Learning about “wifi calling”

Today’s blog article is a “tech” article and it is a “trademarks” article. The main point of this blog article is that probably you should activate “wifi calling” on your mobile phone, if you have not already done so.

For most mobile telephone customers in the US, wifi calling has only been available for a few months. So a reader of this blog may be forgiven for having failed to activate this service before now.

What is wifi calling?

With wifi calling, your mobile phone sometimes uses a wifi connection to complete a voice telephone call rather than using a conventional cell tower connection.  You can read a technical explanation of the technology, called GAN (generic access network) and UMA (unlicensed mobile access) here.

Wifi calling is a service provided by your mobile phone carrier (for example, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile in the US).  My mobile phone is served by AT&T.  AT&T started offering wifi calling in about August of 2016, although I did not pay attention to this development until just a couple of days ago.  When I learned about wifi calling a couple of days ago, I went to my phone and clicked around in the settings.  There was supposed to be a place where I could check a box and my phone would work with wifi calling.  The check box was not there.  AT&T had to “push” an update of my phone’s firmware to my phone, and then the check box became visible.  I checked the box.  Now I can use wifi calling.

To test it, I went to a geographic location nearby to my home where I already knew that AT&T fails to provide usable cell coverage and where I could connect to a wifi network.  I connected to the wifi.  At the top of the screen there was the usual icon telling me that I was connected to wifi, except it looked a little different (see at right).  There was a little “plus” sign in the icon.

I then dialed a telephone number on my phone.  There was the usual green button for me to push to connect the call, except that it looked a little different because there was a sort of wifi icon next to the image of the telephone handset.  (See the screen shot at the top of this article.)

The call went through as normal, to a friend.  I asked the friend to call me back.  My friend called me back, and the call came in as normal.  Importantly, none of this was taking place over a cell tower.  And, importantly, nothing about the way that I placed or received the phone calls was different from how it had been if I had been using a cell tower.

Let’s talk for a moment about how wifi calling might be very helpful to you.

Suppose that in your own home, your mobile phone carrier has only sketchy cellular coverage.  Then wifi calling could give you five bars of signal strength all through your home, using the wifi connections in your home.

The same would be true when you are visiting at your friend’s home where your mobile phone carrier has only sketchy cellular coverage.

But now let’s turn to one of the things that I said at the beginning of this article.  This article is not only a tech article but is also a trademark article.  How, the patient reader might ask, is this a trademark article?

The answer relates to the upcoming INTA meeting in Barcelona.  (You know, the INTA gathering where you will attend the MTB XIII reception on May 22 and the Seventh Annual E-Trademarks listserv reception on May 23.)  While you are in Barcelona, what will you do with your mobile phone?  Will you use the roaming feature of your mobile service in which your American mobile carrier charges you $2.50 per minute for phone calls?  Will you purchase a Spanish prepaid SIM card and use a Spanish telephone number during the time you are in Barcelona?

Or will you use wifi calling?

There are many handy things about wifi calling when you are traveling outside of the US.

Free calling.  The main thing of course is that it’s free.  If you already have unlimited calling minutes in the US for calling US telephone numbers, you will be able to use wifi calling in Barcelona to call US telephone numbers and it will still be free.  Your US friends will be able to call you, and it will be free just as it would have been if you were receiving the call from within the US.  (You’ll want to check this with your mobile carrier but as far as I know, they all offer this service free of charge.)

Same phone number A.  Your US friends who might want to call you on your cell phone while you are in Barcelona will just dial the same phone number they would have used to call you when you are in the US.  If you are connected to wifi at the time that they call, your phone will ring as usual and you can answer it and you can speak with your US friends.  (Otherwise the call will go to voice mail as usual.)

Same phone number B.  You might want to call your US friends while you are in Barcelona.  You simply connect to wifi and dial your friend’s telephone number just the way you would have dialed it if you were in the US.  On your friend’s phone, your call will display with your phone number on the caller ID, just as usual.

On my phone (an Android phone running Marshmallow) I can selectively turn various communications paths on and off.  So for example I can turn on airplane mode which would normally cut off all communications paths.  And then I can turn wifi back on.  In this way I will avoid having to pay $2.50 per minute to receive calls from the US, and I will avoid having to pay $1 per text message to receive text messages from the US.  I will then try to connect to wifi networks whenever I wish to send or receive text messages, or place or receive telephone calls.

