Discussion about
groovechicken

March 19th 2014 3:59 am

Replacing Google Voice

I knew before going into this exodus from Google (see the meta article for the back story on this series of articles - www.engadget.com­/discuss­/leaving­-google­-eternal­-an...) that finding a replacement for Google Voice was going to be painful, and might not even be possible. I have sung the praises of this service since I first joined it when it was still GrandCentral. At that time, I had recently been through 2 different work-issued cell phones, with different numbers since they were from different employers, and had also just started my first personal cell service on the original iPhone with a new family plan. It was mayhem and I routinely had calls from people saying they had been texting one of my old numbers and had wondered why I was ignoring them.

So when my cousin got me a beta invite into GrandCentral, I was ecstatic. No more giving out new numbers... no more changing numbers on my various accounts... no more worries about having to port numbers when I decide on a whim to switch carriers. It was life in the fast lane, and I told everyone who would listen. Then the announcement came that Google was buying them out. That was back in the days when Google was still the cool kid and could do no wrong, so I was hopeful. Each year thereafter, they continued to extend the free service, and it continued to work as expected, so all was well.

Do you hear the thunder?

Over the years, though, I have watched Google systematically kill any service they deemed unimportant, some of which my day revolved around, like Reader. So, knowing the economy of scale here, my gut has been telling me that it is only a matter of time before Voice gets the axe as well... unless they are doing something really nefarious behind the scenes to turn a profit off the service. I have been holding out hope anyway, though, for the last few years, because I never wanted to go back to life before Google Voice. I have even said to people, "The day Google kills Voice is the day I stop using cell phones." With this sense of unease growing, and the other reasons I mention in the meta article for leaving Google (see link above if you missed it), I finally decided to make the move away from Voice preemptively rather than wait for Google to pull the rug out from under me.

Imagine a world with only data plans

Like many other geeks, I have complained for the last few years about the concept of paying for voice service and text messaging as part of a mobile plan. Why are we still doing that? If we dropped all that legacy baggage and did all the voice as VOIP and treated the text messages as just data (that's all they are anyway), we could just pay for a data plan and have everything we need with only one meter for the providers to charge against. Plus, we would get the advantage of those services working over wifi when we are home or at work and not getting charged for them at all. The only reason this hasn't happened yet (and may never at this rate) is due to the profit levels cell providers are addicted to.

If you have a device with only data (whether wifi only or with cellular also), you could already achieve this with Google Voice by using the GrooveIP app for calls and the Google Voice app for SMS. Of course, you could just take the call on your computer through the web app if you set Google Voice to forward to your Hangouts account and leave Gmail open in a tab with Hangouts logged in. You could also set up a SIP adapter to connect to the service and plug in a regular phone to that. So, with Google Voice, it was possible to easily get a number and SMS without paying for voice and SMS service. I stress was since Google announced they are killing SIP access to the Google Voice service. Calls can still be made and received on the computer through Hangouts, but it is unclear if this will still be possible by any means on phones or tablets through the Hangouts app. So, at this point, it looks like you will once again only be able to use it for forwarding to a real number and will need a real voice service to make calls from a phone. Did Google get pressured by the carriers? Or is this the first stage in them trimming it down and rolling it into Hangouts rather than have it be a separate service?

Either way, I decided now is the time to try building the dream and using VOIP over a data plan. The other reason to go this route, for me anyway, is cost. I was able to add a 500MB data SIM to my wife's T-Mobile plan for only $10 per month. 500MB is more than enough for SMS and voice, especially since I do so little voice calling while away from wifi. Add on top of this the cost of a cheap VOIP service, and it still comes out cheaper than a Ting account and way cheaper than the cheapest cell plan you can get from any major carrier. The big advantage, too, is the ability to use almost any device as a phone and not be limited to the phones offered by your carrier. The only real costs here are the hotspot and the phone. Luckily, I had enough Best Buy points stored up to snag the T-Mobile hotspot for free when it was on sale. And, I already have a handful of different devices I could use as a phone. Nullifying those costs made this an easier decision than it would have been if I had been forced to buy new devices with real money. I can't actually afford new devices right now, so the only other option for me would have been to bring my old Motorola Photon out of retirement to use on Ting.

