So long, Google Voice

I signed up for Google Voice in about 2008 or 2009. This was back when providers actually charged you for text messages and I didn’t really use them. So I registered for an account and didn’t do a whole lot with it until I changed jobs and ended up in the basement. RIP cell phone signal. Google Voice made it possible to call one number and ring either my cell phone if I was above ground or my office phone if I was in the office.

It turns out that was pretty useful to me, so by the time I was moved to a different office, my Google Voice number was the number I told everyone to use. Being able to text and make phone calls from my web browser was a great feature. But as carriers started catching up, Google Voice sat stagnant. I braced myself for Google to decide they were going to drop the service.

Instead, they finally added the ability to send and receive pictures. In 2014. For a long time, that was only available if you used Hangouts for your Voice messages. But then the Voice app got support and all was right with the world. Unless you wanted to do videos. It’s something Google is supposedly close to rolling out.

But a few weeks ago, I bought a Samsung Galaxy Watch. That meant making phone calls or sending texts would come from my carrier number. Since I’ve been giving people my Google Voice number for nearly a decade, I figured that would just lead to confusion. So I decided to ditch Google Voice and port my number to my carrier.

It was fairly straightforward, albeit slightly slow. This is apparently due to the fact that Google Voice numbers are treated as landlines, so there’s more process involved. But not getting texts reliably for a few days was much easier than trying to get everyone to switch to using a new number for me.

I decided that the features I use are more important than the features I don’t use. I haven’t had Google Voice forward to anything except my cell phone for years. T-Mobile’s DIGITS service provides the web-based functionality I got from Google Voice (admittedly not quite as well, but I expect they’ll catch up). While I don’t often talk to my phone, the fact that Google Assistant can’t use Google Voice to send messages is a longstanding frustration.

Google had a chance to really make a great product here. Apart from search and GMail, Google Voice was the most valuable Google service for me. But the years of seeming neglect finally took its toll. Maybe some day I’ll move my number back, but for right now, I don’t really miss it.

T-Mobile, Layer3, and the uncarriering of TV

Last week, T-Mobile announced it will acquire Layer3. In his usual John Legere manner, T-Mobile CEO John Legere promised to end the “complete bullshit” of traditional TV by ushering in the uncarriering of TV. But Layer3 is a cable TV provider, except over the Internet. It’s not entirely clear how T-Mobile plans to improve things.

Unlike services like Sling, which offer smaller packages, Layer3’s offering is sized like traditional cable bundles. Reporting from Ars Technica suggests the pricing is sized like traditional cable bundles, too. Layer3 does not have an app, which means customers have to use individual channels’ apps to watch when on the go.

The Layer3 website is a little short on information, so it’s hard to tell what the value proposition is. It could be that it’s cheaper for large bundles or that it has a broader offering. It seems to be a good fit for T-Mobile in this sense: it’s geographically limited and possibly cheaper. And I say this as a T-Mobile customer (and minor shareholder). What could T-Mobile do to improve it?

My idea for the uncarriering of TV

This is hardly a novel concept, but I’d like to see a true à la carte offering. Let me choose the exact channels I want to subscribe to and pay whatever that amounts to. I have Sling TV now, and it mostly gives me all of the channels I want, but it still includes some I don’t. I would have to get the most expensive option in order to get all the channels. At that point, I’d do just as well getting TV from my fiber provider. I have no problem paying for the content I want, I just want to be able to get it from a single source.

What will probably happen

A more likely outcome is that T-Mobile fixes the price. Instead of the “introductory offer” dance that TV providers often do, they say “this is the price.” It almost certainly would be zero-rated for T-Mobile customers. Watch as much TV as you want on your T-Mobile phone, it won’t count.

I would be surprised to see unbundling of channels into an à la carte offering. With its “ONE” plan, T-Mobile has shown a clear preference for simple billing. Even if customers might prefer more flexibility, a simple plan with few options is easier to manage for both customer and provider. I don’t think John Legere particularly wants to get into the TV business, so there’s little benefit to T-Mobile for going the more complicated route.​

We’ll have to see what happens when the new service rolls out.

Cell phone plans are changing

If you’re a cell phone plan geek (and certainly someone out there is, right?), last week was pretty interesting for you. First AT&T announced they’d be eliminating one plan and halving the data limit on a more expensive plan. Then T-Mobile followed up with their announcement of going to a single post-paid offering. This unlimited plan has some limits, which the EFF is looking into for a possible net neutrality complaint.

Moore’s law is an observation of the count of transistors on an integrated circuit over time, but it has been more broadly generalized to apply to many aspects of technology. Of particular note is the general trend of a technology to become significantly cheaper over time. This does not seem to be the case in the world of mobile phone service, which should be an immediate red flag for anti-consumer behavior.

I compared my current T-Mobile bill to my hypothetical bill under the new “T-Mobile One.” We pay $50/month for the unlimited talk/text plan, plus $20/month for my line (which includes unlimited data) and $15/month for my wife’s line (6 GB of data per month). The total bill before taxes and fees comes to $85/month. With T-Mobile One, we’d pay $120/month ($130 if we don’t autopay). This $35/month increase adds service that I’d pay just $5 more to get and also takes away the ability to use my phone as a WiFi hotspot (without being throttled to 2G speeds or paying an additional $3/GB).

I’ll admit that I don’t use my phone as a hotspot, in part because the coverage is questionable (or non-existent) in a lot of places that I might want to use it. But I’m already overpaying for data: my wife uses a few hundred megabytes a month and I average around 1 gigabyte or so. Only in July of this year when I was out of town for three of four weeks did I use more than 6 GB, and even then it was only 8 GB.

Perhaps if T-Mobile were going to put that extra money into expanding coverage, I’d be more inclined to go along with their plan. Instead, if I were to switch I’d get the same level of technology for a higher price. That’s not how this is supposed to work. It’s not clear at this point if existing customers will be able to keep their current plan. I assume in the short term that will be the case. If I’m forced to change at some point, I’ll have to go with a different carrier. If I’m going to get raked over the coals on price, I might as well get coverage.