Of course I will also be running Whatsapp and Wechat and Line and Viber, so I will have free messaging and free phone calls to all of my non-US friends.  And don’t forget that Whatsapp offers end-to-end encryption and so cannot be eavesdropped upon by anybody along the way.  I will only be using wifi calling for the friends who are not already on Whatsapp.

Have you activated wifi calling on your mobile phone?  Has it helped you by providing a clear call in a place where your mobile carrier has spotty or nonexistent cell coverage?  Has it saved you money during international travel?  Has your carrier confirmed to you that it’s free of charge?  Please post a comment below.

FAQ pages of some US mobile service providers explaining wifi calling:

9 Replies to “Learning about “wifi calling””

  1. I’ve been using WiFi calling for sometime. Primarily while at home where my service is terrible (Sprint). We used to have a Airave – a Sprint device that connected to the net and and acted as our own in-house tower. WiFi calling replaced the Airave (fortunately since the Airave stopped working). At least with my service it ties into my location so that we can do 911 calls on WiFi calling. Works other places too. I have an android S7. Works great.
    Do you think security is a problem at public wifi hotspots?

    1. I think the use of wifi calling does not present an appreciable security risk.

      All of the data packets that pass through the wifi hotspot are encrypted. So a non-government eavesdropper won’t be able to do much more than ordinary IP-address traffic analysis. The non-government eavesdropper won’t be able to decrypt the cellular packets and so won’t be able to figure out what your phone number is or the number of the other party, and will not be able to listen in on the audio of the call. The non-government eavesdropper won’t figure out much more than which carrier you are using (from the IP address of the server).

      The government eavesdropper will be able to figure out who you are (from your MAC address) and where you are (from the location of the hotspot) but would have just as well have been able to figure this out from your IMEI number (cell phone hardware serial number) and the location of the cell tower that you are registered to.

      The government eavesdropper that has the cooperation of the cellular carrier will have access to everything including the audio of the call, but this will have been the case regardless of whether the call is through a cell tower or through a wifi connection.

  2. Wifi calling is still better as its free but if you need to make and receive calls over cellular while traveling, activate TravelPass on verizon or it’s AT&T equivalent and for $10/day use your phone as if you were at home. Same minutes/data limits.

  3. Can you elaborate on how to set this up on an iphone with AT&T service? I have my wifi enabled and everything I know to enable this capability but cannot recall seeing a wifi placed or received call.
    This would be a great feature for making and receiving calls from my kids high school which somehow manages to have a firewall preventing connectivity to all cell networks but has a public wifi (I’m sure this is intentional).

  4. I did now on the computer (previously, I read the link on my iphone and the video didnt’ seem to work there). According to the AT&T web page, I need an iphone 6S or later (7 or SE).

  5. Where is it that you can’t use wifi calling? According to the AT&T web site, you cannot use wifi calling in these countries: China, Saudi Arabia, India, Turkey, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Pakistan, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. Sprint’s list is Australia, China, Cuba, North Korea, India, Iran, Singapore, Sudan and Syria. Google FI’s wifi calling is said to be unavailable in Argentina, China, Egypt, Ghana, India, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, Russia, Senegal, South Korea, Thailand, and United Arab Emirates. According to a discussion group, voice calling on Skype, Whatsapp, Viber or Google Voice is unavailable in Azerbaijan, Belize, China, Iran, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.

  6. Thanks for explaining how wi-fi calling works. I noticed it a few weeks ago but was unable to set it up. I am on AT&T too, so I guess I will have to call them. A good alternative to wii-fi calling is Skype. It will only work on wi-fi, thus not incurring per minute charges, but you need to purchase a Skype phone number, which is very cheap, to make calls to other phones and allow other phones to call you.

  7. I agree with Susan. We were in Barcelona recently and used Verizon’s TravelPass at a cost of $10 per line/per day to seamlessly continue the same data/voice/text plan as at home. In our opinion it was well worth it as we had access to each other, family at home, Yelp, Google Maps, etc., without any interruption. That access made getting around Barcelona very easy and we found some great restaurants using Yelp and location. You sign up for TravelPass before you leave and there’s only a charge for each day that you activate the phone.

    For those of you going to Barcelona, I highly recommend that you take time to see these examples of Gaudi’s work: La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà (La Pedrera). You definitely want to get tickets ahead of time to avoid getting shut out. Also, if you’re not afraid of heights, take one of the tower tours at La Sagrada Familia. There’s an elevator up but 360 spiral staircase steps down.

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