Free WiFi Calling On Major Carriers

Category: Mobile , Telephony

If you have a mobile calling plan that limits the number of minutes or text messages you can use each month, you'll be interested in today's article. Likewise, if you spend time in buildings where the cellular signal is poor, you'll want to learn more about WiFi Calling. Read on...

What is WiFi Calling?

On October 8, 2015, AT&T became the third major carrier to offer free voice and text services over WiFi connections. T-mobile became the first major carrier to offer WiFi Calling back in 2011. Sprint joined the club in the Spring of 2014. Verizon is still dragging its feet, saying only that it intends to offer WiFi calling "at some unspecified future date."

The cellular carriers call this feature, “WiFi Calling.” In past articles, I’ve called it hybrid phone service. There are some important differences between WiFi Calling and hybrid services such as Republic Wireless and Google’s Project Fi.

First, every phone sold by Republic Wireless or Project Fi is capable of using a WiFi connection. That’s not the case with carriers’ WiFi Calling. AT&T offers WiFi Calling only on Apple iPhone models 6, 6 Plus, 6S, and 6S Plus running iOS 9. In other words, only the most expensive top-of-the line iPhone models are supported, and Android users are out of luck.
Free WiFi Calling on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile

Is there some technical reason for that? Apparently not, since Sprint’s WiFi Calling works on iPhone 6 models, as well as the older 5S and 5C. You just have to make sure the iOS software is updated to v8.3 or later. Sprint supports WiFi Calling on Androids, too. It works on the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini, Galaxy S4 with Sprint Spark (but not the original S4), Galaxy S5 and S6, HTC One M8/M9, LG G3/G4, and I'm sure there are many others as well. If you have an Android phone, Sprint advises you to check its settings for WiFi Calling compatibility.

T-mobile also supports both iPhone and Android. Their website lists 23 smartphones that are compatible with WiFi Calling.

Other Differences

Second, you have to enable WiFi Calling; it’s not turned on by default. T-mobile’s instructional videos explain the process, which seems rather cumbersome. The Android video mentions that it may take “one or two minutes” for WiFi Calling to configure itself after you connect to a WiFi network.

And surprisingly, WiFi Calling is not always free. Roaming charges and international calling rates may apply, of course, but there are other gotchas, too. T-mobile Simple Choice Plans deduct WiFi minutes from subscribers’ monthly allotments. AT&T offers free WiFi voice calls, but text messages “are counted and charged under your existing rate plan.” Both of those are nasty, money-grubbing policies. If you're using WiFi, you're not using the cellular network, and you shouldn't be charged as if you were.

Sprint is the only major carrier with a sane, customer-friendly policy on this. They do not count WiFi Calling traffic “against any minute, text, or data limits on your Sprint plan.” Thank you Sprint, that's as it should be.

AT&T phones will use WiFi Calling only if the AT&T cellular network’s signal is too weak or absent. T-mobile and Sprint allow users to set WiFi Calling as the preferred method when a WiFi connection is available.

Seamless Handoff? Not So Much...

Here's another big difference between the WiFi Calling offered by the major carriers, and the wifi calling offered by Republic Wireless and Project Fi. With Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile, WiFi Calling will NOT switch between cellular and WiFi in the middle of a call. Such seamless handoffs ARE possible with Republic Wireless and Project Fi. In practical terms, this means that if you start a call in WiFi mode, then wander into an area where the WiFi signal is weak or gone, your call will be dropped, instead of automatically switching to the carrier's cellular network.

AT&T’s “cellular first” rule makes it crystal-clear that carriers are not offering WiFi Calling to help customers save money. They’re doing it mainly to fill gaps in their networks’ coverage, particularly in the depths of office buildings where cellular signals are weak but WiFi is ubiquitous. WiFi Calling won’t reduce your monthly carrier bill by a penny, but it may help you talk and text more for the same price.

In contrast, Republic Wireless and Project Fi refund money to customers who don’t use all of the cellular data they purchase. The average Republic Wireless Refund Plan subscriber paid just $13.82 in August for unlimited talk and text, plus an average of 250 MB of cellular data use.

