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Gmail phone calls remain free of charge in 2013 for US and Canada (engadget.com)
86 points by redDragon on Dec 26, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

This is by far the most overlooked feature of being a part of the Google ecosystem. I don't think Microsoft or Apply can match the ability for me to give out a number to someone, not a special username and not something that requires you to have a particular device, Just a plain old phone number. People can call me on that number and I can pick up on

1. My Phone 3. My Tablet 3. Any Computer I am logged into <- This one is special

In addition I can call other people using any of those devices and pay nothing for the privilege.

Look. Apple can go buy DID's from any number of vendors and become a phone company tomorrow.

They don't want the regulatory exposure, and frankly, Google doesn't either.

Buying a DID and doing call forwarding is ridiculously trivial to do. You can replicate Google Voice on your own servers in 10 minutes using Asterisk or other Open-source projects.

Disclaimer: I'm the community manager for 2600hz, a company that builds an open-source stack for Telecom applications. You can mirror this functionality in 10 minutes using our stack. You can also do this with Plivo easily. It's not rocket science.

How much would it cost? And would I be able to transfer my Google number to my own setup (I have a really great vanity number and worked hard to get people to switch to it)? Also, would it let me do dial out with that number as well? How would the OS integration look like on iOS/Android? Could I get voicemail transcripts? Would setting this up use my "minutes" or "megabytes" on my mobile plan? If it's using megabytes how much would that be a per minute?

I am very happy with Google Voice so far, at least on an Android phone, but I from what I remember, iOS doesn't integrate with it as deeply. Also, I would love to be able to somehow ditch my "minutes" and only use the data connection for everything, but I am not sure if that's even possible today without carrying around a mobile hotspot.

Edit: also, GV gives me free text messaging. Can I replicate that with my own setup and how much will it cost? Do I have to use something like Twilio or Tropo for that and pay per message? What about MMS? Can I have those forwarded to my email?

If you choose to answer these, thanks in advance.

Edit 2: Looking at AT&T, they have decently priced data plans for things like tablets and gaming devices [1]. I understand that I can get a SIM card from them telling them I'll have a tablet on their network. Can I then buy an unlocked iPhone from Apple and do this type of setup you are talking about using SIP and something else for SMS and save money?

[1] http://www.att.com/shop/wireless/data-plans.html#fbid=Dd7zGn...

You can port the number to your DID provider. Most people use bandwidth.com but flowroute and voip.ms are also ones that are thrown around a lot. Most of them charge <$5 for porting.

OS Integration is possible only through 3rd applications (unless you have android which has a native SIP stack on the device) like Groundwire or Bria. It uses megabytes and I believe, if you're using G.711 (the normal cell codec) you'll consume data at 64kbps (peak). I've never gone over on using it but YMMV.

iOS integration is tricky because of the "keep-alive" strategies designers have to use. The VoIP app has to be able to notify on inbound calls, but that is usually only possible when the app is in the foreground. There are some cool hacks to get around this (I like the groundwire message personall).

Text messaging is dirt cheap; many providers will give you unlimited usage for very cheap (I've seen it as low as $.40 per DID per month). You could use twilio, but you'd be better off with tropo since it's more open (sort of, not really the time or place for that sort of debate).

Edit 2: Yes you can.

I think I answered everything :). You can do all of this for free (except for usage) if you install the 2600hz kazoo stack (here's the Chef-Solo install instruction set: https://2600hz.atlassian.net/wiki/display/docs/Deploying+Kaz...). You can also do a hell of a lot more than just call forwarding :).

We're fully open-source, it's free, and it has all of the APIs you're looking for when building kickass mashups.

A hosted version should be more widely available in Q1 next year.

Thanks! The only question I'm still wondering about is whether I can get AT&T to sell my just a data plan and then use the SIM card in an iPhone (or similar) without them forcing me to get a voice plan as well.

AT&T generally won't sell you a data only plan, but their corporate sales team can.

If you have a corporate account, talk to your IT guy about hooking you up. I don't know any other way :/...

