Unlimited Calling, Limited Price: Google Voice Unlocks the Gates of Cheap Unlimited

I’m telecommuting this week and next and forced to use my own phone line for all of my business-related calls. My cell phone plan includes only 550 minutes of airtime per month. My Vonage line, which I took with me, includes just 500. So why aren’t I sweating about using up all of my minutes?

Two words: Google Voice. My main draw to GrandCentral before it was changed to Google Voice was having one number to ring all of my various phones. I never really used most of the online features since many of the more common ones were things I had already been doing with a cell phone or our Vonage home phone. One of the nicer ones, though, is the ability to make calls straight from the web interface, something Vonage hasn’t quite grasped yet.

And that’s when the implications of this hit me. While I can only place 500 minutes worth of outgoing calls on my Vonage line, I had unlimited incoming calls. And when I place a call from Google Voice’s web interface, it calls me. Suddenly, I figured out that my limited Vonage line was actually an unlimited line thanks to a hack using Google Voice. And the price for this setup? A measly $20 a month with all of the taxes, at least $12/mo less than Vonage’s own unlimited plan.

It’s not just Vonage users either. Sprint has a $50/mo plan that includes unlimited incoming calls. For $0.03/KB, you can access Google Voice’s mobile site to place calls or do it for free if you’re near a PC. Congratulations, you just came up with an unlimited calling plan for half the cost of Simply Everything.

I picked Vonage and Spring because I know the examples, but pretty much any provider offering unlimited incoming calls can be hit with the same thing. That’s something that should have providers running scared and may explain the plethora of unlimited mobile voice options starting to hit the street. It’s not as simple as pick up and dial, but the determined will find a way around that sooner or later.

Providers would love nothing more than to entirely block out Google Voice numbers from dialing in. That’s not only illegal, it’s likely to cause a firestorm of criticism from users. The genie is out of the bottle. Are you ready for it?

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20 Responses to Unlimited Calling, Limited Price: Google Voice Unlocks the Gates of Cheap Unlimited

  1. Bradley Ross says:

    I just got my Google Voice invite and I’ quite excited to see how it pans out. Like you, I was mostly interested in the “one number” aspect of the system, but there are bound to be some cool things like this that are made possible that I hadn’t considered.

  2. Capt. Video says:

    As someone that has spend his working life on the “network owner” side of this issue (as well as one that enjoys’ being the devil’s advocate) you must remember that there is really no free lunch.

    When network owners (cable TV, telephone, or even municipal fiber like iProvo and UTOPIA) spend millions (hundreds of millions or even billions) to build a network, they count on recovering their investment by customers paying for services.

    As “over the top” companies figure out ways to use the network for free, it will only result in the charges being shifted by the network owner to insure they recover their investment.

    As an example, the price for data service will increase to users like you and I, if the network owner is not able to collect revenue for phone or cable service because people use their data connection for free or low cost phone or cable services that actually use the data connection to deliver those services.

    The bottom line is that someone must pay for the construction and maintenance of the network. If everyone only buys “data” service and uses “over the top” video & phone services….the cost of data only services will have to go up.

    Companies like Vontage are like leaches that hurt those that invest in building the networks that are so important to us. Including UTOPIA…perhaps more so for UTOPIA because the network is so robust the over the top services work even better. But using these “over the top” providers hurt UTOPIA and it’s service providers. The service providers hurt UTOPIA if they offer “over the top” services.

    In my opinion, these “over the top” services will bring about more bandwidth caps (to try to prevent video delivery) and increased data costs (to recover lost phone and video revenue).

  3. Jesse says:

    I think the onus is on the service provider to offer a more compelling product. For instance, they could offer many of the same features as Google Voice, play up the QoS bandwidth reserved for voice, offer battery backup for power outages, etc. Those kinds of features combined would probably entice the customer to pony up a bit more for service. And while the quality of the service is top-notch, the technical support is abysmal on a good day. (It once took me four months to get them to send e-mail notifications to the correct e-mail address.)

    Also bear in mind that VoIP is cheap. REALLY cheap. There’s VoIP providers that offer $6/mo DID with 2000 minutes and $0.015 per minute after that. I’m sure you can get an even better rate if you’re buying in bulk and shop around. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many customers going over the 33+ hours that’s included. If you’re charging a rather standard $25/mo for unlimited service, you’re making bank, even with the occasional customer that goes over.

    Companies are faced with two choices: offer a better product than the competition to attract and retain customers OR try and squeeze the competitors out of business through caps and overages to the customer. You can either cater to customers to get their business or abuse them into having no choice. Which do you think is going to build better brand loyalty?