The options are... less than ideal

So, with the excitement of a trailblazer. I set off on this adventure with high hopes, but, fortunately, I am a realist and that enthusiasm was tempered by an expectation for the worst. The reality fell somewhere in between.

The first thing I discovered is that, if you want both voice and text messaging on a single number, your options are very limited right off the bat. Very few VOIP services offer SMS, and those that do tend to refer to it as a beta feature. Services that focus on SMS while also offering some voice functionality lack important features. I looked all over the internet, reading feature pages, lurking customer forums, and even testing some options before finally settling on a VOIP provider that included SMS. If you are willing to have separate numbers for voice and texting, your options are a lot better. I was trying to avoid this confusion, though, because I really wanted to port my Google Voice number to another service to avoid having to give out a new number. Of the options I tried, a few stand out.

MagicJack:
If you can live with having separate numbers for voice and text, this is actually a pretty good option for your voice service. It offers proper voicemail and there are mobile clients in the iOS App Store, Play Store, and Amazon Appstore that allow you to make and receive calls from your devices, as well as apps for Windows and Mac to make calls from your computer. We have a MagicJack number at work for faxing, so I decided to give it a test using the mobile client on my tablet which I downloaded through the Amazon Appstore. After logging in with our account, I was able to receive and place calls that sounded just fine over wifi and a Ting (Sprint service) hotspot (which we use as an emergency backup connection for work). The price is right, too. $50 for the device, which will give you 6 free months of service, then $30 per year after that. The only catch is that it does not include text messaging. If it did, I would probably have just gone with them in the first place. The only other hesitation for me was that I would be left stranded for mobile usage if I switch to using some device that does not run Android, Amazon's OS, or iOS, and I do plan to move to a Linux-based device as soon as something viable is available.
Verdict: very close, but not quite.

TextPlus:

If you are using iOS or full Android with the Play Store and Google services, this one is also a really close contender. They give you free text messaging (ad supported in the free version of the app) and phone calls at 2 cents per minute. This is pretty good, especially if you spend as little time on the phone as I do. The setup was pretty easy and it gave me a number in my area code. I have been using it as a backup option for texting in the midst of this transition and it has worked very well. There are a few negatives, though. The first is that apps for it are only available on the top mobile platforms (iOS, Google Play, Amazon Appstore, Windows Phone, and Nokia) with no desktop options at all, not even the ability to log into a site to manage anything. The second is that the version in the Amazon Appstore only supports SMS and not calling. In order to test the calling feature, I had to download the app on a phone with Google Play, then use ES File Explorer to backup the app and move it to my CyanogenMod phone. Once installed, I could place calls, and it worked well enough, but it could never receive calls despite having the option turned on in settings. I can only assume incoming calls depends on one of the Google services that are missing from the AOSP version of Android. I could have lived with that if there were some form of voicemail, but there isn't. If someone calls and you don't answer, it just says you aren't available and hangs up. You don't get a missed call notification either. So, this would work fine, apparently, if you don't need voicemail and if you are using iOS, Android with Google Play, Windows Phone, or a Nokia feature phone. If you are using something that only gives you access to eh Amazon Appstore, though, this is really only usable for SMS.
Verdict: a decent backup option, but not a great primary number without voicemail, and not a viable voice option if you are avoiding the major companies.

VOIPo.com VOIP service:
After extensive research into the VOIP options, I settled on VOIPo.com, mostly because the price is right and it supports SMS (though it isn't ideal). Now that I have settled into using this as my main number, it has been fine, but it is not perfect and there are minor quirks. Whether or not you can live with these quirks will determine if this is even an option for you. Despite the quirks, some of which aren't the fault of the service itself, it has been a good decision.

The service is solid and has great sound quality, although the lag can become noticeable at times when your connection is less than optimal. The text messaging on the new number I set up has been reliable, but using it is a chore, which I will get into in a moment. Lastly, the support team has been helpful and responsive, not to mention patient with me as I pushed this service beyond its intended use case and had to ask a lot of questions to get this far.

