Monday, May 04, 2015

Switching the Kids to Republic Wireless

I have recently switched my children to +Republic Wireless for their mobile service. Given that they are in school and should be paying attention to their teachers, I have them on the $10/month rate plan which includes unlimited voice and text via WiFi calling and via mobile carrier.

Previously, they were on a service provider that charged $25/mo for text and voice, and more for very meager data packages. I am saving about $45/month on their mobile service. Granted, they do not have data service, so it's not exactly apples to apples. However, as a family we have a goal for our savings, which is why they will endure the $10/month rate plan with not data service. Besides, it's not like they have much use for it.

My daughter is in college and spends most of her time at home where there is WiFi, or on campus, where there is also WiFi. Based on her report, her network offload using WiFi is about 75%.

My son is in Junior High School where no WiFi is available. But, I am quite certain he doesn't need data service at school. He seems content to play games offline. His network offload is about 65%. That means, that even though his WiFi access is half, most of his use is at home anyway.

Of course, they are not the only ones making a switch. I opted to not use Republic Wireless. I am currently using +Truphone  as a prepaid phone service. This works out well for me because my business use is mostly incoming phone calls. I get about 4 incoming calls to my 1 outgoing call, more or less. For April, my use has been less than $10.

I am surprised to discover that using Truphone for data service is saving me some money too, despite being 9 cents per MB, which is high compared to $10/GB with T-Mobile. Obviously, I am more judicious about my data usage. My phone has background data turned off and is set on power save, which keeps it from sucking up bandwidth. Even so, it can load apps and websites on demand. This is similar to using a film camera versus a digital camera. When you have a limit on the photos you can take, you tend to be more judicious about which shots you take. Similarly, with my pay by the MB plan, I am mindful about what I do with my mobile. I also unexpectedly save lots of time by not goofing around with my phone every few minutes.

I find myself in a mobile sweet spot with Truphone. Other prepaid services still only provide voice and text with another lump of money if you want data. Truphone, on the other hand, allows me to use what I need, when I need it. This is similar to the hot dog dilemma where a store sells a hot dog for 75 cents or 2 for $1. If you're hungry for two hot dogs, then $1 is a great deal. However, if you are only hungry for 1 hot dog, you should only buy the one because it satisfies your need and you are still paying less than $1. Per unit cost is not a factor until you reach that first price break.

For the first tier of data, I'd have to spend $15 for the 1st GB. So, I'd have to spend 166 MB of data, the Truphone equivalent of $15, to make buying a fixed-rate data plan worthwhile for my phone. However, my mindful use of data amounts to not even 20 MB. Yes, my unit cost per MB is way higher with Truphone; but, I'm still spending less than I would have with a prepaid data plan.

Except for rent, mobile service was my family's largest monthly expense. I remember once paying about $280/month for mobile service. That is a lot of money for a simple convenience. Over the years, we have found better and better rate plans. If I can find something that works for my wife, I think we can all have mobile service for less than $50/month combined. That would be sweet. I'm still looking for options.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Google is On the Ball with Wear and Mobile

Google recently announced changes to Android Wear and their new mobile service Google Project  Fi. In previous posts, I have mentioned my experiments to forego standard mobile voice and text services, relying instead on mobile data services to carry voice and text via Google Voice.

Of course, it is not a clear-cut separation. My job requires that I travel to areas where mobile service is spotty, let alone data services. Therefore, I must have a backup voice service at hand to make and receive phone calls if necessary.

Where Android Wear comes in is that I had also considered leaving a tablet at home, a tablet at work, and an Android handset in the car. In this way, I can utilize Android Wear anywhere I go without having to schlep a tablet of phone with me. As it turns out, Google has enabled WiFi on Google Wear devices, making it so that you do not have to carry your mobile device with you to take advantage of all the features of the Wear timepiece. Wear will soon allow you to leave your paired device far away from your watch and still maintain a connection.

Project Fi also accomplishes the same thing that I have been trying to do by piecing together services. To recap, Project Fi will use WiFi and LTE services by both Sprint and T-Mobile to carry your voice and text services. If neither of these is usable, then it will fall back on standard mobile services.

This is the same thing I have been doing by relying on a prepaid T-Mobile phone using LTE to carry my Google Voice calls. Recently, I unlocked the phone and put in a Truphone SIM card, which gets free incoming calls and text messages.