Do you think WiFi Calling is a feature that would be helpful to you? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Free WiFi Calling On Major Carriers"

Posted by:

R
15 Oct 2015

I'm on Verizon and it would be fantastic to have WiFi calling. The signal is pretty bad at home and need to use the house phone to have any sort of confidence that my conversation will have no issues.

I'm not paying $250 for a network extender that enables better signal at home. I've called and complained and they offer that router as the only solution, but not free.

I hope Verizon will add WiFi calling and mirror how T-Mobile's works.


Posted by:

Charles Heineke
15 Oct 2015

I've been enjoying Republic Wireless' WiFi calling, text, and data since June 2015. I buy the basic $10 plan, which includes unlimited talk, text, and data via WiFi. I then add on 500MB of data for $7.50, since I sometimes travel away from home and may need cellular, but often can get WiFi. Most of the time my $7.50 for data is refunded to me, leaving my bill only $10.00 plus $2.30 in taxes, for a total of $12.30/month. I'm always on WiFi unless it's not available, and then it automatically switches to cellular. And it can switch mid-call, either way, cellular to WiFi or the reverse. That makes Republic Wireless a good plan for me.


Posted by:

Jan
15 Oct 2015

Bob, I wonder if Apple could institute wifi calling just as they do iMessage. It would be wonderful to be able to bypass our carriers altogether and be able to make free wifi calls internationally if we leave the country or have international friends we like to talk to. Verizon charges a lot for international calling! I have tried to use Viber on my iPhone with limited success, and enjoyed using the free toll numbers with ads, but they are thing of the past.

I think Apple device users should blanket http://www.apple.com/feedback/iphone.html
with requests for Apple-sponsored wifi calling. Please join me!

Thanks!


Posted by:

Steve Hedge
15 Oct 2015

Hi Bob. I've been reading your articles for about 5 years now and thought I ought to contribute something. I'm from the U.K. and recently purchased a Blackberry Passport (which I love) and am using EE (ee.com) as a service provider. They have been providing a WiFi Calling service since April 2015. However, they seem to only support iPhone, and Samsung Galaxy S5 a far as I can see. Why is this service restricted by the hardware (handset) you have? Apparently, it is not "controlled" by the Sim card they have provided so why only these phones? Also, this method of calling is only possible IF you have access to a WiFi system AND have the password to access it; assuming most sensible people will have put some protection on their system.


Posted by:

Raymond
15 Oct 2015

I'm confused by all of this "yes/no" Wi-Fi on my cell-phone. I have a Droid Ultra (Kit-Kat 4.4.4), through Verizon, WITH Wi-Fi. I just go to "Settings", and turn it on or off!

I turn it on when at home, and off when I'm not using it. Just like Blu-Tooth, it continually "searches", and drains the battery.

According to Verizon, I am NOT charged for connection minutes when using Wi-Fi.


Posted by:

Ray Brookins
16 Oct 2015

RE: Seamless Handoff? Not So Much...

Pasted from https://fi.google.com/about/faq/#wifi-connection-and-calls-6

What happens if I start a call over Wi-Fi and then lose my Wi-Fi connection?
On your Project Fi device, if you start a call over Wi-Fi and then your connection weakens or drops (such as when you leave your home or office), Project Fi seamlessly transitions your call to a cellular network (if one is available) so you can keep talking.


Posted by:

Thomas
16 Oct 2015

I do free WIFI calling all the time using Gmail and a Google Voice number. Google Hangouts does the same thing. Saves me tons of money (since the calls are free over WIFI) compared to my prepaid phone charges to use the carrier's wireless phone network.

However, there is no switchover to/from phone network. You have to stay on wireless the whole call. This works great at home or wherever else you have constant WIFI access.

Get a Google Voice number and install Google Hangouts on your phone or tablet. Or you can use the Gmail calling feature on your PC or laptop.

Works great and it's free to US and Canada!


Posted by:

Mike
16 Oct 2015

WiFi calling and texting would be a big help to me. Our plans are unlimited talk and text, so it wouldn't make a difference in price (US calls anyway), but being inside a building, or just in an area that our carrier (AT&T)doesn't cover well would be great. It would allow us to compare other carriers' plans. Right now, I can't sit in my house and use Verizon or T-mobile. I can look out the window and see an AT&T tower. I can be in a metal building and get coverage. I go to a friend's house, and she doesn't have any coverage from AT&T. How nice to be able to use WiFi. But not available with Android? Hopefully this will become a universal feature with all carriers and phones soon! Thanks for the article, Bob!