The biggest pain point so far has been the limited options for SIP apps on CyanogenMod. After trying almost everything that was remotely viable and available in the Amazon Appstore and f­-droid.org, I settled on the latest available revision of CSipSimple for a while. Its integration into Android, though, is so lacking that the number of workarounds involved finally pushed me over the edge and back into just using the SIP feature of the Android Phone app. Originally, CSipSimple sounded good because it supports SMS over VOIP, but I could never get that feature to work. The only other reason I was trying to stick with this was due to the fact that I could use it on my CyanogenMod Nook HD, which does not include the default Android Phone app. The one advantage it has over the Phone app is that it puts an icon in the notifications bar to let you know you are connected to your SIP account, which is comforting when you are moving from wifi to wifi hotspot and sometimes in areas when the hotspot may lose a connection. Using the Phone app for SIP, you are left with blind trust, hoping that all is well, or digging into the settings when in doubt to see that it says you are currently receiving calls. After trying to live with the oddities of CSipSimple, though, blind faith in the connection is worth the tradeoff to get proper integration with Android and the Address Book app.

Aside from that, if I am in an area where the hotspot is getting really poor reception, it can be difficult to get a call to go through. It is a minor sacrifice, though, for the freedom to change devices at will, especially since SIP support is much more ubiquitous across all platforms, including the Linux device I want to move to when I can afford it.

As for the text messaging, you have a few options in the VOIPo settings for the feature: "Online Only" where you use the control panel website for texting, "Forwarding" where you have it send to a real mobile number, "SIP account" where it should work with a proper client even though it didn't with CSipSimple, and "Email" where you can have it go to an email address. I chose the latter. It works fine, especially since my mail provider's IMAP support works even better than push with the K-9 Mail app. Apparently, the SIP servers generate a custom email address for each person that you SMS with. When someone texts you, you can just reply to the email and it gets to them as an SMS. If you want to send them something out of the blue, though, you either have to return to a saved message in your mail somewhere and reply to that, or log in to the website and send it through there. Either way, it is clunky, and it leaves you having to return to the good old days and party like it's 1999 by remembering people's phone numbers again. Yay. As far as I can tell, that auto-generated email address never changes once it has been assigned to any given number (or maybe it is just an algorithm based on the number in the first place), so the workaround is to copy the address after you get a text from someone and add it as an email address to their contact entry in your Address Book. It can be a lot of work if you text with a lot of different people, but it will make the whole experience almost as good as a real texting solution again. To be honest, I have not yet done this myself, but I haven't given this new number out to very many people yet, either, so I am only having to remember a handful of numbers.

Speaking of a new number... I originally ported my old Google Voice number into VOIPo in the hopes of not having to give people a new number. The porting went fine, even though it was a week long process (not sure why since Verizon can port a number in about 15 minutes max). I even checked in advance to see if they thought the SMS feature would be supported on this number and they verified it as "most likely, but no guarantee". Well, the texting was not working on that number after the port and they tried everything they could to get it working to no avail. After a week with no texting (aside from the TextPlus backup option), I had to throw in the towel and ask them to set me up a new number that was guaranteed to have working SMS. Once that was tested and working, I set my old number to forward to the new one. I will keep it going for another month or two before I shut down the old number. Meanwhile, I am doing what I had hoped to avoid... giving out a new number and changing my number on every account of every type we have. Oh well, at least my new number is easy to remember. So, if you go this route, just don't even plan to keep your old number and you will probably be better off.

The pricing of all this makes it worth it, though... $36 for a year, plus 1 cent per minute on outgoing calls, and incoming calls are free. When I first signed up, there was a $1 fee to enable SMS and they were going to cost 1 cent per message. Now, they say they aren't charging the fee during the beta period and SMS pricing will be announced after the beta. Assuming they resume the previous pricing, it still won't amount to much per month for my usage, maybe $2 or $3 at most. That's a small price to pay for the freedom to use any device that has wifi and a SIP client, especially for a Linux geek who wants to use devices that won't ever be supported by any major app developers.
Verdict: this is a good option if you are prepared to change up your workflow and deal with some minor inconveniences.

