UPDATE: 8/24/15 — Mobile carriers currently compete with each other selling the most high speed data for the best price. Plus, data speeds are getting pretty fast, with 5th Generation LTE coming pretty soon. At the same time, cable companies are losing customers in waves as more people “cut the expensive television cord.” (People just want to watch certain programs from certain networks. They want to click an app to watch their favorite show. They don’t want to pay for anything they’re never going to watch.) So, as mobile data gets faster and faster, the next big competition will be between Mobile and Cable. Mobile wants to provide data in your hand, in your home, and in your car. They’re already in your hand, and it’s simply a $15/mo option to be in the car. Getting into your home means that Mobile has to provide a TON of high-speed data for less than approx $65/mo. As the mobile carriers fight themselves to sell the most data at the lowest price, the cost-per-gig will come down and eventually it will make sense to completely get rid of the cable company and their broadband internet service at home. You’ll get wireless high speed data everywhere, on one simple plan. And you’ll have the luxury of choosing from competing providers. Cable knows this and has already started to dig deep in your home, attempting to offer bundled home security, etc. The more Cable starts to offer, the more desperate they become.

UPDATE: 8/23/15 — This article remains as one of the most popular of our blog. Clearly there’s a lot of interest! I’ve recently changed to an unlimited minutes / text package that includes lots of data. Because of the unlimited minutes I now have, the “hidden cost” issue is really no longer an issue, for me anyway. The industry has changed quite a bit since writing this article in 2011. Back then, the carriers (Verizon, Tmobile, Att, Sprint) really valued minutes, but data was barely on the scene. These days it’s the other way around. Carriers sell plans based almost entirely by data volume… and they could care less about the minutes because so few people make actual phone calls any more… relying mostly on email, texting, facebook, and other communications apps. All of that said, on my phone I have set Google Voice to be the default outbound number. (And it’s the number I prefer people to call / text to reach me.) These days I would rather have all calls and texts take place through Google Voice, further making Sprint what’s known as a “dumb pipe.” I sincerely believe that the price-per-gigabyte competition will bring all carriers to a very level playing field, as they start to fight to be the chosen one. Services like Google’s Fi will start to take over and will be a service layer that combines offerings from multiple carriers. (When you use Google Fi to make a phone call or use mobile data, the phone chooses the best available signal from either Sprint or Tmobile… so the carrier is essentially selling wholesale-priced data to Google who turns around and sells it to you at a discount.)

UPDATE: 3/27/12 — The plot thickens. Recent tech news articles suggest that Google Voice is suiting additional carriers (beyond Sprint) to jump on board the GV + Carrier integration train. Is this good or bad? I say, “Bad at first, and maybe good in the long run.” And here’s why: More carriers offering GV = more customers using GV as their “cell number” = more “land line” number usage = fewer free mobile-to-mobile calls taking place = your cell phone plan’s minutes get burned up faster = you need a bigger plan with more minutes = carriers make more money. On the other hand, the fact is that fewer people are even making regular phone calls these days, and are mainly using their device for texting / web / data. So as fewer calls are made, there’s far less stress on a carrier’s system, which means they can really start to give away the minutes for free, because they know you will never use them. So we predict that carriers will soon offer paid data plans, but will attract you with “unlimited” calling plans (that they know you will never use). Sprint already offers a $100/mo unlimited everything plan for indviduals (or $190/mo for a family-two-line-pack). So when it’s all said and done, the whole “mobile-to-mobile” free calling thing won’t really matter, and it will make no difference whether you call went through a GV land line or not. But again, that’s long-term thinking: 3-5 years. In the meantime, watch your minutes!

NOTE: 3/27/12 — I have no idea when this page came online, but Google is much more transparent now than in the past, with regards to how your cell minutes are used in relation to GV. Sprint, on the other hand, does not seem to have an easy-to-find page that tells you your minutes will be used by GV… all we could find was this page, but it still does not disclose the minute usage.

