Will WiFi calling ever be enough?

Scratch Wireless Wifi

In recent weeks, MVNOs have been in the limelight, due to marketing efforts by their brands and parent networks. Mobile virtual network operators — companies that offer their own brand of mobile service, while running over the networks of the more established carriers — are meant to offer a differentiated product, compared with the bigger networks. MVNOs often provide a cheaper service than the bigger brands.

A few examples are Republic Wireless, Freedompop  and Straight Talk, among others. Many of these MVNOs offer prepaid services, which enables users to better monitor their usage. Some offer more unique services, however, like Truphone, which is actually marketed as a global roaming SIM, compatible with a variety of carriers around the world.

Sprint recently launched its Scratch Wireless service, which offers free and unlimited talk and texting service through WiFi. The business model deviates from the usual mobile contract. With Scratch, you buy the phone outright ($269 for the Motorola Photon Q QWERTY-slider phone), and service is free henceforth, at least if you will be sticking with WiFi.

The service comes with unlimited texting on cellular, but if you want to make calls or access the Internet, you will need to be connected to a WiFi network. Outside of WiFi, however, users can buy cellular minutes or 3G data in bundles. The $1.99 bundle gets you 25MB or 30 minutes good for 24 hours. The $14.99 bundle comes with either 200MB of data or 250 minutes good for 30 days.

Do you spend most of your time connected to WiFi?

According to Sprint, the average user in the US spends about 80 percent of their time connected to a WiFi network, anyway. For those times when you need cellular connectivity, the add-on bundles are just a few taps away. Users can activate these through a dedicated app, and the amount will be debited directly from their registered credit (or debit) cards.

There are, of course, pros and cons to this arrangement. Being an IP-based system, Scratch Wireless calls and texts will be free and unlimited regardless of where the user is in the world. You can be roaming in other countries and still make and receive calls and SMS using the same number.

The obvious disadvantage, of course, is the limited connectivity while outside of WiFi coverage. What if there’s an emergency back at home, and your folks can’t reach you, for example? SMS is still free, but sometimes text messaging is not enough.

And as for data, isn’t mobile connectivity the point in getting a smartphone in the first place? I would want to be able to get notifications for chats and emails while on the move. One might miss a few notifications if my phone does not have access to the Internet in between home, school or the workplace, for example.

App alternatives

Users who would rather not use services like Scratch Wireless do have alternatives, in the form of mobile apps and networks such as Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and the like. Most already offer free calling within network, and users can also make calls to regular telephones through SkypeOut and ViberOut, if necessary. Google Voice and Google Hangouts could also be a good alternative. These already offer free calls and SMS to US numbers. Why not just get a cheap prepaid data plan and use VoIP for calls and messaging?

The difference, of course, is the fallback mechanism. With services like Scratch Wireless, you can be reached through the same number whether you’re on WiFi or cellular — assuming, of course, you are communicating via SMS or that you have a voice bundle activated.

Is there a market?

Services like Scratch Wireless do have a market. Users living in the city are likely to have good enough coverage through WiFi. It’s a good deal for students on a budget, who most likely have WiFi connectivity in school and at home, anyway. It could also be a great backup phone, especially for people who frequently travel internationally.

It’s certainly not for everyone. But for people who would rather not spend 60 bucks a month for calls, text and data, this would be a good deal. Now if Sprint, et al, could only enable this service for more devices other than the Motorola Photon Q (a 2012 device!).

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