Remain in mobile slavery:
If none of the above options sound tolerable to you, then I hope you are happy where you are because you are going to have to stay there for a while. Let's be honest and just accept the fact that carriers have no incentive at all to do anything to enable the free device utopia we geeks want. If they were to give us our voice service as standards-compliant SIP and make SMS work with SIP or some other simple standard that could be worked into apps, all over nothing more than a data plan, they would have no more chains to lock people into their service. In a world of cheap yet decent devices and data only plans, they would have no more carrots to lure people into their clutches. Pay for only the data you use? Be free to use any device that supported the wireless technology they offered and had a SIP client? Why, then they would have to actually compete on service and support... and we can't have that, now, can we?

So, yeah, you either get to tough it out like I am for the greater good of freedom, or you learn to love your slavery. And if you spend a lot of time on the phone or do a ton of messaging, you are probably better off with your current slavery anyway because the method I have chosen will definitely slow you down a little. Seriously, you really have to be committed to the ideal, or just really itching to try the experiment for yourself to go this route at this point in time. Perhaps the day will come faster than I expect now that carriers seem to be converging on LTE as the common future for wireless service, but I wouldn't do this with any expectation that the situation will improve within the next 5 years.

Summary

Yes, VOIP over wifi by way of your home internet and/or a mobile hotspot can be done, but don't try it unless you are prepared for inconvenience and want the freedom of being able to use almost any device as your phone badly enough to outweigh that inconvenience. The up front cost and pricing need to be considered as well. It cost me less than it might cost you since I had ways of reducing the costs by way of the discounted data plan as an add-on to my wife's account and the free hotspot by virtue of having Best Buy points to spend. In the end, the only up front costs for me were the $3 number unlocking fee from Google, the $10 SIM card, and the $36 yearly subscription to VOIPo. The monthly cost is the $10 for data and probably an average of $2 per month for usage on the VOIPo account. We will assume you already have a phone capable of using a SIP client, but you would have to spend anywhere from $45 to $100 for the hotspot, $10 for the SIM, $3 to unlock your Google Voice number, $36 for a year of VOIPo, $20 per month for data if you don't already have a T-Mobile account you can add this to, plus whatever usage you accrue on the VOIPo. In that case, you might actually come out cheaper just starting a Ting account instead.

If you aren't discontent with Google enough yet to make it worth all this hassle to abandon Voice, at least keep these options in mind, and maybe do a little testing yourself in the near future, because we are already seeing signs that Google may be losing interest in Voice. And we all know what happens to Google products when they lose interest.

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20 replies
omr6535

I've been searching for some replacements for Google Voice due to its lack of timely updates and reliability. Thanks for the ideas!
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sivkannan

I too looking for some replacements for google voice
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Cynic13

I've been using VOIP on my cellphone for several months, with the T-Mobile prepaid $30/month 5GB data plan. voip.ms is much cheaper and supports SMS for most DIDs. They charge $1-$1.50/month for US DIDs, 1 cent/minute for US calling, 1 cent/SMS.

voip.ms allows very flexible SMS handling including forwarding, e-mail, and "URL Callback". Forwarding is great except that forwarded SMS messages make you the sender of forwarded SMS messages... so you have to figure out who sent it, and you can't reply.

That's one irritating downside. But the bigger downside of VOIP on a cellphone is call quality. There are two issues - first, as you move from WiFi to cell network, or from one WiFi network to another, your call will drop. The second is call quality. While VOIP telephony is very low bandwidth - like 8Kbps - it critically depends on quality of service configuration. If you happen to use a WiFi network that doesn't have a QoS engine enabled, call quality will be unacceptable.

