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TextNow just unveiled unlimited free calling and texting -- but data is an optional extra

This is actual cellular service, not just Wi-Fi. And it might be ideal for old phones, young kids and low-income families.

- 04:09

TextNow's free plan affords unlimited calls and text messages using actual cell towers, not Wi-Fi. There's no data included, but ask yourself if you really need it.

Rick Broida/CNET

One could argue that a phone without a data plan isn't good for much, but that's not really true. Remember voice calls? Yep, still a thing. And text messaging? Just as important these days. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi is all but ubiquitous, so I'd argue that you can get by pretty well without data -- and save a ton of money in the process.

See, a data plan is the single most expensive part of operating a mobile phone. And that's what makes TextNow's new offer so compelling: You can get unlimited ad-supported calls and text messages absolutely free. There's no data included (more on that below), though calls do rely on voice-over-IP. Virtually all other apps that allow free calls and messaging (Google Voice, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, etc.) require Wi-Fi or a traditional data plan.

So, for example, if you've got an old phone lying around and want to keep it active as a backup, here's a totally free way to do that. Similarly, you could give a phone to a kid or other family member who just needs a way to keep in touch, without the added expense of a monthly bill.

Read more: The best budget phones for 2020

Just to be clear, any phone running TextNow's free plan can still do app and internet things; they'll just need Wi-Fi to do them.

Who's paying for this free lunch?

As noted above, this is an ad-supported service, one that operates on Sprint's network. Those ads take the form of banners within the TextNow app and occasional videos (some with sound) that appear after a call. You'll also see full-page pop-up ads, though only once per day at most, according to a TextNow spokesperson. 

If you want an ad-free experience, you can pay $9.99 per month. That also nets you voicemail transcription and unlimited photo and video history. 

As for data, TextNow offers two options: 2GB per month for $19.99 or unlimited for $39.99. Those rates are competitive, though if you want a plan that includes data, there are cheaper options. Tello, for example, offers 2GB for $14 per month, while Unreal Mobile gives you 3GB for $20. Both included unlimited calls and messages, same as TextNow.

Of course, maybe you just want data for a month or two at a time, after which you can always revert back to the free plan. As with most smaller carriers, TextNow requires no contract.

There are TextNow apps for Android and iOS; the free plan is available on both platforms. You need a Sprint-compatible phone and SIM card; if you're missing the latter, you can buy an activation kit for $9.99. TextNow also sells a variety of refurbished and lower-end phones, a few of them priced as low as $59.99.  

Does it work?

I pulled an old Motorola Moto X4 out of a drawer. Luckily, it had a compatible Sprint SIM card, though I did encounter a handful of issues with TextNow setup. First my account wouldn't activate. Then calls wouldn't go through. It took a little hoop-jumping, including trips to various support pages and phone-settings menus, but eventually I got everything working.

And now I have a functional extra phone that's not costing me a dime to operate. When Wi-Fi is available, TextNow defaults to that. When it's not, I can still make and take phone calls and send and receive text messages. The service even includes free calls to Canada, conference calling, voicemail and group texting.

This could be a genuine money-saver for some users and a lifesaver for others.

Your thoughts?

Update 2/4/2020: According to TextNow, this free plan does rely on voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology using Sprint cellular data. It's available anywhere on the Sprint Nationwide Network; you can see the coverage map here. However, data roaming is not included, so your only option for service outside the network would be on Wi-Fi. Here's what a TextNow rep told me: "For most customers, our coverage and service will be indistinguishable from that of the Sprint cellular network, and may actually be better in some circumstances."

Update 2/6/2020: A little further clarification: TextNow does use "real" SMS and MMS, which is important for things like shortcode messaging and two-factor authentication. Said the TextNow rep: "Messaging does run through the app but delivers over real SMS and MMS channels with all the major operators in the US and Canada. TextNow also supports most shortcodes (5-digit numbers used primarily for business-to-consumer messaging and advertising), just like normal carriers do."

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