Carriers are scared of data-only plans


Take a look at that phone in your pocket. Chances are it’s got a multi-core processor, a gig or more of RAM, dozens of gigs of storage space, and a connection to the Internet that is pretty snappy. By any definition, it’s a computer. I’m sorry if that makes you feel like a geek, but hey, if the smartphone case fits…

Now take a look at the bill that your wireless carrier sends you every month. See how they nickel and dime you for everything? They monitor your minutes, they count your texts, and they even keep tabs on how many megabytes you use each month. Even on an “unlimited” plan (which by its definition means “without limits”) they still track every little bit of data. Why do they do it? Because they can. It gives them power and control over you.

Take a look at text messaging. Until fairly recently carriers charged you per SMS message, or gave you a pool that you could pull from. Once  you exhausted that pool, you had to pay. I had to by 20-cents per sent or received text until just a few months ago. Why the angst against texting?

If you know the how cellular phones work, you know that your device has to “check-in” with the cellular network every so often. That’s how the network knows how to route calls to the tower to which you’re connected. What’s interesting in this little conversation that consists of “Hi, tower, I’m Joe’s phone! Just saying hello!”, “Oh, hello Joe’s phone! I’m tower this-and-such! Glad to have you aboard!” there are an extra hundred-plus spaces left over in that little conversation. Interestingly, there are just enough spaces left over to fill with a phone number and around 140 characters.

Let me put that another way: text messages just fill in the empty spaces in the check-in messages that you’re already sending to and from the tower.

Yup, your carrier just figured out a way to get you to pay for something that it was already doing. How does that make you feel? Ripped off? I don’t blame you.

Data only

picard-uses-androidI don’t use my phone as a “phone” very much. By that I mean that I don’t make or receive a lot of voice calls. Most of my communication is done via chat, text messages, email, or through various social media networks. Put another way, I could do away with using my smartphone as an actual phone.

Since I use Google Voice, I don’t use my smartphone’s texting capabilities. All my texts go over the Internet. (Yes, I know of various use-case scenarios where actual SMS text messages are preferable over data, but you get my drift.)

Which leads me to the recent (failed) experiment I tried to run.

Failed experiment

I have an “unlimited everything” plan with T-Mobile, but all I’m really concerned with is unlimited data. T-Mobile doesn’t have an unlimited data-only plan (at least not one that I could find). Hardly anyone does. To get unlimited data you probably have to pair it with a voice and texting plan, too. Back to T-Mobile and my experiment.

Don't worry, Data. My experiments almost never kill anyone.

Don’t worry, Geordi. My experiments almost never kill anyone.

When the 2013 Nexus 7 was released I waited until the LTE version was available, and I paid a premium for it.  My plan was to take my T-Mobile SIM from my Nexus 4, plop it into my Nexus 7, and I’d be able to use my tablet for 90% of what I used my smartphone for. Since I’m Joe the Android Guy™, I know some stuff, like how to set up VoIP. So, with my unlimited data, a VoIP provider, and a little bit of configuring, I figured I’d be able to ditch my Nexus 4 and just carry one device around with me. Well, one device plus a Bluetooth headset.

It didn’t work.

T-Mobile, in no uncertain terms, told me that my “unlimited data” on my smartphone was somehow “different” than “unlimited data” on my tablet. I argued that any additional data use would be offset by reduced or eliminated voice minutes and text messages, but it fell on deaf ears. I tried to argue that if my tablet had a “phone” built-in, like “phablets” all do, that I’d be just fine, but since my tablet can do less than a “phablet”, I somehow need to pay more.

T-Mobile’s response: “Yup.”

For a few weeks I was upset and frustrated, and not to shy with telling people as much. Then I saw an article about Google Hangouts for iOS, and how with its latest update, Apple users could place VoIP calls using their iOS device and Google Voice account — no complex configuration or finding of a compatible VoIP provider required.

Then it hit me


That’s it! That is exactly why carriers don’t want to offer unlimited data-only plans! It reduces their control! If — look at me saying “if” — when unlimited data-only plans are available, carriers will only have the speed and spread of their network, and the cost of their plan to differentiate themselves from any other carrier. They won’t be able to mix in voice and text massages to confuse us, because that will all be done over data.

What’s more, since data is simply data, with a VoIP provider or Google Voice, you could change your provider at any time. You could change your device at any time. You could swap between a smartphone, a phablet, a tablet, or even a wireless laptop, and no one would ever know. They wouldn’t have to know.

Carriers would begin to compete with others to drive prices down. Eventually you could head to your local convenience store and pick up a SIM with month’s worth of unlimited data as easily as you pick up a KitKit bar and soda.

That’s the real reason unlimited data-only plans are seeing so much push-back and hesitation: carriers are running scared.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.