There are big upsides - particularly the incredible flexibility of call handling. You can have your cellphone number ring your home and office, too; you can filter numbers and send some to voicemail or "disconnected" messages; you can change rules by time of day; you can set up interactive voice response; and more. And international landline calls are in many cases under 1 cent/minute. My two home numbers are also on voip.ms and I have Cisco VOIP phones everywhere, with each configured as an extension in the network. The total cost is $30 for T-Mo and about $8/month for voip.ms including DIDs and minutes - for three numbers and seven devices.

voip.ms e-mails you a WAV file with messages, but you can also dial in for traditional handling. I still use Google voice - but only as a voicemail service because its transcription facility is terrific.
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groovechicken

Sounds good except the SMS. The only thing that makes this setup remotely viable for me is that I can just hit reply in my email client to SMS people back. If that wasn't working, I would have lost patience with the sum total of workarounds. Thanks for adding that, though, I will look into them
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mike82346

I have been using voip.ms as a GV replacement and have found it more than acceptable. Using the TMO $30 plan gives me plenty of data to handle my calls and I use CSipSimple with the g729 codec which gives me good stability and low bandwidth calls. I do not bother with sms through voip.ms but use an over the top app like textfree or upptalk which gives you a REAL number to use. Yeah, that means a different number for sms vs voice calls but considering I am a low volume texter, it is not a problem.
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Cynic13

You could also use your underlying "REAL" T-Mo cellphone number for SMS. That works perfectly.

I put a little PHP program up on one of my web hosting services to accept the voip.ms URL callback and display my texts on a web page. That works for me but it's not as convenient as a native SMS client.
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mike82346

LOL!! Now WHY didn't I think of that!! A much more elegant solution. Thanks for the tip.
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TomFoley

It all comes down to available bandwidth in the spectrum, and I personally think there should be a chunk uniquely reserved for community/open source, beyond the sliver at 2.4 or 5.8Ghz. That's CB Radio style nonsense.

A typical iPhone/Galaxy device has an output power of 60mw in WiFi mode. Up to ten times that when on a cell network. For no technical reason except money talks.

By the way, hand-off in WiFi, just like in cellular does not need to result in a dropped call. If the WiFi is meshed, it's transparent, just like cellular.
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mrpriceisright

I agree with many of your points (I'm very data centric myself). I use google voice on my main number, as you did, ported my # to google voice so as not to have to port it between cell companies, am about to move from straighttalk ATT to sprint to get on the framily deal, was previously on VM (sprint), ATT. Like you I would really like to have wifi calling at my second home (no cell signal, but wifi->sat (excede)). I can get by when there by fwding to a magicjack #, but direct wifi calling would be better. I am ok with googlevoice or hangout texting, but mms would be nice. I figure the framily deal will be a better way to go than ting, ie unlimited texting and voice plus 1GB data for $25/mo, and still use GV. In the office I use callcentric voip (a good business voip service (couldnt port biz # to GV)) texting not an issue on the office #. At home have cable internet only service (data only again (no land line) - pattern?). Im not ready to go data only cell, with the super cheap cell plans coming out, not sure it makes sense. I have seen that sprint has started doing wifi calling on some phones, which I could definitely use. I also need to try the sprint integrated GV app to see what its capable of.
The main thing I am waiting for is the impending new GV/hangouts, which is reputed to solve the SMS issue, since its supposed to come out in the next month or so, may as well wait. I am bothered that GV would be terminating SIP connections, I could definitely use a voip ap at second home. Think I will see what new version brings before deciding to jump ship.
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HpmDoc

If you haven't joined a Framily here is a list of Framilies, if you have joined add your name to the list. framilyplan.tumblr.com
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HpmDoc

Take a serious look at www.upptalk.com previously yuilop. You get assigned your own number of the area code of your choosing and you can make unlimited calls and texts to any phone in the U.S. or Canada! It also works even in 3G/4G areas. There is an app for every platform of phone/tablet. I looked into Line 2, however, the cost of $10/month was too much for my casual need. There are many other great apps that serve the same purpose like Whistle Phone, Skype, Viber etc. however the other person has to have the app or you have to pay to be able to call out even if you are in a WiFi area. Anyway, I have Upptalk now and it works fantastic. It's like having an extra phone line for free.
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mike82346

upptalk has some serious limitations when used with GV. 1) sms won't forward to upptalk from GV. 2) Calling your GV Voicemail won't connect if using upptalk. There may be others that I have not discovered yet. upptalk simply is not GV friendly.
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MyNameInLights

Thoughtful and well laid out. Thank you for sharing your experience.

