By Stephen Schenck | August 6, 2012 10:07 AM
Back in July, I threw together a few figures regarding some of the shared data plans available from Verizon and AT&T. While crunching those numbers, I got to thinking about the different monthly rates the carriers charge for different devices. On Verizon, for instance, smartphones cost $40 each, while tablets cost just $10. That disparity is explained by the unlimited voice and SMS you get with the smartphones, but for me it really highlighted a big problem with data plans in the US: by-and-large, I’m not too interested in voice and SMS, and really just want to use my smartphone on one of those cheaper tablet plans. I can’t be alone here, so where are all the data-only options?
Just as SMS took the place of voice calls for many users, there are many today dropping SMS in favor of straight-up email or instant messaging through Facebook or any number of competing services. If you really need to make a voice call, there are always VoIP providers you can take advantage of, so why not just take the plunge and go data-only? Well, good luck finding a carrier that’s going to make that easy for you.
Data-Centric Plans Available Now
If you’re committed to the idea of subsidized phones, you can just stop reading here. We’re not about to see carriers stop forcing their very profitable voice and text offerings upon subscribers when they don’t have to. The only way to find anything resembling data-only plans will require you to bring your own device or buying a new one at full cost.
Surprisingly, there are a couple decent options around at the moment, but you wouldn’t know that without looking for them; no one seems too interested in advertising data-only services for smartphones. Some of the best-looking plans out there come down through T-Mobile.
There’s the cheap $30 plan we talked about last fall, when we heard it would be offered through Walmart. The carrier still has it, but you’ll have to do a little work to find it. It’s listed under T-Mobile’s Monthly4G pre-paid plans as a $30 option. It’s not purely data-only, but the 100 voice minutes you still get is a nice safety net for when you just have to call someone; unlimited SMS is another bonus. For data, there’s 5GB at 4G speeds, which is less than many of us use in a month anyway. Altogether, that’s a pretty nice deal for $30, which is a heck of a lot less than most of us pay for smartphone service.
The tricky bit here is getting the plan running on a phone other than the few offered as official Monthly4G models. There a few solid options, but they’re largely rubbish, previous-year models; I want my data-only plan on something like a Galaxy S III. The internet is littered with tales of people having varying levels of success getting this plan activated on other handsets like that, but it’s very much possible, even if it might take a friendly T-Mobile rep’s help.
Even more affordable service is available through MVNOs reselling T-Mobile’s bandwidth. Simple Mobile has a plan that will give you a bit less data each month, but if you can live with 750MB, you can get access for just $25. Again, that’s not exactly advertised as a data-only option for smartphones, and you have to go digging through the company’s FAQs to verify that it will let you put one of these no-voice Wireless Broadband plans on a smartphone. I’m less enthusiastic about the value you get here, but if you’re a light data user, this could be perfect – HSPA+ data for under a dollar a day.
Why Aren’t There More Choices?
So, we have some options, but they’re less than visible, and nowhere as easy to get started with as normal voice service with an attached data plan. Why is that? Well, frankly, it’s not in a carrier’s best interest for you to make the most efficient use of the services it sells you. Every minute you aren’t on a call, every text you don’t send, and every MB you don’t transfer are just money in its pockets.
Look at those shared data plans I wrote about earlier. None allow you to chose from a bank of voice minutes – they’re all unlimited plans. You may know that your family will only use 750 minutes a month, but you’re not presented with that option. Instead, the carriers try to sell the “value” of heavily bundled services. Sure, you could be getting a very good deal out of them if you were to really change your usage patterns, but the fact that you won’t is just what the carriers expect.
The same thing applies to ISPs. I pay far too much for data-only internet access from Verizon each month. Every time I talk to a customer service rep, it seems like they try to up-sell me on one of their bundled plans with TV or home phone service. What they say is true – I’m already paying a ton for internet, and it really wouldn’t cost that much more at all to add these other services – so it must be a good deal, right? Not if I’m not going to take full advantage of all those things, and as I know I wouldn’t, I’m able to resist the allure of the package deal.
Data-only plans don’t allow carriers to over-sell their customers to anywhere near the extent of heavily-bundled plans. The more you get in one “scoop”, the less likely you are to consume it all, and the more money they make.
A couple months back, AT&T’s CEO called the eventual arrival of popular data-only plans from the major carriers “inevitable”. From a user’s perspective, we’d certainly expect that to be the case, since the demand is there. As long as the carriers are calling the shots, though, I wouldn’t recommend anyone hold their breath in the hopes of seeing one arrive.