The reason I chose Truphone SIM is that I can enable LTE data and disable it as needed for 9 cents per MB. This is expensive, if you are looking at Gigabytes of data. However, I shut off the data service most of the time and sync ony at hotspots. Most of the other times, I am with clients or driving, which require my full attention, thus no need for data.

It is not only Google who is trying to change the mobile market. Republic Wireless recently announced their Maestro lab, which also plans on refunding unused bandwidth. In addition, they are also looking into the possibility of using multiple carriers rather than sticking to the Sprint network.

Of course, I am betting on Karma to provide me with pay-as-you-go mobile data that does not expire, as soon as they finish production and ship out. They keep delaying their deployment; but, I've already prepaid several GB in anticipation. Once Karma ships, I'll have tremendous mobile liberty.

Exciting days are ahead because of the success of LTE, which makes all kinds of communication possible with its higher speeds and seemingly greater coverage. Exciting times are ahead. We are only seeing the beginning with Google Fi, Republic Maestro, and Karma LTE.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Android As Stationary Interface With Wear

The other day I had an idea that may not be practical nor practicable with the current state of Android Wear technology. The idea is to have Android devices installed at all your main destinations. By this I mean, you could have an Android device at home, another Android device at work, and yet another Android device in the car. You could then have your Android Wear watch sync at these locations and provide you with basic updates.

The reason I had this idea is because I typically schlep an Android phone, Android tablet, and my Windows tablet around. .This is in addition to any paper notebooks and a WiFi hotspot.

I figure that I could eliminate some schlepping weight if I leave my Android devices put in their various locations and use Android Wear as the common interface. After all, while I am driving, I do not need to make phone calls, text, email, or browse the web, according to all the busy-bodies crying about putting their precious lives in danger. Wah wah wah. Fine. That means driving time is me time.

Even so, one needs to stay current on time and appointments. According to Android Wear support, these features are available without a paired device. I think that should be sufficient while driving.

See: https://support.google.com/androidwear/answer/6056862

The biggest drawback to my idea is that Android Wear can only sync to a single device at a time, requiring a factory reset to pair again:

See: https://support.google.com/androidwear/answer/6058799

It would be awesome if I could pair multiple devices to Android Wear. Wait, apparently there is a way.

See: http://www.techhive.com/article/2599313/beelink-makes-android-wear-usable-across-multiple-devices.html

Some Backstory


Why go through all this trouble?

Well, I'm rebelling against the high cost of communication to some extent. I am using my Google Voice number as my main phone number, which forwards to my tablets and a +Truphone prepaid phone number.

At home, I have WiFi that enables me to make and receive phone calls through the Google Hangouts dialer.

At work, I also have WiFi that enables me to make and receive phone calls via Google Hangouts.

That just leaves the in-betweens. That is where Truphone fills in the gaps. I can receive calls and SMS at no cost, and make calls and send messages for 9 cents per minute/message. I eliminate a fixed monthly cost and maintain a low variable cost. Apparently, I'm not supposed to talk on the phone while driving anyway, and I should also not take calls when dealing with customers. This leaves very little time in-between for me to actually use my phone.

As soon as +Karma WiFi gets it together, I'll have pay-as-you go data too. My main need for mobile data is +Waze, which is surprisingly good at getting me around bad traffic. I love how Waze takes me through different routes even as I am going to the same destinations. But, that's a subject for another blog post.

Before moving on, however, I did notice that one limitation of using Waze is that it lives on a mobile phone, which becomes a phone when somebody decides I should become a risk to humanity. Thus, my driving "degrades" and I no longer have access to my awesome navigator. This is when multi-purpose really bites.

More Importantly

All this brings me to the main point of all this. Technology made it possible to cram email, web browsing, productivity apps, fitness apps, and all manner of entertainment into mobile devices. Now we are seeing a bit of a backlash against this multi-purposeness by venturing into wearables like Fitbits and Google Wear, which only present you with the essentials.

The aim of Wearables, whether stated or not, is to take your damned phone out of your hand so you can have an eye to eye conversation with people. Wearables do this by focusing on very few functions and providing you with minimal information, just the essentials. This way, your mobile device stays in your pocket or purse; and, by extension, it means you can focus on a few key things rather than venture down every rabbit hole that comes into your path.

The only thing holding all this back is that you're still carrying your mobile device with you everywhere. So, you're free-er; but, not really.