Posted by:

John
16 Oct 2015

Well congrats for Sprint on this one, but sorry I will not use them still. Had Sprint for years back to when it was Nextel. But after my wife would get text messages or voice mail later that same day (hours later) or even days after it was sent became tiring. So we left them!
WI-FI may be OK as stated inside buildings or places where a data signal is LOW or not even there, but I would not want it when I am driving using my bluetooth in the car! Thanks for the research.


Posted by:

Bob Gart
16 Oct 2015

Why would anyone would pay $100+ for their smartphone these days? We've had Republic Wireless for two years now - would never go back to a traditional carrier. Bills average $14 a month with their Republic Refund plans. We take the phone overseas on vacation and never worry about international long distance and roaming.

As a friend on Fi discovered, Fi is not Wi-Fi first ... call quality on Wi-Fi can be sketchy which is why I think Fi mostly rides on T-Mo's circuit switched cellular network.

Sounds like Republic will be adding a GSM carrier soon - assume T-Mobile. They also say they are working to move their technology out of phone into the software layers which will let them offer phones other than Motorola - hopefully Samsung.

I believe TMo is only seamless to their 4G cellular network.


Posted by:

James
16 Oct 2015

Whenever you are on a WI-FI call your call will be dropped whenever the net service has a blip.


Posted by:

Al
19 Oct 2015

I've been with Republic for two years now. My wife switched over recently. Being retired we are often in range of wi-fi. Our combined monthly bill is usually around $25.00. The wi-fi to cell network is seamless when needed.
Why would anyone go with a major carrier?


Posted by:

John C Smith
22 Oct 2015

Great article Bob. Regarding T-Mobile, I have been using T-Mobile since June. I leave WiFi calling turned on continuously, and when I am on my wifi network at home it sounds and works very well. If I am on a wifi call and walk out of the house, if the wifi signal falls below a minimum threshold, the iPhone 6 plus I use seamlessly hands off to T-Mobile's LTE network. It's true that T-Mobile does not handoff to their 4G network because 4G doesn't support Voice over IP.

While T-Mobile WiFi calling minutes do count against the monthly allocation of minutes in their plans, most of their plans that support WiFi calling include unlimited minutes.

I traveled to Europe and Mexico over the summer. T-Mobile WiFi calling worked well when I was on a wifi network that met minimum wifi calling standards. The calls I placed to the USA using WiFi calling were free since I get unlimited minutes in my plan.

T-Mobile even supports text messaging at no charge while traveling on an airline with GOGO wireless.

Thanks Bob


Posted by:

John C Smith
22 Oct 2015

Jan, I read your response to the article. "I wonder if Apple could institute wifi calling just as they do iMessage".

Apple does offer such a service, and its standard on all iPhones running IOS 7 and above. However, the service is limited to placing/receiving calls to users within the Apple "ecosystem". This includes iPhones, iPads, iMac, MacBooks, It works on any data network, including WiFi and Cellular data (as long as your carrier doesn't restrict it). You can make calls to other iPhone users directly from your iPhone contacts app. Open the contact app and look for the "FaceTime" section under the phone numbers listed for the contact. At this point you will see a "camera" and "handset" icon to the right of the FaceTime section. Simply press the "handset" icon, and if the person you are calling has FaceTime Audio enabled you'll see the native dialer app pop open and the call will initiate. The easiest way to make these calls is by simply telling Siri "place a FaceTime Audio call to ____________. Try it out.


Posted by:

Russ
14 Feb 2016

Bob, I love the article and the comments! Many places I go have wifi, and for calls Republic seems like the direction I want to go in the future. Some one mentioned calls and texts and messages arriving hours later... We have this happen where we live in Utah, a lot. I'll receive a voice mail, with never getting a notice, a call record, nothing! It just arrives; same can happen with text messages, or you try and call and no answer. This is with Verizon! Very disappointed. Its time for some change, and maybe time for people to gripe to carriers, or show there opinion by switching? Great article


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