal WiFi that might undermine their paid offerings. But that doesn’t mean his self-styled, mobile-system jailbreak doesn’t come without its drawbacks.
“A pretty big one is I can’t dial 911 because it works off of traditional telephone service,” Defendini says. “It’s a little risky, but I work off of the assumption that I’m in a big metro area most of the time and someone can call 911 for me if I’m in trouble.”
He’s also awaiting the day when Google finally integrates Google Voice with Google Hangouts, as that will allow him to ditch Talkatone, an iOS universal Google Voice client app that he describes as having a “janky” user interface.
But in the meantime, Defendini gets along quite well without his large cell phone bill, and feeling much more like a high-tech troubleshooter than a luddite. He encourages GottaBe Mobile readers to follow his lead, too: Can you imagine ditching AT&T, Verizon or Sprint for good?
“Give it a shot,” he says. “It’s pretty liberating.”