Forgot to mention, we wholesale minutes at $.0099/minute, and you can find lower rates from less trustworthy providers with a little googling. 99 hundredths of a penny per minute is cheap, but it's not call center cheap, if you dig my drift.

Thanks for the answers!

I saw the pricing. So, for a hypothetical 500 minute plan we are talking about $4.95 for these minutes + 235 MBs of data, plus $5-10 for a DID + $30 for the AT&T 3 GB plan + $0.40-1 for SMS. So, $45/month I can have complete control over my phone? That's not bad at all.

Two more questions: First, does any of this support E911 or whatever is used for cell phones? I know Google Voice doesn't do 911, but if this is going to be my only phone with only a data plan, that becomes more important.

Also how is the reliability of this setup compared to conventional networks? What are the chances that I'll be stuck somewhere and need to call 911 without the ability to do so?

E911 is complicated when it comes to VOIP. With providers such as Flowroute or Vitelity, you basically fill out a form with your current address/location and it takes some time to propagate to whatever system the dispatchers use. Basically, you can kiss E911 good-bye if you're using VOIP on the go.

Re reliability: VOIP, especially over a data plan, is not as reliable as conventional networks. I wouldn't rely on it for emergency situations. I switched from landlines a number of years ago at home and I've been at the mercy of my cable company outages.

FYI, I run a dedicated Freeswitch box and my providers are Flowroute and Vitelity.

We <3 freeswitch and run it at the core. On Kazoo we do Dash e911 via API so you can program all the DIDs in one fell swoop.

There are a variety of reasons why e911 sucks, not the least of which is the fact that if you don't populate it, the calls go to the Nation 911 hotline, which is slower due to not being local :/. Don't even get started on the topic of SIP based e911 on Softphones, it's a joke.

Flowroute and Vitelity are awesome; in particular the CEO of flowroute is a smart dude. Bayan was on VUC last week talking about the future of service provider networks (specifically that he envisions a world with SBC's). That's interesting, to say the least.

VoIP over a data plan is as reliable as your connection. That being said, use G.729 if you can as the lower bitrate holds up better over GSM/LTE networks. That being said, don't rely on it solely as there is no SLA on packets carried over the public internet.

I love Flowroute. Their web interface is much cleaner than Vitelity's. However, I wish they would take the initiative in supporting more open codecs other than G.729, G.711, etc. I dislike the G.729 licensing scheme. On another note, I was surprised about a year ago that Flowroute added support for T.38, yet there was no announcement made. In spite this, I haven't been able to get faxes to properly transmit and receive.

By the way, Kazoo screenshots look nice, definitely going to check it out.

T.38 In VoIP is tricky. We run almost every codec in Kazoo that FS supports (711, 722, 729, all the way up to Siren64Khz and h.263 for video), and I can tell you that t.38 has been the trickiest.

A lot of the transformations layer7 firewalls apply to packets, particularly SIP packets, can cause unexpected side effects with an extremely time sensitive application like fax. In short, moving packets involves buffering on some level, and fax machines are intolerant of any jitter or delay. Therefore, delivering media in t.38 becomes an exercise in conflict mitigation.

In summary, t.38 is active on a lot of providers who don't talk about it because heterogenous equipment might not play nice.

~$4.95 for minutes

~$1.00 for a DID

~$1.00 for SMS

~$30 data plan = ~$37 a month. That's more like it.

e911 is available depending on your DID provider. It's $2 a month from us at the moment.

Reliability is dependent on the stability of your data connection. I would not consider this 100% reliable in the woods, for example.

This is something we're trying to work on, but I think it's only possible to solve by COLO-ing with the Carriers; not cheap.

> I don't think Microsoft or Apply can match the ability for me to give out a number to someone

If they're willing to burn the cash (and Apple certainly has a lot lying around), they could. Google isn't a telco and they're paying CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers) for every phone number and for terminating every minute of every call that a Google Voice user makes. This makes Google Voice quite different from their other products - unlike gmail for instance, most of the Google Voice product actually comes from other companies and most of the per-user cost is probably going directly to these companies rather than to their own infrastructure and software development costs. Yes, the Google Voice software and infrastructure is still important but just not to the same degree as their other products. I often wonder if this is the reason why they only commit to making Google Voice free for one year at a time.