    (For the record, I would totally try out XMission’s voice service if I had access to it. They have a pretty darn cool feature set that’s worth the extra money they charge over Vonage.)

  4. Capt. Video says:

    …for the record, I don’t want to seem like I’m on a high horse on this, I too have used and do use “over the top” services.

    I think the issue is the service providers are expected to pay the network owner for delivery of the service….while the leach services pay no-one, using your bandwidth that you are paying for.

    So it’s not that a network owner or service provider can’t offer a competitive service based upon the service costs, the difference is the service provider or network owner has some cost built in for the cost of the network.

    The leach “over the top” providers business model includes no cost to build or use the network.

    That makes it hard for network owners or service providers to compete as the playing field is not level…unless the service provider or network owner includes nothing for the use of the network and we all know it actually does cost to build and maintain the network.

    XMission might have to charge more not only for more or better features, but also because they are paying UTOPIA (as they should) to use the network and Vontage is not.

  5. Jesse says:

    I take exception to the term “leech”. Is Microsoft a leech because they don’t pay Comcast for XBox Live users? Is Blizzard a leech because they don’t pay AT&T for World of Warcraft users? Is Google a leech because they don’t pay Verizon for GMail users? Of course not! The “leech” terminology is absolutely ridiculous. Customers pay the service provider for a connection to the Internet. They should be able to use it how they please. Service providers are more than welcome to charge their customers as they see fit, but they can’t charge their non-customers. That’s insanity. And if service providers charge more for the exact same service, or charge more to use a service they don’t like, the customer has less incentive to take the base service in the first place because the value has been diminished.

    Let’s call the “leech” argument what it is: a weak sauce argument by providers who have failed to upgrade their networks and deal with a changing business environment.

  6. Capt. Video says:

    Take the word leach out and everything I said still remains true.

    Networks were build with a business model that expects to make money for providing difference services.

    UTOPIA and iProvo based their business model on charging service providers to provide voice, video and data services and charging to transport each one…just as service providers charge for each one.

    Companies that build their business model on using the network for free (Vontage, etc.) make that business model not work.

    Then customers get upset when networks want to enforce data caps or increase data costs as they MUST to make their original business model work to pay off the debt on the network.

    If building a network is not a profitable business as companies find ways to deliver their service across your network without paying…no one will build networks.

    I’m hard pressed to accept the idea that network owners (those build with private funding) do not have the right to block some sites or limit speeds to sites. If you don’t like their policies, don’t use their services.

    Since phone networks were built as a monopoly and used some public funding in many cases…they should not have the same rights as networks built with private funding.

    A cable TV network decides which channels it will provide and which it will not, not all channels have the right to be on the network. No cable company carries every channel in existence. Why do internet web site or companies like Vontage have rights of any kind on a private network?

    I think you would be hard pressed to find many network owner that did not think companies like Vontage or any “over the top” service should not be paying for the delivery of their service.

    There is no question network owners are very concerned with protecting their revenue and I do see data costs rising as networks make less on voice and video due to these over the top providers.

    These companies help the consumer, but hurt the local networks and local service providers. Most networks were not built on a business model of charging for gaming (XBox, etc.) that was built into the data service model, but networks were built expecting to sell phone and video transport. I KNOW UTOPIA’s business model included selling those services to it’s service providers.

    Every Vontage customer on the UTOPIA network hurts UTOPIA AND one of it’s service providers. You cannot think otherwise.

  7. luminous says:

    Vontage pays for their internet like everyone else, If an ISP thinks that their peering partners are using them in an unfair way they need to renegotiate their peering contracts or charge their customers more as their packets clearly have more value.

    The last thing we need is the destruction of common carrier/network neutrality. Allowing any ISP to block or degrade the legal communication between paying customers who are communicating through legally established peering agreements should be completely and totally illegal.

    The last thing we need is a return to pre 1934 thinking where entire states could not make calls to other states simply because the telephone company’s refuse to interconnect is insane.

  8. Capt. Video says:

    There is a difference between “common carriers” and private carriers in my mind.

    I don’t think we have seen the final word on network neutrality yet.

    As more provider become available the legal ground upon which it stands is perhaps weakened.

  9. luminous says:

    common carrier provides an interesting trade off, Interconnect with anyone that wants to interconnect and in exchange receive protection from any illegal activity that happens on the network. I am perfectly fine with a private network choosing to not be a common carrier, however they must accept all of the liability associated with that.

