CELL-A.jpgf7567083-5d33-48a9-8777-6fc08b369f42Larger10,000 years ago, the average cost of communicating with friends and family was zero. There were no phone bills, no cell phones, and no post office. Since extended families all lived in the same geographical area, there was really no need for these things. Somehow it worked, and friends were able to meet-up without calling each other 20 times from their cell phones. “I’ll meet you by the big rock when the sun is at its highest point in the sky” was sufficient planning.  Life was good

In the modern world, despite the often great distances separating us, once again it is possible to communicate with friends and family for free. With our own family and friends spread around the United States and in Taiwan, our communication costs were nearly zero while still in the United States, and the tools and methods we used have carried over seamlessly to life on the road. The only difference is we no longer have an internet bill for the home DSL connection

Google Voice
At the core of our free communications scheme is Google Voice. Google Voice has many features, but there are two that are critical (One Number and SMS to Email) and one that is a bonus (Voicemail transcription.)

When you sign up for Google Voice, Google gives you a standard phone number.  This is your “One Number.”  From this day forward, this is the only phone number that you provide to friends, family, and business associates, regardless of what your home, cell, or work number may be.  When the One Number is dialed, Google Voice simultaneously calls all of the phone numbers you have provided.  In our case, this is zero.  You just answer the phone that is most convenient and you are connected to the caller, seamlessly.

If a SMS / text message is sent to the number, the SMS to Email features sends that message as an email to our inbox. From there, we can view and reply to the message just as we would to any email.  Our response is then sent as an SMS back to the original sender

Last (and least), if somebody leaves us a voicemail, that mail is transcribed to text and sent as an email and a text message. It works about as well as one would expect, which is not well at all, but 99% of the time I can understand the intent of the voicemail without having to listen to it.

To the world, it looks like we have a cell phone. Total cost: $0

From any web browser, a quick launch of www.gmail.com displays all of our email and SMS messages. There is nothing special about this, it works the same as if we used outlook.com or yahoo.com

What is special is that whenever the One Number is called, it will ring in the browser as well. Click on the Answer button and suddenly you are in a phone call using your laptop as the microphone and speaker. It is also possible to dial out, which is free to any US number

Total cost of phone calls: $0

Hangout / Skype / FaceTime
Google’s Hangout, Microsoft’s Skype, and Apple’s FaceTime are all similar, in that they provide a free way to have voice and video calls with others that are also on a computer, or on a device that supports these applications.

Why 3 different tools? Because people have their preferences for each and don’t have access to all. So we talk to my brother via FaceTime, a few friends via Hangout, and Winnie’s Mother and most friends via Skype.

It’s amazing what it is possible to do when communicating using any of these tools.  For example, using FaceTime we were able to talk to our niece about how she broke her leg while sledding, and even see the cast.  It was almost like being there

Total cost of video calls to friends and family: $0

Talkatone is an app for iOS and Android that is a Google Voice client, just like the one embedded in Gmail. When anybody calls the One Number, it rings in the Talkatone app on your iPhone or iPad or Android phone even if you have no data service. It works purely over WiFi, eliminating the need to have any cell service at all.

Since free WiFi is available nearly everywhere we went in the US (home, the library, the grocery store, various restaurants, friend’s homes, etc…) we could answer calls and respond to messages on the go. What if somebody called while we were in an area that had no WiFi coverage? Send us a text or leave a voice mail (which will be transcribed and sent to us as a txt) and we will get back to you. When was the last time this happened? Never. Despite the number of people that talk loudly on their cell phone in public places, it isn’t a requirement.  Yes, Mr. Loud Mouth over there in the coffee shop, I’m talking to you.  Most of our friends just text anyway


On the road, even in the dankest, back water, hole in the wall town, there is public WiFi in many public squares, and WiFi in the majority of restaurants. In Mexico, it’s easier to find free WiFi than to find (free) clean water. Apparently one is a requirement of life and the other is just a convenience.

Total cost of phone calls and messaging on the go: $0

WhatsApp is another app for iOS and Android, that allows one-to-one and group messaging. It’s basically free SMS / text messaging. It’s all the rage in Asia, and Winnie uses it to keep in touch with all of her friends in Taiwan

Total cost of messaging to Asia on the go: $0

If you are reading this post, you know what Facebook is. It’s a great way to stay on top of the lives of friends and family through the regular photo updates.

Total cost of a continuous update of life photos: $0

Internet cafes
Not everyone in the developing world has their own computer, so internet cafes are everywhere. We have yet to use one, but in most places we have walked past in Mexico the cost to rent a computer for an hour is only 10 pesos (About $0.80.)  Email, Skype, Hangout, and general internet access are included

Total cost of all communications tools: 10 pesos per hour

Prepaid cell phones
We do carry a cell phone, although it has only been used once. We bought a Nokia 100 voice and text only phone for $319 pesos (~ $25, one time expense) which included 200 pesos of calling / texting credit. This will last us the whole time we are in Mexico. We’ve provided this number to family to call in case of emergencies. We have also given it to new friends in Mexico so they can text us to invite us out, although this has all been done via email and Facebook to date.

Total cost, when amortized over the life of the phone:  ~$0

Mail / Post
I always loved checking the mail in the US, to see what the post man had delivered. Grocery store flyers, credit card offers, a coupon to get my hair did, a catalog for farm equipment, and the occasional 20 lb copy of the yellow pages. With only 2 exceptions, in the 2 years before our departure we received nothing of value via the mail. This is probably because it is 2013, and every agile organization on the planet has evolved.

The 2 exceptions: the IRS and the USCIS, two of my favorite government organizations, whom I would happily provide an email address so they could contact me more efficiently and with lower cost to the environment

Total cost of communicating via paper/dead trees:  $0
Total cost to the environment from moving all of those dead trees around in gasoline powered trucks: ???

Update: We now use Traveling Mailbox as our mail solution, so as not to burden friends and family. My review.

The World for Free
All of these tools make it possible to talk to anyone, from anywhere, for free.
Voice, Video, and Text, live or at your convenience, all free. The world, for free.
Once again, life is good

There is still a lot we can learn from our ancestors.  Instant communication with anybody from anywhere for free is wonderful, but none of these tools or devices are necessary.  There are people standing right next to you, and knowing them could enrich your life.  No message is so important that its worth risking your life; put down the phone while you are driving.  And there is a whole world out there, away from the screens and devices.  Go explore

Now if you will excuse me, I have some adventures to attend to. Please leave a message using your preference of any of the tools mentioned above or in the comment box below, and we will get back to you at our earliest convenience. Beeeepppp.