Too bad Google has never been that serious about these VOIP options. I mean, where's my "VOIP Call" button next to the normal Call button in my Android phone? Why isn't the "Video Call" button there as well, like Facetime is in the iPhone? I've been expecting this to happen since Froyo in 2010, and I'm still waiting for it to happen.

Google only keeps them deep in the Google Talk app, and I bet most people using Android phones have no idea they are even there, so it's almost like they don't even exist. Google needs to do a better job of deeply integrating VOIP into Android, and I don't care that carriers won't like it. Same goes for their "Google Voice" service.

I've used other people's Android phones and seen the voip call option, perhaps it depends if you have a sip account configured.

Because Google is afraid of pissing off the mobile operators I think.

The difference is that Google provides ad based services. It's important that users remain loyal to use their services. Both Microsoft and Apple are predominantly product based companies. They sell products and all that matters is whether the product is good enough to pay for.

I love Google Voice; I do. It may not be smart, but I put it on my resume and as my primary contact info. But at the same time, that you can't receive mms is just crazy. I mean, forward it to my email even. I'm fine with that.

Partial sidenote: If I were, say, Yahoo, and looking to do a few big projects, this is one I'd tackle. Google has shown people will use it if it's simple, but there's not wide adoption. Yahoo Phone could supplant GVoice and things like SnapChat in one fell swoop.

> But at the same time, that you can't receive mms is just crazy

To be fair, I don't think I've ever sent or received an MMS. I'm pretty sure it's not that common, so most people probably don't really miss it.

Really? You've never had anyone send a picture or video to your phone?

Maybe it's that I live in southern Georgia (though in a city of 77k) but I tried explaining to people a few times that "if you're going to send a picture or video, send it to my email." The reply was usually the same, and hostile.

"I don't know how to send things to email on my phone!"

"You just type in my email. Or choose it from the contact list you chose my number from."

"Nevermind. I don't know why you have to make it complicated." And this is from 26 year olds who grew up with computers and use them daily.

I could make myself remember to special-case you fairly easily, but I really don't want to have to special-case anyone. That's why I love iMessage--it's a progressive enhancement, not a separate app. When that breaks down, like when I can't fall back to SMS when sending from my Mac, I get annoyed.

Absolutely; I wouldn't WANT anyone to have to special case me. It's silly, and no one should have to. That's why I think Google (and anyone wants to get into the phone-number game) should be handling that behind the scenes like I presume Apple's iMessages does.

> To be fair, I don't think I've ever sent or received an MMS. I'm pretty sure it's not that common, so most people probably don't really miss it.

You do know this is the standard that is used for transferring photos via text message? Even my not-smartphone-savvy friends use this. MORE of them use it, it seems.

I've noticed that a lot more people did it once iMessage arrived, which tends to compound the problem of being one of few non-iDevice users.

I'm sorry, I don't quite understand your comment. iMessage uses SMS/MMS. People with Apple phones can send texts and media files to non-Apple phones just fine. (And iPhones are a third of the market. That hardly makes you "one of few".)

Actually I think iMessage is in fact not SMS/MMS. I'm not an apple user so I don't have first hand experience. Perhaps there is an SMS bridge on the backend server to deliver to non-ios devices.

I put google voice on my resume also. It was a real relief in coding interviews to be able to put on a headset and have both hands free to type out code. Also the sound quality was better than a cell phone so I was able to understand the interviewers without asking them to repeat themselves and I'm sure they could understand me better too. FInally, cell phone reception in my apartment barely exists but a wired ethernet connection is forever :-).

I've had a few MMS messages forwarded to my email recently, but it seems to be hit-or-miss as that same person will send me an MMS while I'm standing next to them and I never receive a thing.

I think they're working on it.

I think MMS support is only available if the sender is on Sprint.

Ah, that could be, I'm on Sprint.

I fear Google Voice might tread in the same path of Google App Engine. That is, switch pricing schemes after widespread adoption. Like you, I use my GV number as my primary and feel one of these days I'm going to get shafted. I might need to port my GV number to my SIP gateway provider, yet I'm too lazy to replicate the interfaces that I like.