    It is not acceptable for the public/government to provide these networks special legal protection and not get something out of it. The obvious public good of course is the ability for any person/business to have unhindered legal communication with any other person/business of their mutual choosing.

    I should be noted that the internet is a get network and not a push network, that is I the end user have to reach out and get what i want, This of course is very different from the cable network where the content is pushed onto the network by the service provider. I can understand why cable networks are the one’s that have been trying new QoS models and Caps and such. They are trying to maintain the model of network they are familiar with and more importantly for them understand how to monetize. And I suppose the reality of their shared network topology also causes them to gravitate towards network management practices of a more extreme sort.

  10. Capt. Video says:

    Let me be clear that I don’t want to be on a network that limits by ability to go to any site, but I also am not sure that the government has a right to control private networks. I fully support controls on common carrier networks and any network that receives government funding or protection.

    If you paid to build the network (private network) it seems you might have the right to determine what is delivered (or not) at what cost. If a customer does not like the rules I set, they can elect not to be my customer.

    No-one (but the customer) tells the candy maker what flavors to put in the box or the newspaper what stories to print.

    While cable networks are push, IPTV (like fiber networks use and cable is moving toward) of course is not a push network technology. The process for tuning into a channel is just like the internet. The end user sends a request to “get” the channel and only that channel is delivered. Unlike cable which delivers (pushes) all channels to the user and the TV tuner just selects the one to watch.

  11. Jesse says:

    Capt: “Switch to another provider” is a laughable solution. You know as well as I do that there is a distinct lack of broadband provider competition in the US which largely renders this a non-option. What if you’re living in Beaumont, TX where both providers have very low caps? What then? Satellite and cellular options have worse speeds and worse caps. Almost all fixed wireless options have really low caps as well as very high latency, unsuitable for a number of applications. So long as the duopoly exists, “switch your provider” is a non-option to resolving that issue.

    Bear in mind that a significant amount of the Internet’s core functionality was built and continues to be built with public money. (The Telco Act of ’96 still provides all kinds of tax incentives for network construction.) Cable may have used a lot of private money, but it does abuse public resources via local franchise agreements that have protected them from competition for decades. Now the piper has come due for the use of this public protection.

    Restricting particular services is a VERY slippery slope. First it’s Vonage, then Skype. Then you’re blocking Teamspeak and Ventrillo, MSN Messenger, Google Voice numbers… it can get very messy very fast. What happens if Comcast decides they want in on the online gaming market? Do they then have the right to block World or Warcraft, Counterstrike, or any number of other online games that would deprive them of revenue? Can they block all video websites that compete with their own online video options? In short, are we paying for a connection to the Internet or a service like the old-school AOL? (And remember how this scenario played out for AOL? They caved and provided Internet access that bypassed their own content.) If providers have their way, you’re paying for a high-speed connection to their services and paying a premium to access the rest of the Internet. Sorry, but that genie has been out of the bottle for way too long to try stuffing it back in.

  12. luminous says:

    every single phone company sense 1934 has been a “common carrier”, this has absolutely nothing todo with private vs public funding or whatever. Common carrier is the legal base’s by which their communication networks can exist at all, if they where liable for all of the illegal content that happened on them they simply could not exist.

    Cable TV is not common carrier, they have been sued over illegal content many times and lost. Cable internet sure as hell better be common carrier, I can’t image Comcast wants to be liable for every illegal file transaction that happens on their network.

    Cracking open my packets to see whats inside for QoS or blocking is tantamount to the Postoffice or UPS opening up my box’s and mail and then throwing out what they don’t like while keeping the money I payed their those box’s shipping.

    Like I said before if the Cable carriers don’t want common carrier protection, I am fine with that however they ABSOLUTELY must accept the liability associated with that.

  13. pavera says:

    This whole debate just makes me think even more that a well regulated monopoly is better than the free market in some cases.

    If we hadn’t broken up ma bell, but had regulated her more we would probably have fiber to every house in the country by now. Some of the greatest technology invented in the 1900’s came out of ma bell. Now what does AT&T invent? inflated text messaging bills.

    I suppose the best model really is the Utopia model, even if the cost of building the network was paid for entirely with taxpayer funds, its a drop in the bucket compared to what qwest and comcast want to recoup in service fees. And it would preserve at least some competition on the network. Even at the current (inflated by interest) cost of $500 million for Utopia, that is less than 10% of state revenue for 1 year. Spread it over 20 years in a bond, and its like .5% of the state budget each year. I’ll take a .5% tax increase across the board (sales tax, income tax, property tax, etc) for fiber to every building!