UPDATE: 10/29/11 — I think they’re at it again. A month ago I upgraded to the Galaxy S II phone. In the process, I downloaded and installed the Google Voice app at which time I was given only two installation choices: 1) Use my Google Voice line exclusively so that all outbound calls would use and display my GV number, or 2) Port my mobile number to my Google Voice account, thereby ditching my existing GV number. This is like deciding between getting shit on, or getting punched in the face. In the past, you were given three choices: the two above PLUS the choice to CHOOSE the number used for each call made. 

So, I hesitantly decided to use my existing GV number exclusively on my cell. This would be fine EXCEPT for the inherent problems described in my article below. I called Sprint Tech Support and they had no idea how to get me back to where I could choose the number for each call made. So I uninstalled the GV app from the phone, and luckily found (in my GV account settings) the ability to “disable” the mobile connection to Sprint. (See image, and to the right of the Sprint logo.)

This got me back to where I started when I bought the new phone….Which is that I had a phone with no GV app. Next, I re-installed the GV app on my phone, this time, surprisingly I had the three install choices again, with one of them to “choose the number for each call.” I also looked again at my GV account settings to confirm that Google Voice was NOT enabled on my phone. So now I am good to go, and all works as needed.

The more I think about this, I am convinced that Sprint and Google have created this two-choice installation plan to force customers to align themselves permanently with a GV number, by default. You see, when you are forced to use GV, you are using up your anytime minutes, and that’s exactly what Sprint wants. They want you to run out of minutes so that you feel like you need to upgrade your plan to a package with more minutes. Do you get it, people? Once again, don’t get me wrong, I like Google (I use many G products) and I like Sprint (customer since ’98), but this kind of activity is horsey poo poo. And if what I suggest they are doing is correct, I believe they should be ashamed.

UPDATE: 5/24/11 — Well, it looks like there are still problems. As I originally posted in March 2011, this merger can cause customers to use minutes they don’t expect to use, ESPECIALLY the call recipient. Recent news stories confirm.

UPDATE: 5/20/2011 — A variety of sources (including Sprint representatives) suggest and / or state that the Sprint + GV merger will NOT use up your minutes. But don’t paint with a broad brush just yet. Readers of this blog should be aware that the original article was written prior to published documentation was available, AND written following a personal phone call with a Sprint customer service representative who told me to assume that my Sprint phone usage of GV would in-fact use up minutes, at least he thought. That said, it appears that Sprint and Google have worked out a deal that allows the incorporation of GV services into Sprint services, with their usage being the same as if always on a wireless phone. However, one concern that I still have is if a customer (let’s call him Bob) has combined Sprint and GV, and then he calls his buddy “Joe” across the country dialing Joe’s GV number that has not yet been combined with Sprint. Then are Bob and Joe using up landline minutes because Joe has not yet combined GV and his Sprint number / vice versa? We shall see. Sprint users should certainly not pay too much attention to a blog posting, but should contact the company with whom they do business, to get a final answer.

UPDATE: 4/25/2011 — received an email from Google Groups inviting me to use the GV / Sprint combo. The email says, “Integrating your account with Sprint means you will still get the benefits of Any Mobile Any Time if that is included in your service plan.” So hopefully this means that the free wireless to wireless calling will still be in effect for most users. But we shall see.

ORIGINAL STORY: Long story short… merger may quietly use up your ‘anytime’ minutes.

I love Google. I like what the company does. And I use many of their services. And while ‘love’ would be a strong word for Sprint, well, let’s just say I have been a Sprint customer since 1998. I am happy with their coverage, and their customer service is always improving.

The two companies recently announced a partnership that helps to merge Sprint Customers and the fabulous Google Voice (GV) product. If you know what Google Voice is, then skip the next two paragraphs.

