Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Putting Faith in Google Voice, and The Death of Traditional Cellular

Well hello again!

GOOGLE VOICE AND THE GREAT MVNO

A couple of nights ago, I came to a sudden realization when I stumbled upon a new application in the Google Play Store on my Nexus 6. Back in Q4 2014, Google released an application called Hangouts Dialer, which integrates with Google Voice, if you have the service with them.

Google Hangouts has supported integration of SMS text messaging with both your carrier's SMS services, as well as Google Voice simultaneously for quite a while now. We've been able to place outgoing calls using the Google Voice application for a while as well, but with the integration of the calling functions of Voice into Hangouts is a major stride forward for Google.

At Mobile World Congress 2015, Sundar Pichai, who is Google's Senior VP of Products had informally announced that Google will be rolling out their own MVNO. For those of you who are not familiar, an MVNO is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator. Basically, they utilize the infrastructure a Tier 1 carrier (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint) but offer a lower cost solution for providing voice and data services. They don't offer their own infrastructure like tower equipment or radios, etc. but they do provide service and billing, and I'm sure the Tier 1 carriers get a significant chunk of the revenue from the end users.

Google will not be competing with the Tier 1 carriers, but will be utilizing their infrastructure to deploy new ideas and technologies taking advantage of their flagship Nexus platform, which in this case happens to be Nexus 6. Lucky me! Lucky me! I have a Nexus 6!

Sundar said that they'll be announcing their new MVNO service in the coming months, but I'm going to jump ahead of that a little bit. Tonight, I started the process to port my AT&T phone number to Google Voice, so I can begin utilizing their Voice / SMS / MMS services via data. Google charges a one time fee of $20 to port your existing carrier number to them, and from that point forward, it's your Google Voice number.

PUTTING FAITH IN DATA

Over the course of the next 24-48 hours, I'll reach a point where I do not have cellular service, and I'll be relying solely on Wi-Fi connectivity to service all of my Voice / SMS / MMS needs, utilizing the same telephone number I had before with AT&T.

Using a cell phone on Wi-Fi only? That sounds a little crazy, right? Well, yes and no. Don't panic, I'll be purchasing cellular service so I have full functionality everywhere, but it'll be data only. I won't be purchasing a traditional cellular plan for my Nexus 6. Tomorrow, I'll be heading over to Verizon Wireless to see if I can get a Tablet or Hotspot plan for my Nexus 6, so I can have somewhere between 4 and 8 GB of data service for my device.

It probably also seems strange that I'll be jumping ship from AT&T, which is one evil corporation, to another corporation which is potentially even more evil, Verizon. Well don't worry, I've got some justification for that too. Over the course of the last 5-6 months, I've been traveling a lot more, and with AT&T, I get absolutely TERRIBLE service while traveling.

THE CARRIER HOP

I live in Eastern Iowa, right along the Mississippi river, and back in the 2010-2011 time frame, AT&T deployed HSPA service in Dubuque, which was far ahead of the competition at the time. The other two major carriers in Dubuque were Verizon and U.S. Cellular. Both VZ and USC had CDMA / EVDO service at the time, which realistically could only provide a little over 1Mbps for download speeds. Keep in mind, those speeds were sufficient at the time, but then the big Android / iOS explosion happened, and there was suddenly a significantly higher demand for infrastructure driving the applications and services that are delivered on these devices. Verizon and U.S. Cellular began deploying their LTE services in Dubuque, and now they are the leading providers in the area. LTE service has a much lower latency and higher bandwidth than the HSPA service that AT&T provides. AT&T, to this day, still has not deployed LTE service in Dubuque.

To add insult to injury with AT&T, they don't bother covering the highways leaving Dubuque. I've got 6 major directions I can travel out of Dubuque, and they're as follows.

