Can you ditch your smartphone data plan for Wi-Fi?

With so much free Wi-Fi around, it would be great if wireless operators allowed people to chuck their smartphone data plans. In Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why that will never happen.

Wi-Fi is just about everywhere these days, so why do you still have to pay an arm and a leg for pricey 3G and 4G wireless data service from a carrier if you want to get online from your smartphone?

This is a very good question. Now that every smartphone on the market comes with Wi-Fi capability built-in, some frugal wireless customers are wondering whether they can subscribe to a voice-only service and use Wi-Fi instead of a costly data plan to access the Internet.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain why the major carriers don't offer such a plan for their customers. And I offer some advice for getting around it. I also explain why carriers don't allow their basic feature phones and quick messaging devices, which don't require expensive data plans, to offer Wi-Fi. I'll give you a hint to my answer: It comes down to wireless carriers wanting to squeeze as much revenue out of their customers as possible.

Why can't I buy just the services I want?

Dear Maggie,
I know that Verizon Wireless makes you get a data plan with any smartphone purchase. The question I have is, once your two-year contract expires can you drop the data plan and continue using your old smartphone on Verizon? The phone then would be used for voice and text. And I could get Internet access on Wi-Fi only. Is this possible? Can Verizon, or any other carrier, prevent a user from doing this?

Thanks,
Angel

Dear Angel,
The short answer to your question is that Verizon will not allow you to only subscribe to voice if you're using a smartphone. Unfortunately, the company requires that you sign up for data service, too. In fact, each of the four major wireless providers requires that you sign up for a data plan if you use a smartphone on their service, whether your device is fully paid for or not.

The reason for that is simple. These wireless providers don't make money on voice service anymore. The real money is in data. In fact, that's why you see AT&T and Verizon offering the unlimited talk and text messaging services for a flat rate while they charge more for different levels of data.

The truth is that some wireless subscribers would do just fine with a voice-only service on their smartphones, so long as they could still access Wi-Fi. And since Wi-Fi is available in so many places now, it probably wouldn't be that difficult for these folks. And it would save them a ton of money.

But that is the last thing that the major carriers want consumers to do. They need more of their subscribers to sign up for data plans. And they need those already with data plans to use more data so the subscribers can pay more money. It's the only way wireless operators will be able to increase revenue.

That said, all hope is not lost for people who really want to forgo a carrier data plan on their smartphones. There are ways to do this, but there are catches. Unfortunately for you, it's not really possible to do what you're asking on Verizon Wireless. But if you were to switch to a GSM carrier, such as AT&T or T-Mobile, you should be able to pull this off.

The reason why is that Verizon is a CDMA carrier. And this service does not use SIM cards in devices. So to activate a phone on Verizon's network, you need to tell the carrier to activate the device. That's not the case with a GSM phone. On an unlocked GSM phone, you can simply pop out the SIM card and put in a new SIM card to activate service.

You can do this to switch carriers or to get local access to a wireless network while traveling. It also allows you to pop in a SIM from your same carrier that is provisioned only for voice. For example, lots of people will sign up for a voice-only service with a basic feature phone or as part of a prepaid service on AT&T or T-Mobile and then put that SIM card into the smartphone. If you turn off the carrier data on your smartphone, your device will only use voice services. And your wireless carrier won't likely discover that the device you're using isn't a feature phone.

That said, there are instances in which a carrier finds out that a subscriber is using a smartphone on a service provisioned only for voice, and it then forces the customer to pay for a data plan.

While this work-around has worked for some consumers, it's getting a little trickier to pull off as more and more smartphones are now using microSIM cards instead of standard size SIMs. Regular SIM cards can be cut down to fit into a microSIM slot . But it's an extra step in the process.

This solution may work for you, but you likely won't be able to use your existing Verizon smartphone on AT&T or T-Mobile. (The one exception is if you have a "world" phone from Verizon that has already been unlocked. If it's unlocked and it is compatible with GSM networks, then you could use a SIM from one of these carriers.) Otherwise, you will have to pay for an unlocked smartphone at full price.

Another option for you is to sign up for a prepaid service that uses Verizon's 3G network. Some of them allow you to use Verizon devices, and then you can sign up for a voice service only. If voice-only services aren't available, you can get one that has very minimal data. For example, PagePlus is a prepaid carrier that uses Verizon's network and charges $29.95 a month for 1,200 voice minutes, 3,000 text messages and 250MB of data per month.

There are other prepaid services that use Verizon's network, so you'd have the same coverage that you have right now. Wal-Mart has the Straight Talk service, which uses both Verizon's and AT&T's networks. But unfortunately, you can't take your old Verizon phone to the Straight Talk service. Instead you have to buy a new device from the service.

If you're willing to ditch Verizon and any of the other major carriers, you could try a new service from Republic Wireless , which costs only $19.99 a month for unlimited talk, text, and data. The carrier buys and resells capacity from Sprint Nextel's network. But it also uses Wi-Fi networks. And because it uses Wi-Fi to carry the bulk of its data traffic, the company can offer such a low-cost service.

The company launched a beta version of its service about a year ago. But it was quickly so overwhelmed with users interested in the service that it had to shut down. It relaunched its beta service earlier this year. And starting next month, the service will be available to anyone.

The only catch is that, at least for now, it only supports one device, the Motorola Defy XT. That device is available for preorder now and costs $249 (plus $10 activation fee). Other smartphones will likely follow. And there's even a chance that eventually, customers will be able to bring their own smartphones to the service. But for now, it's just the Motorola Defy XT.

I'm sorry that it's so complicated to get the service you actually want. I'm hoping that some readers out there can also contribute their thoughts on this topic and share their experiences as well. So be sure to check back here for the reader comments. Good luck!

Wi-Fi-enabled feature phones?

Dear Maggie,
I just read your article on "Back to cell phone basics: Buying a non-smartphone." My husband and I are looking to get new phones but we don't want to get caught up in the smartphone mania, mostly because of the high cost of the data plans. Are there any non-smartphones out there that can allow access to local Wi-Fi without requiring a data plan? We are currently with Verizon and like their service. We have also thought of just buying iPod Touches, but don't like the idea of carrying around two devices.

Thank you for any advice you may have,
Deborah

Dear Deborah,
Unfortunately, Verizon doesn't sell any Wi-Fi-enabled feature phones. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find any quick messaging or feature phones that include Wi-Fi. Wireless operators would likely tell you that these phones don't include Wi-Fi because it's too expensive to add the Wi-Fi chip. And customers who want these devices are usually cost-conscious.

But I doubt that is the reason. Verizon and the other major carriers make more money from data services than they do voice services. And they want as many customers as possible using data services. Right now, they don't require customers with these "basic" phones to have a data plan even though the phones are able to access the Internet.

If the carriers allowed these devices to have Wi-Fi built in, then many customers, such as yourself, might opt out of the data plan and instead use Wi-Fi when it's available. This would eat into the carriers' revenue stream too much.

What this means for you is that you could follow the advice in my first question and try to get a smartphone, which will have Wi-Fi, at full price and use a SIM card for a voice-only service. Or you could get a separate Wi-Fi device. The iPod Touch as well as some smaller tablets like the iPad Mini, Nexus 7, or the Kindle Fire are good alternatives. But as you mentioned, it does mean you'll be carrying around two devices, one to access the Internet when you're on Wi-Fi and the other to take phone calls.

I'm sorry I don't have better news for you. Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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