Cellular Desk Phone

Cellular desk phone on author's desk.

Cellular desk phone on author’s desk.

I’ve always liked cell phones. My first one was a Motorola Gold Series bag phone, circa 1993. My dad bought it, mostly because my sister and I traveled together on our 600 mile drives to and from college in a car that no one would really want to stake their life on. But the car proved reliable enough, and so did that Motorola bag phone. All 3 watts of analog output, as we traversed the American Midwest.

In the years that followed, I’ve had lots of cell phones. I stopped keeping track after phone #26, and that was long enough ago that the details and place are fuzzy. Ok, maybe it was a Motorola RAZR V3 in Chicago. Anyway, I’ve since slowed down, and have been primarily using my trusty iPhone 4 since June of 2011. Seems like forever in iPhone-years.

And while my iPhone of 2011 can do so much more than my Motorola Gold Series bag phone that was 18 years its predecessor, for me a phone still has only one killer app. Making phone calls. And despite an iPhone’s ability to handle a dozen e-mail accounts at once, or let me read Twitter from bed or bathroom, maybe it has more features than some of us really need or even want.

Maybe you just want to make phone calls using a real handset. Maybe you move ever so often, and would like a ‘home phone’ that can move with you. Maybe you want to equip your small business with phones that can be carried home as that next snowstorm or hurricane approaches. Or maybe, following Edward Snowden’s revelations and demonstrations like this one, you no longer wish to carry an always-connected, GPS-enabled, gyroscope-equipped, dual-camera mini computer in your pocket everywhere you go. For some, the idea of a cellular desk phone may be a simple product whose time has come.

Last week one of my respected colleagues walked into my office and noticed the phone pictured at the top of this article sitting on my desk. As perhaps a prototypical American, the concept seemed initially unfamiliar to him. This particular example is a cheap Chinese-sourced 2G GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz cellular phone, coincidentally about the same size as that original Motorola that I had all those years ago. I purchased this unit via eBay for less than $50. The primary power cord is European, but it accepts American 120V power via a cheap adapter. And the phone is compatible with either an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card, and presumably a SIM from most MVNOs that ride either of these networks.

In my new, partially-below-ground office where my iPhone relies on an AT&T 3G MicroCell for adequate coverage, this 2G cellular desk phone shows a full five bars of native AT&T signal. Today I made two test calls spanning 50 minutes from this handset, and didn’t experience any glitches at all.

In addition to my low-cost example, there are higher-end cellular desk phones like this one from Great Britain and what may be my personal favorite from the Czech Republic. I only wish that American wireless carriers would embrace the concept of the cellular desk phone, as a step beyond recent half measures, where it makes sense. Who knows? When my iPhone ultimately stops working, maybe I’ll replace it with a simple desk phone instead.

The New T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile USA made news on two fronts this week. For starters, the Un-carrier announced that they’re ditching mobile contracts altogether. No more 2-year lock-in with the purchase of a new phone. No early termination fee for leaving. There’s not even an overage fee if you run past your data plan. And the prices for similar services are cheaper than with rivals Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.

Sounds like a plan
T-Mobile’s smartphone plans start at $50 per month for unlimited talk, text and web, with 500 MB of high-speed data. Another $10 will bump you up to 2 GB of high-speed data. Exceed your high-speed data plan, and you’ll be slowed down for the remainder of the month, rather than charged extra. In other words, no surprises. That alone may come as a welcome relief for many of us without deep pockets. You’re unlikely to find a less expensive option than T-Mobile without going to a virtual network operator like Straight Talk.

Of course there’s still that little matter of buying a new phone on occasion. Here in the US, we’ve long been sucked into the buy now, pay later mentality. And not just with our phones. But the reality is that relatively few of us would pay up front for the latest smartphone at the unsubsidized price of, say, Apple’s $649 iPhone 5. Instead of lumping a phone subsidy into the plan and then charging the increase forever, T-Mobile offers two alternate paths.

You choose
When buying a new phone, you can choose to “pay in full today at checkout.” If that isn’t to your liking, you may pay a specified down-payment and a monthly payment for 24 months. While this may sound a lot like a traditional 2-year contract, there’s a key differentiator. You’ll stop paying for your phone the minute you’ve fulfilled your obligation. The other big carriers will continue to charge you a subsidy indefinitely, whether you buy a new phone every two years or not. Looking at T-Mobile’s site today, the pricing transparency of their current phones is both informative and reassuring.

