UPDATE: Also see the later article about this topic that is available at https://privacyblog.com/2016/08/25/follow-up-what-is-wi-fi-calling-and-why-would-i-want-it/
Many people think that a cell phone can only be used on a cellular network. Not true! Some cell phones will also work on a wi-fi network connection. Why should you care? If your home or any other place you use the cell phone is in a location with poor or non-existent cellular network coverage, this can be the difference between using a cell phone or not. Another reason is that, in many cases, using a wi-fi connection can save a lot of money on your monthly cell phone bill. If you travel internationally, for business or pleasure, using a wi-fi network instead of the foreign cellular network can result in a huge savings in roaming charges. (I am speaking from experience.)
Instead of using your cell phone company’s network connection, you can use your cell phone (or “smartphone”) to make voice calls over a wi-fi connection if you are within range of a wi-fi network. That could mean using a wi-fi connection you have set up at home or whatever wi-fi hotspot you happen to be near when you’re out and about, such as at a cafe or library. In most cases, using a wi-fi connection is like any other phone call, and you still use regular phone numbers. There’s just one big difference, and it’s huge: wi-fi can save you hundreds of dollars per year. The more time you normally spend on calls and data over a cellular network, the greater the savings.
Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, and other products have allowed telephone calls over wi-fi (and wired) Internet connections for years. However, these are typically separate applications. They do not use the same phone service as your normal cell phone. That is, if anyone calls your cell phone number, you cannot answer the call with Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Google Hangouts. Also, if you place a call with any of these services, the Caller ID shown to the other party on the call does not show your cell phone’s number.
Newer services change all this.
Google’s Project Fi, Republic Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon now provide built-in wi-fi calling on some cell phones, although not all. All of these have available apps that install in your cell phone (or may be pre-installed when you purchase the phone) that will automatically switch from a normal cellular connection to a wi-fi connection or back again whenever appropriate. The software in the cell phone selects the more appropriate network selection, such as the strongest network signal or the cheapest.
A cell phone with network switching software installed for both cellular networks and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) connections is often referred to as a “dual mode phone.”
The connection may switch even in the middle of a call if one network connection becomes weak or disappears and another improves. The cell phone owner may not even be aware which network is being used during a particular call. The other party in the connection is never aware of which connection is being used. Caller ID, call forwarding, and all other normal cell phone services work as usual. (Emergency calls to 911 may or may not work as normal, depending on the cellular company that is providing the dual mode service.) No training or special procedures are required of the cell phone owner.
Why would anyone want a dual mode phone? Many reasons:
1. If you are in a location that has weak cellular signals but a strong wi-fi signal, the use of a dual mode phone can provide better service and often saves money. (You only need one phone: your cell phone. There is no need to have a second phone line provided by the local telephone company.) For many people who live in an area with weak or nonexistent cell phone service but do have an Internet router with wi-fi, this can be a huge advantage.
2. If you are in a building or an area with weak cellular connections, a wi-fi connection can provide much more reliable phone service.
3. Use of a cell phone as your only telephone allows for SMS text messaging all the time. (Normal telephones from the local telephone company do not have SMS text messaging capabilities.)
4. You only have to give out one telephone number to friends, family, and business associates. You no longer have to tell people, “If you call between 8 AM and 5 PM, use this number but if you call on Thursday evenings, call this other number…”.
5. Wi-fi calling works from overseas locations, usually avoiding exorbitant roaming charges. Instead of having a $300 roaming charge after your overseas vacation, use of wi-fi connections will add zero or nearly zero charges to your monthly cell phone. However, be aware that a very few companies do charge extra for international calls, even over wi-fi. See the notes below for details.
6. Even when traveling internationally, your friends, family, and business associates can still reach you by dialing your normal cell phone number. If you are connected to a wi-fi network at the moment they call, your phone rings immediately and you can answer exactly the same way as you would back home. If you are not connected to a wi-fi network at the moment, the caller will be connected to your voice mail, and you can return the call later as you wish.
What carriers and phones support this service?
Google Project Fi and Republic Wireless provide wi-fi calling on a few dual mode phones. Both services are significantly cheaper than dual mode service offered by the larger US cell phone companies. Google Project Fi and Republic Wireless both provide cell phone service with no contracts and no minimum service commitment. In other words, you can cancel the service at any time without penalty.