 It makes more sense for your watch to have itinerant syncs rather than constant, real-time syncs. Research shows that multi-tasking is simply awful to your intelligence and productivity. Having a wearable focus on time, appointments, and tracking your fitness may actually be sufficient.

Ultimately, the ability to walk away from our electronic leashes may be our biggest innovation in terms of mental presence and productivity. All we would need to do is stop at one of our sync stations at work, at home, or in the car when we can actually do something with the new information.

Syncing at different locations makes sense in terms of context. The sorts of information I need at work has little use at home, and vice versa. When I am in the car, there are certain actions that are simply impractical. Why do we burden ourselves with context-agnostic data?

There is data that makes sense on a wearable.

There is data that makes sense on a phone.

There is data that makes sense on a tablet.

There is data that makes sense at a desktop.

There is data that makes sense at work or home.

There is data that makes sense when you are on the road.

Having access to all our data regardless of context clutters up things and is a burden on our psyche. We can and should only focus on one thing at a time. To do this in our increasingly connected world, we should filter information into what is actionable in our current circumstances.

To circle back to the beginning, I think comedians refer to it as a callback, all of this thinking began because I don't want to schlep a bunch of items back and forth between home and work every day. I should just show up and have it work for those things that I can do at that location.

And, when you think of it, before digital, you had work notes, which stayed at work, and you had home stuff, which stayed at home. If you traveled, you carried the essentials.Physical limitations imposed a context-aware limit on our focus. If we need ubiquitous access to information, we should impose some context-aware limits for our own sanity and effectiveness. Otherwise, it is unnecessary exuberance of our technical capability. Just because we can does not mean we should. It becomes a waste in so many ways when you you try to fit information into situations that do not lend themselves to any action.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

LTE + Google Hangouts: Surprisingly Workable

In my previous blog post, I wrote about my experiment using Google Voice, via Google Hangouts, as my main communication line. I previously had a sour experience because T-Mobile's HSPA+ is not too widespread, especially in rural areas. But, even within well-covered areas, my Google Hangouts calls tended to jitter and drop. I was ready to write off the experiment until I switched to LTE.

Here is what I discovered about LTE service in my area. LTE coverage is greater than HSPA by a long shot. There are rural roads where my old phone and mobile hotspot would drop down to 2G or EDGE. Yet, those stretches have LTE service. Beyond that, the service is quite fast and reliable.

When it comes to call quality, LTE proves to be very capable in maintaining my Google Hangout call going with few hiccups. Obviously, carriers are moving towards VoLTE; but, the same technology that makes VoLTE possible also makes other VOIP services viable alternatives.

Wireless carriers aren't about to sell you data-only subscriptions so that you can use another voice service, or are they?

A New Way To Call


Do you know how Google Wear and the Apple Watch are supposed to free you from what photographers call chimping? If you don't know what chimping is, it is when you take a digital photo and immediately view it on the camera display, rather than just keep shooting. You can't chimp with film cameras, by the way.

Well, we tend to chimp with our phones. Phones spend most of their days in peoples' hands whilst we check for text messages, social media updates, look up information, or pretend to be busy so we do not have to talk to people.

Wearable technology is supposed to free us from staring at our hands all day. Google Glass is supposed to allow you to put the phone away and work with your hands free. Google Wear watches are supposed to make it easier to glance at and reply to messages without whipping out your phone.

We are using our phones less and less for voice communication, relying more and more on richer media communications. The dedicated phone circuit is on its way out. But, will carriers still charge you a line access fee when they do away with the circuit and move entirely to VoLTE?

You would feel silly buying a handset for $500 with no dedicated line (because your voice is going via LTE) when you could buy a tablet that does the same thing for $150. Would carriers sell data-only handsets like they sell data-only tablets?

In case you're wondering where this is going, this is where I redeem myself. Until you can buy handsets that have no phone line, meaning that they are data only, we will have to rely on tablets for VOIP service. Tablets are ridiculous as handsets; but, they make for great base stations for Bluetooth headsets.

So, since we now wear our notification devices, and would be foolish to pay more than double for a phone with the same circuitry as a tablet, and pay higher rates for a non-existent dedicated circuit, I see us moving towards headsets and base stations until service providers start to offer data-only subscriptions for handsets.

It makes sense that mobile carriers should move towards data-only subscriptions. On one device, you can have multiple phone numbers. You can have a Skype line, a Google Voice line, and a Truphone line, for example. We could choose phone services like we choose among Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo for email and collaborative work. It's the network effect for phone numbers.