Speaking of new phones
On Tuesday, T-Mobile CEO John Legere announced that they’ll begin officially carrying Apple’s iPhone starting April 12th. The flagship iPhone 5 will launch at $99.99, plus 24 monthly payments of $20 each. All told, T-Mobile’s iPhone 5 is about $69 cheaper than buying one unlocked at an Apple Store. It’s been reported that T-Mobile will serve up a modified version of the A1428 iPhone 5 currently produced for AT&T. T-Mobile’s variant should support Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) 1700 MHz spectrum in addition to previously-supported bands. For this reason, anyone buying an iPhone for use with T-Mobile going forward may want to buy theirs from T-Mobile rather than bringing their own. T-Mobile will also be the first US carrier to support the iPhone 5’s HD Voice feature. In short, T-Mobile’s iPhone launch brings every feature that their customers could hope for, save one. The iPhone won’t support T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling that is currently available on many of their other handsets.

But can you… hear me now?
It’s one thing to offer the latest phone hardware at a competitive price, and to offer service that people can afford. Both are important. But at the end of the day, all that is for naught if customers can’t use their phones reliably. The reach and quality of a cellular network is everything. Verizon Wireless has focused on their network for a long time, and as a result, they maintain the largest chunk of US subscribers today. There may still places in the western US where it’s Verizon or nothing. So how does T-Mobile stack up?

The Northeast
Awhile back, I wrote here about porting a number from Google Voice, and happened to choose T-Mobile as my destination. At the time, I was surprised to discover what appeared to be a stronger signal from T-Mobile, both at home and my office here in Connecticut, than I was getting from AT&T. That discovery was an eye-opener, and I wanted to investigate a little further.

I began carrying around a disposable-quality Android 2.3 Gingerbread phone on T-Mobile’s network. After pairing the phone with my truck via Bluetooth, I logged a few long drives (by Connecticut standards) while on the phone continuously. I experienced no dropped calls between Milford and Newington, from Trumbull to Wallingford, and similar trips. Speaking as someone who averages 23 hours of cell phone calling per month, the lack of dropped calls was encouraging.

Then I loaded up the Speedtest.net app for both iOS and Android. I began comparing my iPhone 4 on AT&T to the cheap Android phone on T-Mobile. Neither phone is LTE enabled, of course. (Incidentally, T-Mobile just launched their LTE service in seven cities this week.) My tests were less a comparison of either network’s top performance, and more a test of general network viability. From the slideshow that follows, it’s apparent that T-Mobile works well in the locations that I visited.

Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content

Your Area
OpenSignalWe all know that cellular coverage is an extremely local phenomenon. What works in one town or region may be less viable elsewhere. When considering a wireless company that you don’t have previous experience with, it’s best to seek out as much information as possible. Talk with friends or colleagues in the immediate area about which networks work for them, and which ones don’t.

For those of us who are technically inclined, I recently fired up an Android-only app called OpenSignal. This app crowd-sources the signal strength mapping of the four major cellular networks. You can view coverage maps of any of the four in your area, complete with a NetworkRank seen here at the right. According to OpenTable, Verizon is number one at my home, followed by T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint in that order. Curiously, the OpenSignal web site seems to provide less data than the app, and leaves me with a conflicting impression. So use the app. Forget the web site.

T-Mobile is the nation’s 4th-place network in terms of subscribers. But I find myself rooting for the underdog from time to time. A successful iPhone launch coupled with an unconventional pricing arrangement is potentially a win for all of us. Hopefully the other networks will sit up and take notice. If T-Mobile offers decent coverage in your area, you could certainly do worse than to walk into a T-Mobile store on April 12th. Or any time that you’re in the market for a new phone.

Port a Number From Google Voice

We’re all familiar with the wine snob or the cinema snob, in concept, if not in reality.  And while I’d like to believe that I’m relatively humble in most regards, perhaps there’s one thing that I am guilty of.  I might be a phone number snob.  Or maybe just an aficionado.  It’s a ridiculous fascination, to be sure, especially in an age when many of us click on the name of the person that we want to call, rather than punching in his or her ten digits.  But as humans, we like what we like.  Rather than question it, I’ll indulge my obsession on the chance that someone else finds the following discussion interesting or helpful.  As promised by the headline, we’ll get to the topics of Google Voice and number portability sooner or later.

Area Codes
In my particular case, I begin by thinking about area codes.  I like an area code that conveys locational prestige of one sort or another, to the extent that such a thing actually exists (anywhere other than in my own mind).  Months after moving east, I took the time to get a cell phone with Midtown Manhattan’s 212 area code, despite the fact that I actually live a train-ride away in southwest Connecticut.  Today that 212 number serves as my home / office / mobile number, and is the only number printed on my business cards and listed in the signature block of my work e-mails.  Of course the 212 area code isn’t the only one that has economic, pop-culture or political ties, and you may have your own favorite area or area code that you wouldn’t mind using whether you actually live there or not.