  1. US 151N towards Madison, Wisconsin. The service on 151N is entirely EDGE-based until you reach Verona, Wisconsin, which is only a few miles outside of Madison. That's about 90 minutes of driving with EDGE service.
  2. US 61N / 35N along the Western border of Wisconsin as it reaches Minnesota. I did a lot of traveling to La Crosse, Wisconsin this year, with potentially a few more trips planned, and the ENTIRE drive is EDGE-based, often times with no service at all. That's 2 and a half hours of EDGE service while driving.
  3. US 20E to Galena, IL and beyond. Another classic example of EDGE service. I believe this is true until you reach Rockford, Illinois which is quite a drive as well.
  4. US 61S to Davenport, Iowa. You're living on EDGE for the first 40 minutes of this trip, until you reach the DeWitt area just slightly north of Davenport.
  5. US 151S to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This one's the same case as Davenport. You don't get LTE service until you reach Marion, which is about 50 minutes into the drive southwest on US 151.
  6. US 20W is the ONLY example of where you'll have LTE service for your drive to Waterloo / Cedar Falls, Iowa.
I've got 6 directions I can leave Dubuque in, and only 1 of them actually has LTE service as I leave the city.

Meanwhile, Verizon has already announced "XLTE" in this area, which is essentially just a fancy name for LTE carrier aggregation. Taking two LTE bands and utilizing both of them at the same time for maximing bandwith on LTE service. The Nexus 6 supports carrier aggregation on Verizon's LTE bands, so I'm likely going to head to Verizon and get my data service from them.

WHY AM I DOING THIS?

I'm used to paying somewhat of a high cell phone bill. If you look at all of the carriers for a single line plan with 3GB of data, after taxes you're almost guaranteed to be over $100/month. It's disgusting what a carrier can and will charge a single line for voice and data services. I've become desensitized to the idea of a high cell phone bill, but my problem with this system is that it doesn't have to be this way. The carriers are constantly pitching the idea of adding "value" when realistically the only thing they are doing is trying to find a way to justify their astronomical prices.

As you may know from my previous blog entries, I'm a big supporter of adopting new technologies, embracing change in technology, and I put a lot of value in technology solutions that push us forward in the way we do things, interact with each other, and work.

I've said this at work more times than I can count, but the most frustrating response I'll ever receive from someone is "this is how we've always done it." I don't care how you've always done it. I'm a firm believer that you should always question everything, and challenge yourself to change or improve things to always be better, regardless of how complex the challenge is.

Where I'm going with this, is that we NEED to push forward with data-based cellular services. Carriers need to begin sunsetting their 2G / 3G equipment, and make an aggressive push to LTE based services only. LTE needs to be the new standardized platform. We're over 3 years into major LTE deployments among carriers, and there's STILL no effective roaming agreements. If handsets were manufactured with LTE-only chipsets, rather than relying on older technologies, I can guarantee that the handsets you purchase would have support for all major US carrier bands, and roaming agreements for LTE service would provide the ultimate user experience for coverage.

Voice, SMS, and MMS services also need to be absorbed into LTE data services. These are old technologies that can still be supported, but over an entirely packet-switched network. VoLTE is being advertised as HD calling now. I don't like that carriers are advertising this as HD calling, because it's essentially just VoIP. By naming it "HD Calling" they're able to advertise it to you as a higher tier of service, and coax you into paying more money for it.

If you ever get a chance to have a Hangouts call between two Nexus 6 devices, do it, because you'll be amazed by the quality. It's just a data-based phone call between two Android devices, and the quality is incredible.

In a nutshell, I'm doing this for four reasons:
  1. Technology adoption. I want to lead the charge in moving to an entirely data based cellular service. I'll have Google handle all of my voice, text, and picture messaging services in a data-based manner via LTE with Verizon Wireless.
  2. By utilizing data only, my service plan with Verizon Wireless will provide a higher data cap for a significantly reduced price. For what I pay today to receive 3GB will probably net me anywhere between 6 and 8 GB, for an improved quality of service.
  3. Verizon deployed "XLTE" in Dubuque, which utilizes carrier aggregation for LTE bands. The Nexus 6 supports CA for Verizon's LTE bands, so I'll get better LTE performance.
  4. Verizon undoubtedly has the largest scale LTE deployment. They've been in the game the longest, and they're seasoned in LTE. I trust that even though it's a massive, evil corporation, they'll invest significant money into their wireless infrastructure for years to come. I can rest assured that when I'm traveling, I'll have reliable LTE service for my travels.