    Additionally by paying for the construction of the network with taxpayer funds it completely negates Capt Video’s argument. The service providers now have no huge capital investment/cost that they have to recoup. They can just compete on services provided.

  14. Capt. Video says:

    I fully support different rules for different networks (the difference being who paid to build them, etc.). I also fully support the government paying for the network construction. (But it’s much better to start with that understanding than to move to that when you have failed.)

    I would go even one step beyond and say why not also let the government (or some regulated monopoly as you mention) run the network. Just as Provo provides power to it’s citizens, it should have been allowed to provide telecom services. I believe they could have been successful (or at least more successful) if allowed to do that.

    The cost to enter the business was lower due to the existing power company parts… customer service, billing, line techs, outside plant people and equipment, etc. You also get some scale as all 10k or more customers are under one company. It’s hard to be successful splitting 10k customers between 3-5 companies, each duplicating the parts needed.

    The duopoly knew that was the worst case for them, so they got the Utah legislature (the best their money could buy) to allow these networks, as long as the municipal could NOT be the service provider. Why do you think they were happy to accept that? What did they know about that model we didn’t?

    You are spreading the cost over millions of state residents but the cost (500+ million) was so poorly spent it only provided service to 10,000 homes. Use UTOPIA’s numbers to provide service to all residents of UTOPIA cities or the State and you need to add a few zero’s to the cost. UTOPIA debt per subscriber is what $50,000? Do that for 2 million customers…what’s that 100 billion dollars (debt) to build the network?

  15. luminous says:

    Utopia was limited by the restrictions on the bonds that only allowed them to bond 50% of the build out. I would not be surprised if the back end infrastructure for the network chewed up 70-80% of the total bonds Utopia issued. Then you have to consider the ILPCMP’s (Incumbent lawsuit to prevent competitive market participation) that Qwest had launched against Utopia for the use of Pacificorps utility poles.

    Utopia has had to overcome alot and still has alot to over come. They have been an example of things and do and don’t work.

    I think a city could take what has been learned from Utopia and do a successful network themselves.

  16. Jonathan says:

    Capt. Video,

    You keep mentioning “private networks” but you don’t fully explain what you mean. I assume you mean a network like Comcasts vs a network like Utopia. Lets go back to your “services” argument. Comcast provides a service of and Internet connection to its customers. If it doesn’t want to provide such service it doesn’t have to. People were getting service prior (using dial-up, etc…).

    If service providers such as Comcast starts defining their Internet service as “only HTTP text traffic” for the sake of argument then should it be called Internet service or should it be called HTTP service?

    Lets go back to the days of early Internet when most people were not connected to the Internet or even knew about it but used AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy or a local BBS. Those companies sold services which rotated around their own content. Then they started adding features from the Internet like Usenet, Internet email, then WWW. Then finally they just became (or went out of business) ISP’s for the most part. Let’s remember they are called Internet Service Providers for a reason.

    Now when you talk private networks like Level3 or Qwest there are plenty of QoS based services they provide. They are not on their Internet Service. But they are on their (in Qwest’s case) Qwest Metro Ethernet service, Qwest Geomax (DWDM) service, or other private LAN services these companies provide over their network.

    If they are going to provide Internet service then complain about their customers using it and wanting to charge people who are not their customers. They need to think again. Vonage and other pay their ISP and in the case of a VoIP provider pay a telco for some PRI’s. The phone calls don’t magically make it to the PSTN from the big cloud we call the internet. Just because the local ISP is now complaining about people using their ISP service to circumvent the last mile monopoly using the last mile monopoly.

    The only company that I know who doesn’t pay for bandwidth is the BBC. Its not that they don’t pay for bandwidth per se. Its that to get iPlayer content you have to peer with the BBC so all the ISP’s in the UK peer with the BBC. Hence the biggest reason people like us in the US can’t watch iPlayer content.

    Lets not forget that companies like Comcast have for the last 10 years built their networks to be data networks. Even companies like Comcast will offer private Ethernet/IP services the likes of QMOE. Granted its not over the coaxial cable infrastructure. We all know its not built for symmetrical services.

    So lets remember if a company wants to offer Internet Service let them offer Internet service. If they want to offer text/HTML email, text/images HTTP, and Usenet service let them say its such, but don’t call it Internet service. Its as though these companies in their speed to get customers forgot to bill the customers the correct price. Then they have to back off on services at the same price while trying to call it the same thing to keep them. All we want as customers is to be treated as customers and not criminals who are trying to steal from the company we pay for services.

    I only feel this way when dealing with home level national accounts. When dealing with the same companies for commercial level access or private LAN services it seems as though you are really a customer.