Ends in Nice Numbers
When selecting a phone number, I also prefer one that ends in zero if at all possible, with those ending in five as my second choice.  A phone number that ends in 8250 has a more official feel than one that ends in 2583.  While I prefer as much uniformity in my numbers as I can get, some might look for a particular series of digits that spells something or caries other personal meaning.  That’s where Google Voice comes in.

Google Voice
If you’re not already familiar with Google Voice, it’s Google’s free Voice over IP (sort of) service that includes a phone number, voicemail, speech to text, texting, free domestic calls, call forwarding, and low cost international calling.  It’s actually a pretty amazing bundle of features, given the price point of zero dollars.  But my favorite feature of Google Voice is that you can pick from a decent number of area codes and prefixes from all over the United States, and then select the final number of your liking.  Google Voice numbers aren’t available for every area code, but it’s a better way to find a number than leaving it up to random chance.  While experimenting with Google Voice last year, I picked up a pretty great number located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC.  The number looks like it could belong to a political office or a major campaign.

You Can Take It With You
Google Voice is already portable, as there’s an app for Apple’s iOS and Google’s own Android mobile operating system.  For many, Google Voice may provide the most value when used as intended. But for some of us, we may decide that Google Voice isn’t exactly what we’re looking for, and we’d rather take the number with us and go somewhere else.  Specifically, I wanted to see if I could port my fantastic Google Voice number over to a traditional cell phone instead.  People say that they’ve done it, and that it isn’t that hard.  We’ll see about that.

The Inexpensive Experiment
When it comes to “what if” exercises, I don’t like to throw a lot of money at them.  I definitely don’t have money to burn.  On the chance that you don’t either, I’ll note my expenses for various things, and tally up this experiment at the end.  Let’s see how well we keep costs in check.

Finding A Phone
If we’re going to try to port a number to a cell phone, then obviously we have to have a cell phone to port it to.  Being the tech guy that I am, I went rummaging through some bins and came up with an old Motorola RAZR V3.  The phone had AT&T’s logo on the back, indicating that it was almost certainly locked to that provider, but technical instinct told me that the phone could be made to work on any GSM network.  I couldn’t find the AC charger that went with the phone, but I did have a Mini USB cable that I could use to charge the phone from my laptop.  I let the phone charge overnight.  If you don’t have a bin full of castoff hardware, maybe you have a nerdy friend that does.  Cost so far: zero.  But I’d later pony up $4.35 for an AC wall charger for the phone at Amazon.  As an Amazon Prime customer, I paid no shipping charge, nor was Connecticut sales tax added.

With GSM Phones Only
As I happen to be using a GSM phone, I needed to get a SIM for the phone.  (Had I been migrating to a phone made for Verizon or Sprint, the SIM steps in this paragraph and the next would not have been necessary.)  Now I’m already an AT&T customer, with both an iPhone and an iPad on their new Mobile Share service.  In theory, it should be a simple matter to get another phone added to my account.  But Internet tales and personal experience lead me to believe that it would be a hassle to try to add a phone number from a different geographic area to my existing AT&T account, requiring that it first be converted to a business account and all that.  As this was an experiment, I didn’t want to go that far initially.  If the process proved successful, I could always go through the pain with AT&T later.

I decided instead to run this experiment with a company who has never heard of me, and one with whom I have no prior experience.  I went to the other ‘nationwide’ GSM network: T-Mobile.  Via Google, I found a link where T-Mobile is offering, at the time of this writing, a “free” SIM card with no activation fee.  The transaction actually costs $1.05, just enough to force would-be customers to provide a credit card number.  Curiously, T-Mobile also asked several probing questions used to verify my identity beyond a reasonable doubt.  Questions like “Which of the following counties did [your mom] own property in during the last 10 years?” and “Which of the following companies have you worked for?”  I just want a cell phone SIM, not a mortgage!  Perhaps T-Mobile executives have watched too many episodes of HBO’s The Wire, and don’t want to be a source of anonymous cell phones.  Anyway, even with T-Mobile’s online interrogation, the process took only about five minutes.  And the SIM arrived the very next day.

Enable Porting
After receiving my SIM, and just prior to activating my T-Mobile service, I have to first enable porting of my Google Voice number.  Google has a special link to faciliate this.  Upon visiting the link, your Google Voice number will be displayed.  Click on a box labeled ‘Unlock my number’ to begin the process.  While Google gave you the phone number for free when you signed up for Google Voice, they charge you a $3.00 fee to port it out.  You’ll be prompted for a credit card at this time.  Continue as prompted until you get to an ‘Unlocked’ status.  Once your number is unlocked, you’re ready to port it out to another carrier of your choice.  I returned to the page on the next business day to check the status.  This time, out beside ‘Unlocked’ was an ‘Approved’ notation.