ADDITIONAL BENEFITS

By moving to this platform, I'll also be taking advantage of several benefits that a regular cellular experience wouldn't provide for me.
  1. Consistent Voice, Text, and Picture messaging service regardless of where I am.

    By transitioning these services to data-based services, I can send and receive calls, text messages, and picture messages from LTE or WiFi. If I go into a building or an area where my LTE service is poor, but I can take advantage of WiFi, I don't have to worry about the reliability of my cellular service. I won't miss a call or a text, because it'll be handled by the WiFi network.
  2. Google Voice Visual Voicemail

    This one's old, and it's offered by carriers, but let's be honest, there isn't anyone in the game that's better at voice to text translation than Google. Try using Google Now for basic searches or functions some time. It's pretty rare that it goofs up. I'd trust Google to translate my voicemails to text over any other service.
  3. Seamless Call Transitions

    This one I'll have to confirm, but in my research, it seems like one of the initiatives with Google Hangouts Dialer and their MVNO service is that cellular and WiFi networks should be seamless. Let's say for example I get into an elevator and I'm heading into a lower level of a building where cellular service doesn't do a great job of covering the lower levels of the building. If I frequent this location, and I've got their WiFi saved in my phone, the phone call should seamlessly hand off between cellular and WiFi, based on software that determines the thresholds for the handoffs. This should also be true in the opposite direction. I should be able to hand off a call from WiFi to cellular without the call being interrupted, all while maintaining crystal clear call quality and minimal latency.
  4. Being able to call, text, or picture message from ANY device, using the same phone number.

    Being a big supporter of Google and their integrated services among their devices, I have an ASUS Chromebox, an HP Chromebook, a Nexus 6, and I also use Chrome on my Windows machines at home. All of the applications and services that are Google-based are available on every one of my machines, and they work in a seamless, consistent manner. I want the ability to sit down at any device and know that I have a text, picture message, or that someone is calling me without having to pick up an additional device. This service provides that functionality for me.
  5. Call Screening

    Google Voice can provide me with the ability to screen calls. This doesn't make me the most popular person in the world, but if I don't recognize a phone number, I can safely screen the call and force the caller to tell me their name. If I get a call from State Farm Insurance for a quote I asked for 4 years ago (yes, this is real, I'm not joking, they still call) I can just screen the call. I've saved 3 or 4 separate phone numbers in my address book, and yet they still manage to catch me off guard sometimes.
  6. Nexus 6 Versatility

    I think the Nexus 6 as a device goes way under-appreciated. Sundar Pichai at MWC 2015 stated that they are always trying to push the boundaries of what is possible with hardware and software working together. They use the Nexus program to do this. They don't ship Nexus devices at scale as a consumer device, because the purpose is to push forward with and embrace new technologies. There have been major milestones in technology with Nexus devices. Each one has had its own "party trick" if you will...

    The Nexus 6 is the first Android device to support the LTE bands of all major US carriers, and the first device that can be activated on all major US carriers. I can activate a Nexus 6 on AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Sprint. It'll support LTE or CDMA services on all of the carriers.

    I look at the Nexus 6 as the first major device that will push the boundaries of connectivity. Nexus 6 is the first platform that allows consumers the freedom of choice of carrier, which is a true spark for competition in the marketplace. If Google can provide data-based Voice, SMS, and MMS services by just utilizing the data that the carriers provide, then we will truly spark competition and price wars among the carriers, which will greatly benefit the consumer. Since Nexus 6 also supports all major LTE bands for the carriers, then it'll be the first device that can take advantage of any of the LTE roaming agreements that the carriers can provide.

    Not only is it a beautiful, powerful device, but I think of the Nexus 6 as the device that will spark the revolution in wireless when Google launches their MVNO. Much like Google Fiber expedited fiber to the home deployments for competitors, providing gigabit internet service to consumers at reasonable prices, Google will do the same thing for the wireless industry. When providers compete, consumers win.

That's all for tonight. Let me know if you guys have questions, and happy Nexusing!

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