I know I am not everyone but personally I wouldn't mind paying to continue to use Google Voice + Google Talk, though I am in the entering-the-workforce crowd so I hope they keep it free for students at least since they won't be able to afford it anyway.

But in the UK, I can't call at all from my phone (because Voice is only available in the US). I can only call from Gmail (with money).

It's annoying how many services are US-only.

I moved to San Francisco, I wanted to base my career on where the world's computing is centered. I could have stayed in the UK and always been on the periphery, but felt that since my first love was technology, rather than good beer or tea, I just moved where the action is.

If you find it annoying, move.

Visas can make that difficult, though. You can't just pack up your bags and move in many cases.

> rather than good beer or tea

I don't know what exactly you're drinking, but there's plenty of good beer and tea in SF and other large US cities.

I understand where you're coming from but no user should have to move country to get improved internet services. The internet is global and the services on it should be also. Did you think about staying in the UK and trying to address problems like this yourself (you would actually be better positioned to do so there)? [serious question]

I was told skype phones were pretty big in the UK. Is that not the case? I talked to someone on skype while he was on the bus (or so he told me)

one of the networks sells with it as a selling point, or you can install the app. In London buses have decent bandwidth.

Isn't it extremely hard to get a visa to move to the US from the UK? What was your experience with that like?

If someone were going to be in SFO anyway, then this is an advantage for him.

On the other hand, for a person with significant ties to London (or other city or region in Europe) - family, career, lifestyle, whatever - it seems a bit much to move to the US because you get cheaper phone calls.

Other things being equal, I can't imagine that anyone would move from London to San Francisco because of free Gmail phone calls. (It reads like your comment is precisely about other things not being equal.)

I like this response. I often give the same response to people who ask me why I moved to the US. All I get is cold stares and jingoistic statements.

For cases where you're calling the US (admittedly probably not too often if you live in the UK) you can use the free app Talkatone (available on both iOS and Android). It's super useful if you're an American traveling abroad: just find WiFi (or a local data SIM card) and you can call all your peepz back home.

How I remain on the lowest AT&T minute plan, and have no plans to switch. If I'm logged into email all day, why kill my phone's battery? :thumbup:

Agreed. And this might be just me, but I greatly prefer talking on a computer (laptop or desktop) to holding a phone in my hand up to my ear. Especially for long personal calls or calls to businesses where I know I'll probably be on hold forever (e.g. Comcast) - it is INSANELY handy for that. Speaker phone would probably accomplish something similar but the audio quality in and out is lower on my phone than on my laptop, and it also (like you said) uses minutes. The calls are also more reliable in my experience - I've never had a call dropped or had the audio cut out over Gmail on a good WiFi connection.

Since I didn't see this in any of the comments at the time I wrote this...

While GMail/Google Voice calls are free, they are much more susceptible to noise, echo, etc due to the main codec (G.711) that they use. If you have a newer smartphone with a good 4G or WiFi connection you may be able to get by with this, but in my personal experience I had to move to Skype (and be willing to pay a few dollars a month) to get people to want to talk with me for any extended period of time.

With your homies, probably not a big deal. For a sales call or interview, or when you and your SO are trying to arrange to meet at a hospital due to an emergency, yeah you want the clearer call.

They should hurry up and use Opus then.

Google Voice stopped delivering push notifications to my phone about a month ago. I have to open the voice app, or website occasionally to check if I have SMS or voicemail. I don't mind using Gmail for free because the service is generally top notch. For Google Voice, I'd rather be paying some money so I would have someone to complain to when it's not working. Since that's not an option, I've stopped giving out my Google Voice number to anyone.

You should look at Kazoo. We do all of the Google voice stuff (and a lot more) in a fully open-source package :).

Disclaimer: I'm the community manager for http://www.2600hz.com the makers of Kazoo.

FWIW, I got a Google voice voicemail notification just today running the regular Google voice app.

To place a call to a phone number in Gmail ... http://support.google.com/chat/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answe...

