The hidden cost of Google's free calls

Google free calls
You can now get free calls with Google - but only the other side of the pond in 2010

If you're anything like me, you saw Google's new Gmail voice calling service and thought this: voice calls? How quaint!

The Gmail users who use the new service will be making voice calls, but they won't really be voice calls: like Skype, Google Voice uses Voice over IP to send voice data in much the same way servers send Web pages, MP3s or emails.

It's not a voice service; it's a data service whose data just happens to be voice. And that means Google's service is yet another nail in the coffin of the humble telephone call, something that's not so much dying as building up a mountain of milk bottles at its front door.

Phones have never been so numerous, and yet we're barely using them as phones. They're iPods, or video players, or Twitter clients, or games consoles. According to the New York Times, people are using phones for pretty much anything except making calls. While 90% of households have mobile phones, the number of minutes being used isn't increasing accordingly.

More data on phones

What is increasing, though, is data use. Text messaging increased by 50 per cent last year, and in 2009 the amount of data used by mobile phones surpassed the amount of data used for voice calls.

I'm surprised it took so long. I barely use my phone for voice at all - although that's partly because it's an iPhone, so making calls isn't exactly its strong point - and when I look at my remaining voice minutes the number has more digits than a lottery winner's cheque.

I'd much rather have a data-only tariff, with voice calls transmitted via Voice over IP, treated like any other data use and deducted from my monthly bandwidth limit.

That's where it's going, but I doubt it'll be cheap. The phone companies agree that data is the future, but they're not too happy about it - which is why in recent months they've all started to remove the word "unlimited" from their data plans.

It's also why they're all rather unhappy with the idea of Net Neutrality - which, interestingly, is something Google doesn't think should apply to wireless networks either. With voice revenues in free-fall and data use exploding, don't be too surprised if the networks launch an all-out assault on net neutraility. Talk is cheap, but the cheaper it gets the more likely we'll pay for it in other ways.


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Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.