I was in need of a phone after dropping off the map and switching my cell line to virtual carrier 3jam. In the US post-paid contracts vary between $40-$100/month (by which American’s pay the most in the world on a per-minute/megabyte rates) and often the the cheaper plans gouge on text messages and have fewer minutes.
So, I bought a Huwaei Ideos (T-Mobile “Comet”) pre-paid, off contract. It features Android 2.2 & runs Skype natively. So far I’ve been happy with Skype’s $3/mo unlimited calling plan, and 3jam forwards to Skype natively using OpenSky. Problems in the system arise when you’re masking numbers (IDs) and sending text messages (IDs again) and dealing with multiple voicemails and trying to use Google Voice. Here is a short list of bullet points in my limited experience so far with virtual lines and consumer VoIP telephony.
1) Skype has the best call quality, using both smart phones and computers, in/out of PSTN and VoIP & as an added bonus Skype can ID itself as your cell line. The downside to Skype (even with their new 5.x beta) is that the user interface is absolutely terrible. Using 2.8.x for OS X involves managing three different windows with countless notifications that are difficult to turn off or remove. In the 5.x beta I made a video call, switched to chat mode, and was unable to ever switch back to the video call! I was stuck in chat mode for all future calls. I reverted back to 2.8.x. I’m not sure if it’s a function of eBay slowly bleeding them to death or they simply are not hiring professionals in UX/IxD; either way it’s embarrassing.
2) Google Voice and SIP tend to result in garbled conversations, usually forcing a Skype Out call. Google bought Gizmo5 which now gives any Gmail user a “phone” when they’re logged into Gmail. Again, the sound quality isn’t superb but there is the convenience of taking calls from within an already open window.
3) 3jam.com has great SMS features but their web interface (which lacks an HTML5 mobile interface) and pricing structure need an overhaul. Probably the most killer feature of 3jam (and GV) is being able to send and receive SMSs within Gmail. And the fact is they were the only company I was able to find on planet earth that allows you to port-in your number and send/receive SMS’s eg. they’re a virtual number switching service just like Google Voice.
4) Google Voice doesn’t allow adjustment of their voicemail ring extension (25 seconds = however many rings) while 3jam allows you to adjust pickup time in seconds. And to make things worse, Skype’s voicemail is implemented based upon your subscription which once enabled, cannot be turned off! The work around seems to be to cancel your subscription, which seems ridiculous if you bought a year subscription and need to turn off Skype’s voicemail (note: when Skype is running there is a “disable voicemail” option, however, when Skype is not active its voicemail takes over).
So all of this is to say that I’m not sure if it’s the best system for everyone. It’s certainly more versatile, in that I can forward my main number to any number I want (in the world) and pay reasonable rates while doing it, call screening is unlimited and voicemail is transcribed and emailed to me. I do think Skype’s $3/mo unlimited calling is a terrific deal and it does consistently have very good call quality. In the US Sprint (& prepaid Virgin Mobile) each have very inexpensive plans, T-Mobile averages $0.10-$0.15/min prepaid. It really depends on your usage and how many minutes you talk on your cell phone while outside of the house, and perhaps even what mobile network your friends/family use.
VoIP had/has the potential to drastically reduce user’s cost of telephony except that cable and phone providers are in the business of making money and not reducing consumer’s communications bills. “Triple Play” packages that usually start at $100/mo are not a good value when you consider that these companies are paying pennies on the dollar now to provide phone service (that is now routed digitally). Similarly, mobile data plans costs are on the rise as carriers begin to cap total data usage and/or charge for extended features such as tethering – 4G – LTE etc. Verizon and Skype even penned a deal whereby Skype minutes (even over Wi-Fi) result in monthly minutes being used! This is to say, if they can make money and “offer value” to consumers while decreasing mobile network usage they’ll do it. More about the Ideos phone in another post.