The Sprint and Google Voice Debacle

by Dave Michels
In a surprising move last March, Sprint Mobile and Google Voice announced a partnership which resulted with mutual endorsement of each other’s services. The surprise came from the fact that the mobile carriers have not really embraced Google Voice. And for a good reason, Google Voice supplants many of core mobile carrier services, and reduces the carrier closer to a commodity service.

Specifically, a Google Voice user tends to broadcast their Google Voice single number instead of their carrier assigned number. This makes switching cell phones, for a day or forever, pretty simple. Google Voice users also bypass carrier voice mail services which are, in a primitive way, a carrier money maker. Mobile providers use voice mail as a means to rack-up minutes with painfully slow prompts and ridiculous (page this person?) options as a means to extend the call (both when the message is left and retrieved). Also, Google Voice users can make international calls from their cell phone using cheap Google minutes instead of the carrier’s exorbitant rates. So a mobile carrier embracing Google Voice is not a natural fit.

Presumably, Sprint felt aligning with Google would attract enough new customers to offset these losses. And Sprint needs new customers – assuming AT&T; and T-Mobile merge, Sprint is suddenly the industry weakling. Google probably jumped at the opportunity to be legitimized by a carrier, so a parntership was fostered. But Where’s the beef? there wasn’t much meat behind the partnership as just about every aspect of Google Voice was already available to Sprint users (as well as most US smart phone users on any carrier). The new part, in addition to actual endorsement, was Sprint users could make their Sprint number a Google Voice number without porting – though there were few details to explain this miracle.


Oops, Forgot Something – or Did They? 

Sprint bills are actually increasing – and its not the bill belonging to the Sprint Google Voice user either. It’s the bill of the person who had the unfortunate luck to receive a call from a Sprint Google Voice User. The problem has to do with Google Voice numbers not being mobile numbers. So if Joe used to call you for free under a mobile to mobile calling plan, and Joe took advantage of this new partnership and sill called you (from his same Sprint mobile and Sprint mobile phone number) the call is no longer free to Joe. This was communicated by Joe’s (surprise!) bill after all those calls.

Now this restriction is not new nor limited to Sprint. I use Google Voice with T-Mobile, and when I call within my family plan, it is not a free call. I can make it a free call by telling the GV app not to send my Google Voice number as the outbound CallerID. Unfortunately, the setting is an all or nothing (or ask every time) option – there is no way to set it to specific contacts. I always understood this, and I consider it one of the major disadvantages of Google Voice. But it’s a reasonable rule as it isn’t just a matter of outbound callerID – it’s how the call is placed. Calls can be placed over the cell carrier’s network, or over Google’s rented network – and the outbound calerID is the clear indicator of the path taken.

What Changed? 

The difference between forever and now is Sprint endorsed it and invited their customers to set up Google Voice with their current Sprint Number. Sprint spelled-out the benefits and didn’t require a number to change. From the Sprint GV FAQs:
What are the benefits of signing up for Google Voice on my Sprint phone?
Sprint and Google Voice are working together to give you ultimate control over your phone experience. With Google Voice on Sprint, you get all of these awesome features and more:
  • One number for all of your phones– Now you never have to miss another important phone call. You can customize your Google Voice settings so that when someone calls your Sprint number, it will ring all of your other phones and even your computer! (Learn More)
  • Custom voicemail greeting based on whose calling you– You also have the freedom to set up custom voicemail greetings for your friends, family, and colleagues. (Learn More)
  • Voicemail that acts like email– You can have your voice messages transcribed and sent directly to your inbox or sent to your phone as a text message. (Learn More)
  • Call Screening– Not sure whether you want to answer a call? With Google Voice you can listen to a voice message as the caller is leaving it and pick up at any time (or not).

How does this affect my Sprint Phone Bill?
It doesn’t. You don’t pay extra for the Google Voice features, and your text messaging, monthly minutes, and calling features don’t change.
You will still be billed by Sprint for the airtime (minutes) you use for all domestic and international calls. You can sign into your Sprint account to check the number of airtime minutes you have left for the month.
Google Voice on Sprint Basics

Misrepresentation? You be the judge.

Sharp Pointy Stick Questions
1) The root of the problem is the fact that Google Voice numbers are recognized as landlines by the national number database. Why? In January 2011 Google finally announced it would allow customers to port numbers into its service. Just one catch, only mobile numbers need apply. “Today, we’re excited to announce that Number Porting is available for all existing Google Voice users. This means you can make the mobile number you’ve always used your Google Voice number…we currently are unable to port landline numbers.”

I always assumed this had something to do with mobile-to-mobile porting restrictions. Google Voice is a virtual number service, but it’s more mobile like than landline like since it supports SMS. So if it is actually considered a landline, why not support landline porting?

2) I don’t understand the problem. The announcement of the partnership stated “Sprint customers will be able to use their existing Sprint mobile number as their Google Voice number…This basically gives Sprint customers all the benefits of Google Voice without the need to change or port their number.”

What did Sprint do? Is the number ported or not? It states above the new service prevents the need to port, but the issue is the Google Voice Number is a landline number, not a mobile number? What’s going on here?

3) Really this could not be forseen? Sprint is trying to earn goodwill and embrace new technology, but nowhere in their FAQs or explanation does this issue come up?

4) When is Google going to get serious about Google Voice? This is a major screw-up, tarnishing a major step forward with two steps back. All we have is help forums, and from the looks of them, they are not too helpful. GV Product Manager Vince Paquet personally chimed in on the forum and basically says get used to it. He was referring to the behavior of the service, but also seemingly referring to poor support, no explanations, and lack of seriousness of this highly popular service. I could not help but notice Google Voice was once again absent from the Google I/O conference agenda (where the serious stuff gets covered).

Related: Google’s Gag on Voice