Shopping for mobile devices is a curious thing — why do carriers offer data-only plans for the iPad that are cheaper and more flexible than typical plans for smartphones? Turns out that subscribers pay a hefty fee for standard unlimited talk and text and are often trapped into two-year contracts in order to afford their smartphones.
Device plus data packages are usually offered on a month-to-month basis with no contract. It just makes sense. We've compiled a guide to going rogue and getting a data-only plan, with details on how much you'll save, which carriers offer data only, the essential apps you'll need for free talk and text, and what the downsides are.
How Much Will I Save?
Let's take a closer look at Verizon: purchase an iPad, and data will run you $30 per month for 4GB with no contract. The same month-to-month plan for an iPhone (with required unlimited talk and text added on) is $70 per month — that's $480 more per year!
Data-only plans run from as low as $25 per month to as high as $70, but the average user (emailing, web browsing, Instagramming, some streaming) will pay about $35.
Read on to find out which carriers currently offer data-only plans, the available devices, apps you'll need, and what the downsides to cutting talk and text are.
- T-Mobile No Contract — A no-annual-contract mobile broadband pass is available for as low as $25/month for 1.5GB (good for email, surfing the web, and some photo uploads). Power users who typically stream video and music can purchase 3.5GB ($35/month) or 5GB ($50/month) plans. Unfortunately, only Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone devices are available for this plan.
- T-Mobile "Unlimited" Data Only — The two-year contract required for these plans is a major drawback if you want flexibility but a good option for people whose data usage fluctuates from month to month. If you typically use no more than 2GB ($40/month), the Overage-Free Plus plan offers 2GB of data, and reduced speeds of data (less than 4G) after that. It's what we call "kind of unlimited" plans. Choose from the same device selection as the T-Mobile No Contract plan.
- Sprint Relay — In terms of selection, Sprint Relay has the best selection of data-only phones (iPhone 5, Galaxy S III, HTC Evo, and more). The Relay data-only plan ($45/month) is, like T-Mobile, "kind of unlimited," offering 5GB, and reduced speeds after that. All incoming calls are blocked except for 911, and the voice rate is $.20/minute.
- Simple Mobile — This carrier essentially buys T-Mobile's bandwidth in bulk and resells it to customers. Simple Mobile's no-contract Wireless Broadband plan is designated for tablets but will work for any smartphone with a SIM card, too. At 2GB for $45/month, it's not as cheap as T-Mobile's no-contract plan.
- Voice — Facebook Messenger (free) for iOS just added free voice calling to other Messenger users. The ever-popular Skype for iOS and Android (free) adds IM, voice, and video calling functionality. Calls to other Skype users are free. Google Voice for iOS and Android (free) lets users make free calls to any number — but beware, this app can be buggy.
- Texting — GroupMe for iOS and Android works via SMS or push notifications. The app is built for group messaging, but there's direct messaging as well. Imo syncs text and IM accounts like Facebook and GTalk, and WeChat has additional video, picture, voice, and location features.
With all the app setup involved, having a data-only plan requires some technical know-how. Figuring out how to set up a Voice over IP (VoIP) number isn't too difficult, but it takes time to let everyone in your address book know that you have a new number.
And, even when you have a normal number set up through an app like Google Voice, for example, you won't be able to receive emoticons, pictures, or videos or be a part of Group MMS. For iPhone users, however, iMessage will work just fine.
If you create an account on an interactive messaging service like GroupMe, you'll also have to convince friends to sign up for the same service.
Are you going to go rogue and cut talk and text from your phone?