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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How anyone can turn an Android Smartphone or Tablet into a no monthly charge Wi-fi phone.

 Let’s start out with a little of my reasoning for the project.

 We do not have a land line phone at our house, I wanted a phone that my daughter could use in case of trouble to get a hold of someone like her mother or I. I couldn’t see dumping at least $20 a month on a land line for this, since its only purpose would be to contact my daughter or a babysitter at the house. Enter old Smartphone, re-purposed.

Now days you can find a used Smartphone in decent condition for around $100 if you look long enough, or maybe you upgraded and are looking for something to do with your old phone. It took me about a week on Ebay to locate and successfully win a used Samsung captivate for $129 in good condition. It was not unlocked  which is perfectly fine for what I am going to do with it but if you intend on using it as a mobile either prepaid or otherwise you will want one that works with the carrier you are planning on using. It turns out I am planning to later get a prepaid plan with AT&T so that if she is out of Wi-fi she can still make a call to us when her car breaks down or other quasi important event, but that is around a decade away so no hurry there. There are other venues for used Android Smartphones like www.swappa.com and of course your local classifieds or craigslist but I have had good experiences with purchasing used phones on Ebay so that is the route I went.

This project will work with any Android Smartphone or Tablet running 2.1 or later and you will be able to make and receive calls from anywhere you have a Wi-fi connection without using any minutes on a wireless plan. It will also co-exist nicely with your current wireless plan, so if you are looking to supplement your stock of minutes this will work for you as well. As a bonus free text messaging is possible with the Google voice app (no MMS or short number service however)

Here is your shopping list for this project.
  • A working Smartphone or Tablet running Android 2.1 or later. (required for GrooVe IP pronounced groo-vee eye-pee)
  • Access to a mobile with a phone number and service. (required to upgrade your Google voice account)
  • A permanent number you own to associate with your Google voice account. (Google requires you to have one forwarding number on your voice account, can be landline or even prepaid cell)
  • $5 (for GrooVe IP)
  • Access to internet via Wi-fi

I recommend installing a custom ROM for your device at this point, I did for mine and www.cyanogenmod.com has full update guides for every model phone they support. It isn’t really all that scary and with step by step instructions there is very little that can go horribly wrong. However that option is not for everyone, and is not a requirement for a Wi-fi phone to work.

Setting up a Google Account and associating it with the phone.

First thing you will want to do is set up a Google account for the WiFi phone if you don’t already have one or don’t want to use your current account (it isn't going to hurt anything to use an existing account). I used my daughter's account since it is going to be her mobile eventually. For those of you who don’t know how to do this head over to www.gmail.com and sign up for an account. If you have already done this skip ahead to setting up voice.
The link circled in red or the button circled in blue will do nicely

Next you need to associate your Google account with the phone, on the home screen of the phone press the menu button and go to settings>accounts & sync then click add account. Select the Google account option and fill in all your information. As you go through the setup you will have various options to sync different Google services on the device, if you already have the account associated you can skip this step.

Setting up Google Voice

Here is where you will need access to a phone with mobile service, if you have decided to go prepaid and have service on the phone already you are set, if not you may need to borrow a good friends Smartphone and number for about 5 minutes, or bum their sim card for a bit if they have a Simplephone (warning this may cause the carrier to attempt to force them into a data plan for Smartphones, if it is only used momentarily and they call customer service when they get a notice from the carrier it can be avoided. If you are running Android 2.3 or later there is an option in settings>wireless & network settings>Mobile networks to turn off mobile data. I would recommend doing this before you pop your friend’s Simplephone sim in your Smartphone to avoid unnecessary data charges for him/her). If you already have a Smartphone with Voice set up you can skip to setting up your voice account to work with GrooVe IP

You need to set up the Google voice app on a phone that has service to upgrade your Google account so you will be able to get a free Google voice number.  If you don’t have the Google voice app on the phone open the market and install it, it is a free app from Google.

If you have service on your phone simply launch the voice app and go through the setup (I think it sends/receives 2 text messages to verify the phone number). Once that is done skip to setting up your voice account to work with GrooVe IP.

 If you are doing this on a friend’s phone you need to launch the voice app on their phone go into settings and sign out of their account.

