The phone carriers have figured out many ways to lock people into monthly plans that they don’t really need. The most basic example of this is the requirement on all the large carriers to pay at least $30 / month for a data plan for the right to use a smartphone on their network. This isn’t connected with their subsidy of your phone since they won’t even let you buy your own smartphone on eBay and then use it without a data plan. They justify this by saying people will need to use up large amounts of data anyways on their phone, so it is for the customers own good that they’re forced onto a data plan. Is there any reason to think otherwise?
There are some possible reasons why someone might want a smartphone without a data plan. For one, a smartphone is a powerful mini-computer, and people might want to have access to one, even without a constant Internet connection. One can take notes and set reminders, take pictures, and read books, listen to music and play games on a smartphone. Since the phone can sync when in a WiFi area, one can see recent news articles, emails and driving directions even when outside of a wireless area. In fact, since WiFi is so widespread, people often have little need for the data plan since the WiFi access is almost always better. Is it really necessary to have a constant internet connection even during the short amount of time one is away from WiFi? I think there are many people who would be willing to slightly disconnect for short moments during a day, even if it means the phone carriers would be earning $30 less a month. But are there any ways to avoid these fees and still get a smartphone when the carriers are in control?
There are a few possibilities. One option would be to forgo having only one pocket device and get a “dumb” phone for phone calls and a separate “mini-computing” device for everything else. This other device could be an iPod touch, a Galaxy player or a used smartphone. (See this post for an older possibility). If one doesn’t need the very latest technology, there many cheap used smartphones available on eBay. However, it becomes somewhat annoying to have to always juggle two devices. There’s fair amount of overlap between them, so it just seems very inefficient to have to carry two of them. If one is on a GSM plan such as AT&T and T-Mobile, one can buy an unlocked smartphone separate from the carrier and try to use it on the regular plan simply by putting in the SIM card from the dumb phone. However, this may go against the terms of the carrier. In addition, if AT&T can detect it is being used in a smartphone, it will automatically add a data plan to the person’s account. Currently one can avoid detection by making sure the smartphone wasn’t made for AT&T, but even that option might not last forever.
The final possibility is to get a prepaid plan. If you don’t need that many voice minutes, this can be much cheaper than standard monthly plans. The big four carriers all offer some form of prepaid plans, but to get bigger savings you will need to look elsewhere. Some of the biggest prepaid providers are TracFone, MetroPCS and Cricket Wireless. The most important factor is that the provider has good cellular coverage in your area, so make sure to check their coverage map. The next thing to check will be the cost of the plan, of using limited data, and whether they charge more for smartphone usage. If you are on a GSM carrier, you will often be able to put the SIM card in any smartphone that you buy. If you are on a CMDA carrier (like Sprint and Verizon), you will need to buy a phone that is compatible with them and activate it with them. Depending on your needs, you may want to try some very cheap prepaid options. For example, PagePlus, which runs on the Verizon network (and is owned by them), offers a $12 /month plan. Another super-cheap option is PlatinumTel, which runs on the Sprint network.
To save on your paid usage, you could use free or cheap services for calls and texts when in a WiFi area. For example, Google Voice provides free texting from within WiFi and there are many different VOIP providers you could try. By picking a good prepaid provider, you should be able to save a significant amount every month on cell phone bills.
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