Before you can take advantage of these offerings, you must buy one of the phones from Google Project Fi or Republic Wireless. By contrast, some other services allow you to spread the purchase price over a year or two by having it bundled into your monthly bill. This up-front expense may be a show stopper for some people. Republic Wireless offers a wide variety of phones at varying price levels. Phones for Google Project Fi are all expensive (check the latest prices as they vary often), but they are all high-end phones with the latest technology. I am using a Nexus 6P phone with Google Project Fi and love it.
Phones used on Google Project Fi can easily be switched to almost any other company’s service; so, if you do switch, you will not be left with an expensive and useless cell phone. On the other hand, phones designed for use on Republic Wireless are locked to that company’s service, so your initial purchase of the cell phone might be wasted if you later decide to switch to a different cell phone carrier. There are reports claiming that Republic Wireless may soon change that, however.
If you are willing to pay higher prices, all four major US carriers (T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon) provide built-in wi-fi calling on some phones, but not on all. If you are presently locked into a two-year contract with a major cell phone company, you might be able to switch to a dual mode phone from the same company without paying an exorbitant fee for early termination of your present contract. Note the use of the word “might” in that sentence; you will need to ask your carrier if they will allow such a change.
Purchasing a dual mode phone from any of the four major US carriers also allows for time payments: you can spread the purchase price over the 12 or 24 months of the contractual commitment. Be aware, however, that the total price for the dual mode phone purchased from any of four major US carriers will probably be significantly higher than purchasing a similar phone from either Google Project Fi or Republic Wireless.
Contact your present cellular provider to learn about your options.
If your present cellular contract has expired, you might want to switch to either Google Project Fi or Republic Wireless. Again, note the use of the word “might.”
T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon all vary widely in the details concerning their dual mode phones, and those details change frequently. Contact the company or check its web site to learn the latest offerings.
Does it cost more?
For domestic calls within the US, use of a dual mode phone doesn’t cost any extra. On Google Project Fi and Republic Wireless, dual mode phones will probably save you money. In many cases, they will save a LOT of money.
Google Project Fi costs $20 a month for unlimited voice calls and unlimited text messages to and from US telephone numbers. In addition, data connections over wi-fi networks are free. Data connections over cell phone networks cost $10 per gigabyte for data, $20 for 2GB, $30 for 3GB and so on. Unused data connection fees are refunded on your next month’s bill. For instance, if you pay $10 a month for one gigabyte but this month you only use a half gigabyte, Google Project Fi will refund $5 on your next bill. That’s it. With no annual contract required. Details may be found at https://fi.google.com/about/plan/.
Republic Wireless has more complex pricing, ranging from $15 a month to $60 a month. Details may be found at https://republicwireless.com/plans/ or click on the image below:
Republic Wireless Pricing
T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon all have very complex prices, which makes it hard to compare “apples to apples” with the aforementioned two. There may or may not be monthly limits on your minutes allowance for voice calls or your gigabyte allowance for data. You often do not get a refund for unused minutes or data. In addition, pricing often varies from one part of the country to another. For instance, monthly cell phone prices in New York City are almost always higher than in Orlando. T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon all charge higher prices than either Google Project Fi or Republic Wireless. On T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon, placing calls over wi-fi may or may not impact your regular minutes allowance, depending on your carrier and your phone plan. Be sure to read the policies of your carrier to see if any of their potential restrictions and charges relate to your situation.
Check each cellular company for details.
To place calls to other countries, additional fees may be involved. However, calls placed with Google Project Fi are normally much, much cheaper than what your present cellular company charges for the same call. Switching to Google Project Fi for international calls can save a lot of money.
Republic Wireless only supports making calls to the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Johnston Atoll, Midway Atoll and Wake Island. However, calls to areas outside the 50 states, Canada, or the District of Columbia may be charged an extra 50 cents per minute.
Does it work overseas?
All dual mode phones will work overseas when connected to wi-fi. Depending upon the company that provides the dual-mode service, the cell phone may or may not work when walking down the street, not connected to a wi-fi network.
Google Project Fi works in more than 135 countries, and roaming charges in those countries are almost nonexistent. If you are in a country not included in the list of 135 partner countries, normal roaming charges apply. Details may be found at https://fi.google.com/about/rates/.
