These days having a smartphone means spending $60/month or more for a base package of loads of minutes you may never use, text plan, and a mandatory data package. But what if you could buy just data, run voice over the data plan, and use IM clients instead of text? Well now you can.
There are some pre-requisites for the scheme I’ve tested:
- Unlocked GSM phone that understands T-Mobile 1700/2100 3G/4G plan or a phone locked to T-mobile and supports VOIP or Skype. The VOIP provider must be a true provider and not fake, like Google Voice, that works by using mobile voice minutes instead of data.
- A $25/month Prepaid Simple Mobile plan (or $45/month for more data if needed). Simple Mobile is an “MVNO” that basically buys in bulk T-Mobile service and resells it.
- A VOIP provider if you want to make calls, like Skype or localphone
This isn’t for the faint of heart, it requires some manual configuration changes, reading web sites, and an understanding of how all this fits together.
The Simple Mobile FAQ for its data only plan, which is mainly geared towards laptops and tablets, states:
I don’t own a Tablet, can I use wireless broadband on my smartphone?
While the Wireless Broadband plans are primarily meant to be used on a Tablet, they will also work on your smartphone. Please note that voice calling and SMS text messaging is not provisioned with these plans. The Wireless Broadband plans are for data use only.
To make this work, you need a supported unlocked (or locked to T-mobile) smart phone and a new SIM from Simple Mobile first, then add the $25/month plan. There are multiple ways to get the SIM. You can order it from Simple Mobile’s website for $12.99 or buy it from a number of those small mobile phone shops that are in strip shopping centers or farmer’s markets (they can charge like $25) or buy one from ebay or amazon.com for a buck or two.
When you get the SIM, it needs to be activated on Simple Mobile’s website. To activate it requires paying the first month of the plan. I tried this using a credit card and had problems, probably because of high-fraud rates with prepaid mobile plans. Instead I went to my corner shop and asked for a $25 voucher for Simple Mobile. They just hand you a receipt with a PIN. Enter this into the website instead.
Once activated, you are given a phone number which is all but useless. You can’t use it to make or receive calls or send/receive texts. Remember, this is a data only plan. But you can use the Internet on your smart phone once it’s configured for your device (instructions on their website).
You can now add a Internet-based voice account. These usually cost per-minute for calls placed, but it can be pretty cheap like a penny a minute. So even if you talk for 1000 minutes, that’s just $10. And if you get an incoming phone number, that can include unlimited free incoming minutes. I have been using LocalPhone for about a year now and have two incoming phone numbers, one in US in area code 302, and another in UK. Each costs me 99 cents a month and you can choose which of your numbers is used for Caller ID. So yeah, I have a local number in UK and it is displayed as my Caller ID. You can also use other providers, like Skype if your phone supports it (but it must also support making those calls over data, not cellular voice).
Once your account is set up, on the LocalPhone website go to your account info and find “Call using the Internet” and on that page is info for how to set up calling on your VOIP device. It includes your account ID and password to put into your phone.
VOIP doesn’t use much data, but it does use data. And that data will come out of your prepaid Simple Mobile balance, which is 750 megs for the $25/mo plant. If you run out, you’ll need to add another month of data. If you run out a lot, best bump up to $45/month plan for 2 gigs or think about using their unlimited $40/month data/voice/text plan (although reports are they limit your Internet speed horribly on that plan).
- Simple Mobile uses T-mobiles network, but unlike T-mobile proper, it doesn’t include roaming on other networks. So you only get coverage in T-mobile areas. That includes pretty much all decent sized population areas but if you’re going to visit your relatives in Montana, forget it (the entire state doesn’t have T-mobile service)
- To get 3G (i.e., decent speed) requires a phone that understands T-mobile’s data frequencies.
- iPhones and iPads require a Micro SIM, needs to be unlocked and it will only run at slower 2G/EDGE speeds. Not recommended.
- To do voice, the phone needs to support some sort of VOIP service. That’s going to cost you extra, but not much.
- People can’t text you. Hey, you want cheap, you can’t have everything. Install an Instant Messaging client on your phone and use that for messages.
- There’s other prepaid MVNO plans out there that use other networks, like AT&T, but I haven’t found a data-only plan this cheap and that will work on a smartphone.