What LTE Does


What LTE does is open up voice services on mobile devices in the same way that DSL and cable opened up the market for voice services like Vonage. You can choose to use the carrier's voice service, or use one from elsewhere.

LTE has the speed, reliability, and coverage to change the voice communication landscape. Handsets are going to have to do some evolving like T-Mobile is doing with WiFi calling. Their WiFi calls, for example, if done on both ends, jump up to high definition audio. Other VOIP services also default to high def audio when both ends are on the same service.

All of these things came to mind once I realized how doable it is to rely on Google Hangouts as a phone service via WiFi and LTE. It's exciting; but, I do not think we are ready to make the leap. The rate plans that carriers offer do not lend themselves to the transition. The rate plans too will have to evolve. We would have to request a standard line as an add-on to our main subscription rather than make it a requirement for handsets.

The best example of this is Republic Wireless. For a meager $5/mo, you get unlimited calling and texting if you provide the WiFi. If you want a backup phone line in case there is no WiFi, then it's $10/mo. It's going to be tough for carriers to unbundle the phone line from data.

My experiment is not over. T-Mobile currently has the fastest LTE network. I'm waiting for Karma to ship their hotspot, which runs on the Sprint LTE network. I wonder what difference network capacity will make on my Google Hangout calls?

Besides Google Hangouts, I am also testing Skype and Truphone for outbound calls. The caller ID shows my Google number, of course. There is no need to confuse call recipients with multiple phone numbers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

An Experiment With Data-only Calling

I've been meaning to experiment with Wi-Fi calling via Google Hangouts for some time. But, with the death of another phone, I am forced to run the experiment ahead of schedule. Google Hangouts now sports a handy dialer that allows you to make voice calls using your Google Voice number. It used to be that the Google Voice app would send a request to Google Voice, which in turn would dial your phone number and then dial your intended person. It was a bit of a hack; but it still required you to have an existing phone line, land or mobile. For that reason, calls were reliable. 

I tried the VoIP exclusive back in the dark ages of 3G via mobile Skype with limited success. Wireless data was not fast enough nor reliable enough for consistent call quality. 4G has improved on both, but occasionally farts out. In these days of LTE, carriers are starting to roll out VoLTE, which is essentially VoIP over LTE. So, then the question is, why not just use a handset without a voice plan and route calls via an LTE hotspot?

My idea works great this time around so long as I stay within city limits. It becomes unworkable when travelling out to the rural areas, which I have done. Downgrading to 2G service left me without Internet and without voice calling.  I did carry with me a backup GSM phone with voice and text, just in case. But, I've come to realize that relying on Google Voice as my main number requires me to stay put in town. 

Earlier tonight, I tried talking to my wife via Google Hangouts voice call from my tablet through a 4G hotspot (HSPA+). As I drove home, our call quality was rather lousy, probably because handoffs from tower to tower aren't smooth enough on GSM. I should attempt the same via LTE. If carriers are starting to roll out VoLTE, then perhaps travelling from cell to cell is smoother. I am waiting for Karma to finally ship their LTE hotspot to experiment, but that's not until April. 

Without a phone, I'm at a loss as what to do. I could make and receive calls from my tablet using Google Hangouts; but, things get tricky. I'd have to carry the tablet, a headset, hotspot, and backup phone everywhere. I suppose it would make sense to have a tablet with built-in mobile service. This way you only need one device, make that two devices, because you'll need a Bluetooth headset, 

Yes, this is very much like having a regular mobile phone, with the exception that you are not paying for voice and SMS. I think data only is a better value than bundled voice, text, and data. The bundling is an upsell because you figure that you're getting them all cheaper. Ultimately, however, you really only need data nowadays, which can provide the same unlimited texting and calling. So, you're paying extra for unlimited use of something you use less and less.

Of course, we still need legacy phone service as a backup line. But, I see the day coming when handsets will mainly be data devices like tablets. It's feasible for city folk. I think I would be fine with an everyday tablet phone and a "travelling phone". 

With all of that said, I think I am going to have to cough up some money for a new phone. Wi-Fi only calling simply isn't fitting in with my current business needs. Someday, when I become a virtual assistant or some other work-at-home professional, maybe I can go all Wi-Fi. But for now, it isn't practical. I shall have to re-evaluate when I can get my hands on an LTE device.