Don’t Pay AT&T $20 Per Month for Text Messages — Switch to Google Voice

google_voice_iconAT&T is “streamlining” their text messaging plans effective August 21st (full story) — no doubt in preparation for the iPhone 5. In this case, “streamlining” is a business euphemism for “taking away lower-priced options that too many customers prefer.” More specifically, AT&T is getting rid of their $10 per month limited texting plan, and only offering a $20 per month unlimited option. They claim to be doing this because “customers have expressed a clear preference for unlimited plans,” however I have a strong suspicion that this has more to do with customers who prefer to pay less.

Unfortunately, Verizon customers shouldn’t be too smug about the news because our day is almost certainly coming, as well. There is so little competition in the mobile phone industry that AT&T and Verizon essentially operate in collusion. For instance, one company goes from one-year contracts to two, and after waiting a respectable period of time, the other does the same; as one company’s early termination fee goes up, so goes the other’s; one carrier gets rid of unlimited data in favor of tiered plans, and rather than offering a more attractive and competitive service, the other eventually makes the switch, as well. As long as consumers don’t have realistic alternatives, it’s more profitable to raise rates for existing customers (and/or provide less service) than it is to compete for new customers. (I know T-Mobile is still an option, but they will soon merge with AT&T, and Sprint just doesn’t have the network coverage and device selection it needs to satisfy a large percentage of customers.)

AT&T is telling existing customers that they will be able to keep their $10 per month plans, and that the price hike is only for new customers. I suppose that’s some consolation, however that won’t last long. The next time you upgrade your phone (remember, the iPhone 5 is coming!), you will discover that your grandfather status has expired. At that point, you will be right where the mobile phone industry wants you: out of options.

That’s why I recommend switching to Google Voice. Google Voice still isn’t as easy to set up as it should be, but once you get it configured, you get all of the following features:

  • Free unlimited texting (on both Android and iOS devices).
  • The ability to send and receive text messages from your browser using a Gmail-like interface.
  • One phone number that maps to multiple phones. (When someone calls your Google Voice number, you can have the call forwarded to multiple numbers simultaneously — home, office, mobile, etc.)
  • The ability to make voice calls from your browser (this is how I make most business calls now).
  • Free voicemail with very humorous speech-to-text (it’s good enough to skim and get a feel for a message, but don’t base any important decisions on this technology just yet).
  • All kinds of very sophisticated call filtering, screening, and grouping capabilities.
  • Integration with Google Contacts.
  • Seemingly unlimited archiving and indexing of text messages and voicemails. (If there is a limit, it’s very generous.)
  • Completely free.

I should point out that I don’t expect Google Voice to remain free indefinitely; the service can still be a little rough around the edges, so I’m guessing they’re waiting until it’s more robust before actually charging customers. However, assuming it’s a fair and competitive rate (I’m guessing maybe $10 – $20 per year), I will be happy to pay. Google Voice is far more innovative than just about anything AT&T or Verizon have done in recent memory (or distant memory, for that matter), and I’m happy to pay for services that provide real value.

If you use Android, Google Voice integrates seamlessly with the OS to the point where you won’t even be aware that you’re not using your actual mobile phone’s number. If you use iOS (that is, an iPhone), your life isn’t going to be quite as good. Unfortunately the Google Voice iOS application is very buggy and not all that well integrated into the OS, but in my opinion, it’s still much more functional and feature-rich than anything you get from your standard mobile phone plan. And even on iOS, it’s certainly better than paying $20 per month for text messages which, believe it or not, cost carriers all of about 0.0002¢ each.