 Then launch voice again and set it up with the account you intend to use on your phone.
Click the use a different account and fill it in with the info for  your Wi-fi phone account. When asked which number to associate with voice select the "this number" option.
  Afterwards go to a computer and navigate to www.google.com/voice, log in and go to voice settings.  Add the phone number you own to the forwarding phones list, circled below in gold (I used my Wife’s mobile since she doesn’t use voice on her phone, but you can use any number you have ownership over and can answer). Google will give you a verification number then call the entered phone number and ask for the verification number to confirm that you do in fact own the number and it is valid. Make sure to remove your friend’s number from your account, otherwise they will not be able to use it with their voice account. Have your friend set their voice account back up on their phone as you won’t need it anymore.  Now go to your Wi-fi phone and set up Google voice, when prompted for the number of the phone use the number you manually added through the browser instead of the “this number” option. If there is only a "this number" option then something has gone wrong with adding your number manually, you should go check voice settings again and make sure your number is listed as a forwarding phone.
Right there circled in green is where the link to settings lives.

Once you are in settings the first page is “phones” and that is where you want to be. The add another phone link is circled in gold. Make sure that if you used a friends mobile to delete their number after adding yours.

Getting your Voice account ready for GrooVe IP

After you have Google voice associated with the Wi-fi phone go to www.google.com/voice and go into settings (pictured above).   From there you can request a free public phone number for your voice account on the “phones” page in settings; also circled in red in the photo above (this option is not available until you have completed the voice app setup). If you are lucky they have a phone number available near you, if not you can go with any number really, the only people it will affect are land lines, and long distance charges are starting to go extinct. I wouldn’t recommend the porting option as it is an additional $20 and even Google admits it can get kinda hairy and takes at least 2 days to get everything ironed out. While you are in settings change the forwarding settings for your phone numbers, uncheck the box next to your phone number and uncheck text messaging (circled in blue above), then check the box next to Google chat (circled in green above).

Setting up GrooVe IP

On the Wi-fi phone, go to the market and find “GrooVe IP” it was $4.99 at the time of writing. Install the app and open it.

Sign in to the Google account associated with your phone. You may want to go into misc settings and set it so it auto starts, and just dig around in the options there until you get it set the way you want.

Now go out to the dialer, either GrooVe IP’s dialer or the native one (note: if you use the native dialer and actually have mobile service on the phone I would make sure GrooVe IP asks on every call if you want to use mobile network or GrooVe IP) try to make a call, if you are hooked up to Wi-fi and signed in to GrooVe IP it should call out with your free public number from Google. And as long as you are hooked up to the internet via Wi-fi GrooVe IP should try to keep you signed in, so you can receive calls if someone calls your Google number.  If you are unable to receive calls check your voice settings to insure it is forwarding your calls to Google chat.

That is all there is to it, free internet calling anytime on your mobile phone, free SMS through the Voice app, no service plan required. My daughter loves that she has her own real phone, and I love that it isn’t costing me a dime beyond the initial investment. Plus since it is a Smartphone she can game away on it all day long. Later I plan on putting prepaid service on it and she can have the responsibility of adding minutes to her plan with allowance/job so if she wants to use it as a mobile she can, but she will learn how to manage her money so she has something nice when she needs/wants it.

Let’s tally up my total cost for this project and compare that to what a comparable land line service, or adding her on my mobile plan would run me for a year, and throw in a standalone $25 prepaid plan as the other prepaid plans are not viable standalone options for me.  Let’s also compare the pros and cons while we are at it in a nice neat table.

Wi-fi phone
AT&T add on
AT&T Prepaid
Local only Landline
$129 Smartphone
$20 Simplephone
$20 Simplephone
Around $20
Monthly charges
$0 including taxes
$10 not including taxes
$25 not including taxes
Around $20 Local Only
Service type
Unlimited talk, free SMS, data through Wi-fi, MMS sent through email
Shared 850 anytime, unlimited M2M, unlimited text, pay per data
250 minutes, pay per text, pay per data
Unlimited local, pay per long distance, SMS what?? Data who?
Additional one time charges
$5 GrooVe IP
$18 Activation
$19 activation
Completely free service based on the fact public   Wi-fi is an option, plus Smartphone!
Unlimited M2M and text and service most places.
Um… Not tied to my main account so she can’t run up massive charges.
With the right type of phone (not a wireless handset) will work in a power outage.
Only works within range of a Wi-fi access point, a tiny bit more complex of a system to set up and operate
Contracted in for at least 18 months, regular old Simplephone
A girl, once they hit the right age, seem to grow a phone in place of an ear, and 250 minutes will be gone inside a week. Plus regular old Simplephone.
Only Local calling, and not mobile.
Total Cost over a year for me

Note: You can make free 911 emergency calls from any of these service options including the Wi-fi phone no matter where you are, even if you do not have a service plan or you are out of minutes your phone can still dial 911 through the cellular network. GrooVe IP needs to be disconnected so that local cell networks can handle the call to get you to a local 911 center, but this is as easy turning off Wi-fi.

If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comments, I will try to answer them as best I can.