Tuesday 10 May 2016

Sick of expensive smartphone plans? Why I ditched mine, went prepaid, and switched to the Fongo Mobile app for free calls/cheap texts

There are a lot of alternative phone services out there, but I'm a long time user and fan of Fongo, a voice over IP (VoIP) service. VoIP just means your phone's audio connection goes through internet bandwidth instead of traditional landlines or cell towers. Fongo offers a free mobile app for Android/iPhone/BlackBerry, a low-priced home phone service, and (if you feel brave) a free home phone through their system company Freephoneline.

I could go on about more technical details, but what you want to know is: will this save me money? YES. Will it be straightforward? Y...mostly. It depends. But stick with me as I walk you through the options.

In this post, I'll start with Fongo for smartphones.

Some background: I'm not a heavy smartphone user, but I like them. I've used a few Android devices and more recently BlackBerry 10. I never liked paying even $30 for a plan of which I used about 20% of the coverage, if that. Calls are potentially expensive ("is an incoming call long distance if I'm in location X? What about an outgoing call in location Y?"), data packages are expensive, and texts...well, text packages are fine, I'll give carriers that.

Starting to Save with Prepaid and the Fongo App

Still, I never liked the bills, but still wanted to use my smartphone as a smartphone. My phone is connected 80% of the time to WiFi; with a good VoIP app, I suspected I could "offload" a lot of my bill by that fact alone. For the times when I'm not on my home or a steady public WiFi and need to make/receive a call or look up something, I figured a bit of data coverage could fill the gap. But in Canada, it's not immediately clear how to get data-only coverage and nothing else.

That's where prepaid comes into the picture. By default, we all choose postpaid, 2 year (formerly 3 year) contracts with the major cell phone providers in Canada. That way, we get the fancy phone up front, what seems like a good plan, etc. That's not all it's cracked up to be. Again, lots of bells and whistles, but I never used them. With prepaid, you can typically just purchase what you want to use. They have plans that are reasonably priced, but even better, you can purchase "add ons" without a plan. That's how I discovered data-only coverage -- on Telus, I got 100 mb for $10. That may sound laughably low, but given I'm mostly on WiFi, that amount felt acceptable for me -- plus, I could always get more data in any given month.

So, I took on an experiment to see if I could slash my bill and still have a usable smartphone. Here's a checklist of what I did:

  • Test out Fongo for awhile on WiFi + my existing plan. I was quite happy with it pretty quickly.
  • As soon as I could, switch from postpaid (contract) to prepaid (no contract) -- I wanted to do this, even if switching to VoIP didn't work out.
  • Initially try out data-only coverage - $10 for 100 mb on some carriers (you may require more if you're not on WiFi as much as I am)
  • Download the Fongo app, register for free, get a REAL number
  • Start making calls
Was this experiment successful? Mostly. I did all of this in 2013, and I've stuck with the configuration ever since. I've used this configuration on several devices: two Androids, one BlackBerry, and a brief test on my wife's iPhone. It all works just fine -- my bill effectively went from $30/tax a month to $10/tax (set up a month, but with prepaid, you pay whenever you want to/need coverage!). 

Here's a list of what works well with Fongo + data + prepaid on my smartphone:
  • Calls are generally good, provided the internet connection is solid. 
  • The price is right! 
  • The number follows you wherever you go. You don't have to think about incoming vs. outgoing calls in Canada, long distance, etc. I was in Italy a few years ago and called my parents in Newfoundland for free!
  • You can text within the app to Fongo users for free
  • Fongo provides great support -- frequent app updates, technical support, help documents, a user forum.
There are a few cons:
  • The app can freeze when you try to hang up a call, especially on older devices.
  • Calls can occasionally drop (also true of a traditional cell phone call).
  • The app is a separate app and not integrated in your phone as a calling/text interface. (I'm used to this, but you may find it's a bit of an adjustment, initially.)
  • Texting to non-Fongo users isn't free (though the rates are very good.)
  • Not everywhere in Canada is covered, but most places are. Check the free calling areas; if your city or town is listed there, it's a free call. If it's not, you have to add some money to your account to cover the rate, but Fongo's rates are still better than most carriers.

Is it worth the switch?

Yes! I'm glad I did this experiment, and the outcome was great. Testing the Fongo app for my calls went well, and I'd recommend that you do the same before rejigging your smartphone plan entirely. I have family and friends in Newfoundland and Ontario; I've been able to call them all for free. 

Doing these tests increased my confidence. From here, switching to prepaid and getting rid of my plan "bloat" was a no brainer for me -- I'd switch to prepaid even if I wasn't planning to use Fongo. 

As mentioned above, texting to non-Fongo users (most people I know) isn't free. But the text plans are great -- $1.99/tax a month for unlimited coverage in Canada, and even cheaper per month if you go for 3 month or 6 month coverage. 

All told, my plan has become $10 + $1.99 (or less)/tax per month. The outcome: I make calls from my city and when travelling without worrying about long distance, I text for cheap, I browse on my phone...I use my smartphone as I did before, except for ~$20 less a month.

I'd strongly recommend downloading the Fongo app, getting your free number, playing around with it. See if it works for you. If it does, it could be the start of a path towards some significant savings. 

Next Time

I'll cover Fongo home phone and Freephoneline. So, if you're looking to ditch your landline in favour of a reliable option that's way cheaper, stay tuned!


  1. Services like Fongo could have a bright future once the kinks are worked out...

  2. Thanks for the comment! For sure there are kinks, but their services are well-worth using in spite of possible caveats. In the case of the Fongo app, even if you don't feel confident using it as a full-fledged replacement, you could use it to complement your existing plan (make LD calls on Fongo over WiFi, for example). I recommend experimenting with it on a small scale: try out some calls to see if it works for you. Using the app for calls is free (provided you call to a free calling area), so nothing to lose!