Status of Google Voice Number

Google Voice Account Unlocked And Approved For Number Porting

Cell Phone Activation
Having prepared the source of this phone number porting exercise, it’s now time to prepare the destination.  I went to T-Mobile’s Prepaid Activation page to begin.  In the process of signing up, I listed the phone number that I wanted to transfer from Google Voice.  T-Mobile asked for an account number and PIN number, and I specified the same Google Voice number in those boxes as well.  I signed up for a Pay As You Go plan.  As with every other step so far, this process took about five minutes.  I tried to actually pay something on my T-Mobile account, but was told that “The T-Mobile refill system is currently unavailable.”  Fortunately that free SIM card came with a $3.34 initial value, enough to activate the phone and test it.

Unlocking Locked Phone
Remember that my aging Motorola RAZR V3 was originally locked to AT&T’s network?  Well, I went to Cellunlocker.net and paid $7.99 for an unlock code for this particular phone.  They ask for the phone’s IMEI number, generated the unlock code, and sent it to me via e-mail in a matter of minutes.  This step would only be necessary for someone wishing to use a GSM phone that was locked to one network with service provided by another.  But it’s nice to know that such a thing is available.  With the unlock code in hand, I put my T-Mobile SIM in the AT&T-branded Motorola phone, fired it up, and was prompted to ‘Enter Subsidy Password’.  The code from Cellunlocker.net was accepted, after which the phone displayed T-Mobile in the upper, left-hand corner.  And then I took a look at the reception indicator.

T-Mobile SIM in an ATT Phone

T-Mobile SIM in an AT&T Phone

T-Mobile Reception
Cell phone reception – good or bad – is an extremely local phenomenon.  Generally speaking, I’d categorize the four nationwide networks in the following order by coverage: (1) Verizon (2) AT&T, (3) Sprint and (4) T-Mobile.  But the signal strength on your block has a loose correlation at best to a carrier’s national footprint.  In my current apartment, the reception on my iPhone on AT&T is adequate, but not great.  Sometimes it’s three bars, on rare occasions it jumps to four, and sometimes it drops as low as one bar for minutes at a time.  I tend to leave the phone near the window and walk around with a Bluetooth earpiece in my ear.  So imagine my pleasant surprise when the Moto RAZR on T-Mobile showed a full five bars!  And not just at home, as I’d later discover.  Having taken all the steps to get to this point, and having fired up my phone on the T-Mobile network, I now had to wait patiently until the phone number transfer completed.

An ATT and T-Mobile Phone Side By Side

AT&T and T-Mobile Reception Side By Side

Completing Transfer
I began my number porting exercise on Friday evening after work, which is perhaps the very worst time to start it.  Any activities that rely on human acknowledgement aren’t likely to be touched over the weekend.  By Monday evening, I still hadn’t observed any progress from T-Mobile.  So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to fire up a T-Moble Live Chat and ask for an estimated time to completion.  The chat-based agent suggested that I call T-Mobile’s Number Transfer Center at 877-789-3106.  During a 23-minute call, I learned that Google Voice lines are seen as wire lines by other vendors, and that T-Mobile was slated to complete my transfer the following day.  It’s unlikely that my call was necessary.  Sometime Tuesday morning, I received a text message on the Moto RAZR indicating that the transfer was complete.  I began playing with it Tuesday afternoon, confirming calls in and out, and setting up my voicemail.  Separately, during that Friday-to-Tuesday interval, I had stopped in at Wal-Mart and picked up a $10 T-Mobile Pay As You Go card, for an after-tax cost of $10.55.

Total Expenses
I spent a total of $26.94 to confirm that I could port a Google Voice number to a cell phone provider with little difficulty and only a moderate amount of patience required.  That’s really not bad.  The line item expenses were as follows.

Old phone: $0.00
Charger: $4.35
T-Mobile SIM: $1.05
Google unlock fee: $3.00
Phone unlock fee: $7.99
Pay As You Go card: $10.55

Having Fun
Like many IT professionals, I’m no longer constantly excited by technology.  I may go weeks at a time where my job is just a job; a means to an end.  Yet the process of testing number portability out of Google Voice was so exciting that I got up at 4:00 AM on the morning after I initiated the transfer.  I was no longer able to sleep.  It’s that cool.  If you’re so inclined, you might give it a run as well.  And if you have any questions, feel free to give me a call at 202 … nah.  But you might post a comment below.  Meanwhile, I’ll be out and about, comparing T-Mobile’s signal strength to AT&T’s.