    So lets not redefine Internet Service lets create the service then name it appropriately.

  17. Capt. Video says:

    By “private” network I mean one that was build as a business venture with funding by private, for profit companies, as compared to a network that was funded by the government or was given special privileges or monopoly status/protection by the government.

    I guess an example might be a cable network vs. a traditional phone network.

    I’m not really concerned with what the network calls itself or it’s services. I’m just saying that IF I build a network using my money, and risk my capital, I should have the ability to have some control over that network to the point that I could block traffic to where ever (Vontage?)

    As a subscriber to my network if you don’t like being on a network that blocks traffic to Vontage, you can look to move to another network that does not block Vontage.

    If no other network exists (unlikely, but possible) that is not MY fault or MY problem. You can still use dial up, wireless, etc. If you say I cannot call my service “internet service” or have to call my service “limited internet service”, that may be fine? I’m not trying to redefine internet service or even care how you define internet service.

    I am saying as a basic belief, if YOU pay to build something (not matter if it’s a network or a private bus route) you should get to decide where the stops are.

    If a someone else creates a way to under mind your business plan (Vontage using your network as their last mile into the home) you should be able to protect yourself.

    I don’t like that any network owner could or would limit access to any web site, but they should have that right…they own the network and can set the rules. If you don’t like their rules you don’t have to use their network (or if you don’t like where the bus stops are, you don’t need to ride their bus…even if they are the only bus in town).

    I think it’s a shame that the network owner will have to charge more for data service, to make up for the loss of phone and video service revenue, which were vital to pay off the network construction/upgrade costs. Then ALL data uses will be subsidizing those that have over the top phone and video services.

    Traditional phone and cable companies invest millions (billions?) to build the last mile into your home (including UTOPIA) and I think they are being hurt financially by companies (and subscribers) that then try to bypass their financial responsibility to pay the full load for the network construction by using “over the top” services. The only thing the network owner can do is have a charge just to be connected or increase the charge for the data service…which is the gateway service that allows all others to be delivered.

    The surprise to me is that in this totally red state (where I am out of place) so many are fine with telling the network owner what rules they can have on their PRIVATE network.

    I guess we have beat this horse enough and will let additional comments alone as I’ve more than stated my position and we just disagree.

  18. luminous says:

    … I am fine with Comcast blocking whatever the hell they want. I am also fine with them not having legal immunity from Illegal activities perpetrated by customers on their network.

    That is what Common carrier is, the trade of legal immunity from Illegal activity on the network phone, data, or otherwise in exchange for routing phone calls, data or otherwise without preference.

    I am not saying that we should tell Comcast how to run their network. I am saying they need to be responsible to their legal obligations.

    Prior to 1934 the Telephone company’s had to make great internal efforts to prevent exchanging phone calls dealing with illegal gambling, organized crime, And other illicit activity’s. Comcast or any other internet provider will have todo the same if they want to start picking and choosing who you can call.

    Cox communications was sued for the super bowl “wardrobe malfunction” because they didn’t block it. Comcast has been sued in cases where inappropriate content has slipped through. All of the cable channels, and OTA channels have had to face the fact that their not a common carrier. Does Comcast really want to have this liability with their internet service?

    As I said common carrier does not have a thing todo with PRIVATE VS PUBLIC funding. It is the legal concept, nothing more.

    Also remember their PRIVATE network uses public easements, have enjoyed government legal protections, and have received many tax benefits over the years at the public’s expense.

    Qwest really takes the cake on this front, Every month I pay a 11.3% Universal service fund tax that goes directly to Qwests coffers.

    Cable networks where built with mostly private funding and I am somewhat understanding of that. The phone company networks where build from public funds, low or no cost easements, and hundreds of billions of tax payer dollars.

    We the public have payed for our right to communicate with whoever the hell we want on the phone company’s outdated rotting copper network. Their may be some lenience towards cable networks mucking stuff up a bit. But I really don’t think most cable company’s would want to loose their Common carrier protections.

  19. luminous says:

    Its like street Courier’s, a private street courier is not liable for transporting Al Capon’s hit list if he doesn’t know he is careering it. The minute he takes a peek and see’s what it obviously is he is liable for transporting it.

    So long as he doesn’t take a peek he is a Common carrier by law and hence not liable.

  20. jonathan says:

    I have a longer reply being written. But to go along with luminous’s comment about public easements. Lets not forget that Comcast was given $500,000 of the $1.5 Million cost to build their fiber network into Cache valley a few years ago.

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