Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How to Get WiFi Voice and Text Phone Service for Free

My wife suggested getting a cell phone for my son, but I fear that he’s too young to be responsible for an expensive device. I’m also pretty sure he’s not going to be using it to make phone calls often. Still, it would be nice if there was an inexpensive way to contact him when he’s at a friend’s house or at the library.

Our local cable company is offering a WiFi-only cell phone service for $9.95 a month for its subscribers. There is no cell-based voice or data connection. They’re relying on their WiFi hotspots for connectivity away from the home. A proprietary app is what’s used to make (voice-over-IP) phone calls and SMS text messages. I don’t think this is a good deal considering it’s a WiFi-only solution. The phone they provide costs about $100 on top of the monthly fee. However, this got me thinking about other services that could offer the same thing for less. Inexpensive Android OS devices combined with free voice-over-IP and free phone bridging services are out there if you know where to look.

Google Hangouts

Cell phones used to be just for voice calls and text messaging. Providers like T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T charge for these services based on use. Most modern plans offer unlimited voice and texts, but this wasn’t the case years ago. Instant messaging applications that worked over data avoided the exorbitant fees carriers used to charge for SMS texts. Google has a unified messaging, voice-over-IP, and video conferencing application called Hangouts. People with Hangouts installed on their portable devices or computers can communicate without the need for a mobile carrier. We’re going to use Hangouts as the backbone of our communication system and best of all, it’s free.

This is fine as long as everyone has hangouts installed, but what about calls to and from landlines and non-Hangouts users? We need a bridge to the phone network. Luckily, Google comes to the rescue again.

Google Voice

Google provides a number of advanced features though its free Google Voice product. They give you a phone number that provides voice mail and call forwarding. You will be able to receive calls using this free phone number and outgoing calls will show it on the receiver’s caller ID.

Google Voice also provides a bridge for SMS messages. Sending a SMS text to a Google Voice number will get sent to the Hangouts app seamlessly and vice-versa.


Any android enabled device will work, even a tablet. I found a refurbished LG L34C Optimus Fuel for $20 on eBay. It’s got Android 4.4, can be easily rooted, and works perfectly as a WiFi-only device.


Prerequisites: a Gmail account and an android phone or tablet.
  1. Set up the android cell phone or tablet with the Gmail (Google) account.
  2. Install Hangouts and Hangouts Dialer using the Play Store.
  3. If the device doesn’t already have the Gmail app, install it. Use it instead of the stock email application that was installed on the device.
  4. Open your Gmail account (on a web browser using a computer, not mobile device) and sign up for Google Voice. Choose a phone number. Disable all forwarding to any other number or service.
  5. Change the settings in Hangouts on the android device to ring Hangouts for incoming calls made to your Google Voice number. If you do not have this option, it may be because your android device has no native support for voice calls. (E.g., a tablet.) If so, install Siproid from the Play Store. Once it’s installed, open it, but don’t bother configuring it. Go back to Hangouts and check the settings again. There should be more options now. Configure Hangouts to ring and uninstall Sipdroid. The Hangout calling options will remain even though Sipdroid has been removed.
  6. Make Hangouts the default SMS application.
  7. Test the device by calling the Google Voice number with another phone. The android device should “ring” to alert you about the call. Send a SMS message to the Google Voice number from another cell phone and verify it’s received. Try making a call using the android device to a land-line phone. Verify the Caller ID shows the Google Voice number.
  8. Go to Google Contacts and enter or import the desired contacts.
As an optional step, I recommend hiding the android device’s stock phone, contacts, SMS, and email apps. I accomplished this by installing a new launcher that allows app hiding like Nova Launcher. (The app hiding feature is only in the paid version.) There are other ways to hide apps if you can obtain root, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog entry.

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