Republic Wireless does not work on cellular networks outside the US although it will work on wi-fi networks worldwide. I have used a Republic Wireless phone from a hotel in London, England, thanks to the hotel’s wi-fi network.
Service and prices for cellular international roaming with T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon vary widely. In most cases, prices will be very high. (I once took a 5-day trip to England with an AT&T non-dual-mode cell phone and made only a few phone calls while there. When I returned, my next monthly cell phone bill included more than $300 in roaming charges for the 5-day trip!) Contact the company for details.
If you are going abroad and want to keep in touch, use Google Project Fi or else make sure you only use wi-fi and turn off data roaming in your Settings before heading out.
Do I need a fast wi-fi connection?
Though the higher throughput you have, the better your connection will be, a minimum of 1 megabit per second (Mbps) should be enough to provide high quality audio. Republic Wireless reports that it can hold a call with 80 kilobits per second, but the quality may decrease—and you’ll experience more dropped calls as well. Most dual mode phones will test the wi-fi network speed before establishing a connection. If the speed is too slow, most dual mode phones will not connect to the wi-fi network.
One “problem” is that the user needs to manually establish a connection to a wi-fi network before it will be used for telephone calls. Most wi-fi networks in hotels, coffee shops, and elsewhere require the user to connect manually and then agree to the network’s terms of service. A user name and password are also often required. A dual-mode cell phone cannot perform this for you automatically; you must do it yourself manually. Once connected, future connections to the same wi-fi network will be made automatically and invisibly. However, many hotels do require a new manual connection and agreement with the terms of service be made once a day.
If you have not previously connected to the wi-fi network manually, entered the user name and password, and agreed to the terms of service, that wi-fi connection cannot be used by the dual mode cell phone. The restriction is caused by the wi-fi network, not by the cell phone.
There is no such limitation when using a cellular connection; in that case the dual mode phone works in exactly the same manner as any other cell phone.
Use of a dual mode cell phone can provide better service for you and also save lots of money. Use of Google Project Fi or Republic Wireless will probably cut your present cellular bill in half or even more. When traveling overseas, use of any dual mode phone on a local wi-fi network will avoid exorbitant roaming fees. In 135 different countries, use of Google Project Fi or normal cellular networks will also avoid most roaming fees.
I previously used Republic Wireless for a couple of years and now have used Google Project Fi for more than six months. The Republic Wireless phone did not work outside the United States. I have since used the Google Project Fi cell phone when I was in England, Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, and Grand Cayman Island. Next week I leave for New Zealand and Singapore. I have used the Google Project Fi dual mode phone frequently during my international travels to make and receive calls. “It just works.” No hassle and no exorbitant roaming charges in the 135 supported countries. (See the complete list of supported countries at https://fi.google.com/about/rates/.)
My previous cell phone provider charged more than $80 a month for normal service within the US and added huge roaming charges when outside the country. Google Project Fi costs about $30 a month for unlimited voice minutes, unlimited text messages, and 10 gigabytes of data with more data available at low prices, should I need that. In return, I get better coverage, higher fidelity connections, and almost zero roaming fees when traveling. More data is available for $10 per month per gigabyte, and any unused data gets refunded back to me.
I used to have marginal cell phone service in my home. I also had an old-fashioned telephone line provided by the local telephone company that cost more than $30 a month plus toll charges. After using a dual mode cell phone for a few months, I had the old-fashioned phone line disconnected and I now use the cell phone as my only telephone. My in-home wi-fi network provides much better signals throughout my home, even in the basement, than did my previous cell phone provider. I no longer need a wired telephone line. My friends, relatives, and business acquaintances are now given one telephone number that will reach me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless if I am at home, at the office, in the automobile, or in Singapore.
Thanks to the cheaper cell phone service and the elimination of my $30/month old-fashioned landline, I am now saving more than $100 a month.
I’m happy with my better and cheaper cell service.
How big is your present cellular and regular telephone bill?
Disclaimer: I am not compensated in any way for writing this article. I am simply a very satisfied customer of Google’s Project Fi. Previously, I was a customer of Republic Wireless although that company did not meet my needs when traveling internationally. When Project Fi became available, I switched to the new service and now I save even more money. If you do not travel internationally, Republic Wireless might be your better choice.