I don't mind paying for gmail calls here in Europe but what i really don't like is that I can't receive calls.

So I only ever use it when there's a problem with my mobile.

I'm not sure I would call it "free". Sure, you don't have to give google money, but on the other hand, you have to give them them all sorts of other info. This is not free. It's time people started acknowledging this.

free is defined in termed of payment of monies. You're thinking of no string attached, or some other word or phrase.

While this may seem like semantics, it is the basis of communications, that we all agree on the definition of certain words, otherwise we have linguistic chaos.

So, yes, while it doesn't require any monetary payment (free), there are strings attached.

True that's how most consumers think of "free" ... I think it's high time that consumers start thinking more deeply about the transaction(s) they are engaging in with companies like google, facebook, etc when they use "free" services. These are not charities, they are for-profit businesses (and there's nothing wrong with that) ... But I think consumers should inform themselves about the full nature of the transaction(s) they engage in when using "free" services. I know, there are terms of services, eulas, etc that people click "I agree" when signing up... But I would bet that 95% of people read NONE of that stuff. Buyer beware? Maybe.

Equally as important (for some people), is that these free services are sometimes only free up until they gain enough mass to become a real business. People should consider these free services as limited time offers, which may require switching sometime later.

I pay the carriers for cell phone plan but they give out my call / text records to law enforcement for a pay without warrant anyways. I don't think Gmail would hand local law enforcement such data without a warrant. Even if it did, it would still be no worse.

I know we think that paying makes us customers and they will care about us. However, it probably does not apply to naturally monopolistic markets of traditional/cell telephony and Internet services providers.

Um, I don't read any of that stuff, and yet it's common sense that FB, Google, etc. store your data. It's not that most people don't know -- it's that they don't care.

Perhaps legal definitions need to be updated, so "free" can't used if there are "strings attached" or rather an exchange of information or other.

It's termed as free because most people only care about the financial side of payment. If people can get a service like this for no charge I bet most couldn't care what information they are giving Google.

I bet most people don't have a full understanding of what information they end up giving google by using google services like gmail, voice, even "just" search. I bet google likes it that way.

Exactly what information does one give Google when using those services?


Can you expand on what information is required to use this feature? I assume you can create a new account with little to no information (or fake information) and use it.

How about the content of the phone calls?

What about it? Not sure about Canada, but in the US, at least, they definitely can't record it without at least one party knowing, and the state-by-state laws on that point are varied enough that if you start recording one of your conversations, google voice warns both sides of the conversation.

Additionally: "Google does not claim any ownership in any of the content that you or your callers upload, transmit or store in your Google Voice account. We will not use any of your content for any purpose except to provide you with the Service." http://www.google.com/intl/en/googlevoice/legal-notices.html

Come to think of it, does anyone know of where google makes money here? Is it just international calls? Even the voice transcription training probably isn't that lucrative, because you have to have users click on a message and say "Donate this voicemail" for it to be used as training data.

Thanks for clarifying, it's good to know that they are not supposed to access the content of voice calls. Maybe it's simply a loss-leader to get people jumping onto the google wagon with the rest of their services.

Google doesn't make money on Google Voice. It serves the same purpose as GOOG-411 served. To receive and process a large number of voice samples (from voicemails) to improve their voice search products. There's probably some other pie-in-the-sky ideas for Google Voice, but that's the only one I know of.

Do you have any basis for that? See the second and third paragraphs in the comment you're responding to. By my reading, they can't use those unless you "donate" the voicemails explicitly, which I doubt anyone does (at least I've never bothered to, even for the more ridiculously transcribed ones).

so that seems to contradict an earlier post that suggested google does not use the call audio for their own purposes...

Seriously, has anybody claimed that a service is completely free?

Who in their right mind would give something completely free, no strings attached?

Start acknowledging? I'm pretty sick of people mumbling "If you're not paying for a product, you're a product" every time Google, et al releases a free service.

Similarly the air you breath is not free. But if we were to get that technical we will have to invent words for various levels of "free". In this case let's just agree that the title meant "no exchange of money".

Free as in beer rather than free as in speech, if you prefer.

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