We all know what Sprint is & does. So I don’t need to go into that. But for those who are not familiar with Google Voice, it is a free, web-based “phone” service, attached to users’ Gmail accounts. While GV has many features and benefits, it’s basically a phone, an answering machine, a text messaging system, and a way to make cheap or free long distance and international calls. One of the very best features of GV, is the voice mail transcription. This means that when someone leaves a message for you, GV turns the person’s voice into text, and that text gets emailed to you! So you can READ the message, rather than listening to it. (This is great for when your long-winded friends call.) And since it’s now an email, you can keep it, archive it, search it later, etc. For example, “I remember that time Julie called last year about that great pizza place — what was the name of it — oh let me search my email for it…” Oh, you can also listen to the Google Voice messages, too, just like the good old days.

You can use GV on your computer or on your smart phone, using a free app. When you set up your GV account, you can pick a new phone number, or even “port” an existing number to it. Up until the Sprint / GV merger, when you use GV on your smart phone, you could (or needed to) choose which phone number was making the call. For example, let’s say I am calling my mother. Do I want to make the call using my Sprint cell phone number? Or do I want the outgoing number to be my Google Voice digits? Some small business owners use a GV number for their business. So using one phone, they can make outbound calls either “personal” with their cell number, or “business” with their GV number.

Without going into the nitty gritty, the product merger basically allows Sprint Customers to seamlessly combine their cell phone number with Google Voice features, for free. So for example, if my Sprint cell phone number is 876.555.1234, then I can set up my new Google Voice account to also use that same cell number. So whether I am using my cell phone or my computer, I can make outgoing calls with the same number, and take advantage of the GV features at the same time… in both places… everywhere, always, etc.

If you have an existing GV account, with this merger, you can use your GV number on your phone, as your main number. In either case, all of your outbound phone calling comes from the one GV number.

And so what’s the problem?

When you use GV, either directly or indirectly, you are using land-line phone numbers. You see, to make Voice work, Google long ago went out and bought a bunch of land-line phone numbers that are connected to land-based service. So if I am using my computer to use Google Voice, and I call a friend across the country, the signal goes wherever it goes, eventually hits the local phone company or cell service, then the call connects to my friend.

The slightly confusing part…

Companies like Sprint advertise calling plans that say “free mobile-to-mobile” calls. So I guess that means that if I use my cell phone to call my friend’s cell phone, then it’s free, right? That’s mobile-to-mobile, right? I won’t be using my anytime minutes, right? Yes, and no.

YES: If I use my Sprint handset, and do not use the Google Voice app to make the call, and I call directly to my friend’s mobile number, on his mobile handset, and he is not using Google Voice or even a GV number, then the entire call is “mobile to mobile” and it’s free… no anytime minutes used.

NO: If at any point in that path, a land-line gets involved at all (including Google Voice) on my end or on his end, then the call is no longer mobile-to-mobile and I am using my minutes…. AND he is using his minutes, too….

So why would Google and Sprint partner like this?

Well, Google gets lots of new “customers” quick and easy. The more people use Google Voice, the more they are using Gmail, and the more they are instantly connected to other Google products, like Docs, News, Photos, and of course Search, which is still the main source of revenue for Google.

Sprint partnered because it gives them a suite of new, high-tech features to give to customers for free, with zero set-up or maintenance costs on their end. It also makes Sprint look more innovative, an adjective they need more of, because they don’t have an iPhone or an iPad. I have an Android and love it, but we all know that iAnything is still the cool kid on the block. And, Sprint did this because the merged service makes all of us use more mobile minutes, even when we don’t know it, which is the point of this article.

The more minutes we use, the more we think we need to buy a bigger calling plan, and of course that’s more money in their coffers. And that’s the “feature” of the new partnership that both parties will likely not broadcast anytime soon.

Mobile is now and mobile is the future. Google Voice is just part of that. I suspect that Google would love to purchase a telephone company, ultimately owning and operating their own high-speed, wireless, network that services our businesses, our homes, our cars, and our mobiles. Maybe this gentle partnership is a step in that direction. It’s no secret that Sprint is an underdog, especially following AT&T gobbling this month of T-Mobile USA.

Bottomline: Use your cell phone. Check out Google Voice if you want. But do pay close attention to the fine print and how your minutes actually get used up.

by Thom Hiatt