With that said, I have to take issue with your comment - "If we dropped all that legacy baggage and did all the voice as VOIP and treated the text messages as just data (that's all they are anyway), we could just pay for a data plan and have everything we need with only one meter for the providers to charge against. Plus, we would get the advantage of those services working over wifi when we are home or at work and not getting charged for them at all. The only reason this hasn't happened yet (and may never at this rate) is due to the profit levels cell providers are addicted to."

I work for one of the major carriers and I can affirm that it is not a case of "being addicted to profit" from the current model. Indeed our goal and other carriers' goal is to roll out with VoLTE (Voice over LTE) and do away with the legacy voice network altogether. It is the underlying existing technology (currently a mishmash of various platforms) that prevents mass roll out of wireless VoIP. You kind of eluded to this fact, but seem not to understand just how large of an undertaking this is. Even if the carriers had the money, the manpower, and time - equipment is in short supply. AT&T and Verizon have maxed out the production capabilities of their suppliers, so their wait times are 4-8 months or longer. In the meantime, they have capacity issues to address immediately.

As for Google Voice - I think it may actually improve once carriers install VoLTE. A wild guess for sure, but it seems a lot of the friction would be removed. Given your experiences, I think I'll stick with Voice for now. Even if I did want to share pics over my phone, I've found too many times the size and resolution prevents the other person from sending/receiving anyway. So I tell everyone to send pics to my email address instead. Inconvenient for sure, but I get the pics I want.
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groovechicken

Thanks for clarification on that point. My comment was more aimed toward the fact that most carriers would not like it if the protocols were capable of switching to wifi and not using cellular data that could be metered and charged against. I am strongly suspicious that the reason carriers are hesitant to switch to pure metered billing is that profits will go way down since most people use a tiny fraction of the usage they pay a flat rate for and the abusers would tone down their use once they had to pay for every bit. Therefore, the carriers would have to face the decision between taking less money or charging egregious amounts per bit to maintain current levels. I know which of the two I would place a money bet on. ;)
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Aruba19

My major gripe was that Google Voice no longer works with my OBi device. Nothing like spending money only to have what you paid for made useless... BUT, I found a work-around that suits me. It's not free like GV but it's so cheap it's just pennies a day.

I found Vestalink voip service meets my needs. It's almost a drop-in replacement for Google Voice and replaces my home phone nicely. ( www.vestalink.com­/­#­_l­_fz )

VestaLink works on Android and Apple devices as well as my OBi. It rings all my phones at once if I want it to, has E911 service, and lots of nice call treatments and privacy options.
The makers recently included SMS functionality and it also allows me to spoof my outgoing call number to match any other phone number I own.

They offer a free month but I decided quickly that it was worth using and ported my long standing Google Voice number. I love it. :-)
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Cynic13

Without commenting on vestalink vs voip.ms vs ringcentral.com vs pbxes.com vs ... - a big hurdle for VOIP is ensuring decent quality-of-service. Because of the "net neutrality" stupidity, if you or a neighbor happens to be streaming a video, your phone might not work. If you want VOIP to be reliable, stand up to "NN" and expose it for the foolish notion that it is.
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Aruba19

Isn't THAT the dying truth! But until we live in a perfect world with a perfect web, we do what we must. The solution I outlined happens to work for me. Other folks mileage may vary. But it's a dead cert nobody will find workable solutions unless others tell their experiences and what they tried.
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dootdoot

So we know there is an obscene amount of data collection is going on by phone carriers. And I think we can figure that on some [secret-ish] level, Google has known about it for a LONG time. Does anyone know if, or agree that maybe, Google Voice originated as a way to obfuscate data when it because clear that mobile carrier data practices were getting out of hand?
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groovechicken

Well, Google Voice originated as GrandCentral, and Google bought them, so I don't think that theory can hold any water. I am actually coming around to the idea that Google is a clandestine unit of the NSA and Facebook is a unit of the CIA. It makes as much sense to me as any other reasons I have heard for the way they operate.
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dootdoot

Thank you kindly for your input! I'd completely forgotten about GrandCentral. After initially agreeing that it invalidates the theory, I quickly started to feel like it hardly does at all. I suppose it depends on what the approach was, and how strong the feeling was, if the theory could be feasible at all.
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