Ask Maggie: On cutting data costs and making video calls

Ask Maggie is a weekly technology advice column tackling readers' questions about mobile and broadband products, services, and issues.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
8 min read

There's no question that smartphones such as the iPhone or Google's Android phones have changed the mobile phone market forever.

No longer are cell phones just for talking. People text message on their phones. They IM each other, check e-mail, search the Web, and even navigate on-the-go, thanks to these sophisticated phones.

Ask Maggie

As cell phones move away from a voice-centric world to one dominated by the Internet, consumers now more than ever are looking for service plans to fit their specific usage patterns and needs. A one-size-fits-all solution no longer satisfies most wireless subscribers today.

Over the past few weeks, I've received several emails from readers asking me how they can avoid paying hefty data service fees tacked on to their bills from wireless operators. Some want to use Wi-Fi exclusively. Some want to know how to skip paying for voice service altogether and only subscribe to a data package. And others simply want to know how they can access cool new applications like video chat.

I've taken a sampling of these questions and answered them in my weekly Ask Maggie advice column, which tries to answers CNET readers' burning questions about all things wireless and broadband related.

I'm always looking for more questions, so if you're stumped by a wireless or broadband issue, please let me know. Send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Video Chat

Dear Maggie,
I want to upgrade to a smartphone. After talking to a Verizon sales rep I think the Motorola Droid X will be an excellent choice for me. I have read many of the different reviews on the Droid X, including yours, but one line in your article has me concerned and seems to be in conflict with information Verizon told me.

In your article, "Verizon keeps unlimited data for new Droid X," you say, "The only thing that seems to be missing (from the Droid X) is the front-facing camera that is on the iPhone 4.

One of the apps I spoke with Verizon about using was the Skype app. This was so I could Skype with my daughter. Verizon has been advertising this capability for the Droid. If there is no forward facing camera on the Droid X, how can one utilize the Skype app?

Can you help me?

Dear Lee, I hate to break it to you, but there is no front-facing camera on the Droid X. That doesn't mean that you can't use Skype on this device. You can still use the IM feature and the Internet calling service. You just can't make video calls from your mobile phone over Skype.

In fact, the only phone that offers video chat via Skype's application is the Nokia 900. The company won't say when other phones will get the capability, but it's clear something that is coming. So stay tuned.

If video chatting from your mobile phone is an important feature for you to have now, there are options other than Skype. First, you need to find a phone with a front-facing camera. The HTC Evo on Sprint's network or Apple iPhone 4 on AT&T's network each have front-facing cameras.

Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha has said publicly the company plans to launch new Google Android phones this year that will have front-facing cameras for video chatting. Based on Verizon's relationship with Motorola, I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of these new phones makes it to Verizon's network.

As for apps, you can download a free video chat app from Fring. It allows Android phones and the iPhone 4 to make two-way video calls using a Wi-Fi network or a carrier's 3G cellular network.

Apple has also developed a video chat application specifically for the iPhone 4 called FaceTime. This application requires that users be in a Wi-Fi hotspot. It also requires the person on the other end of the video chat to also be using an iPhone 4 in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

CNET's Jessica Dolcourt, who is a senior associate editor for CNET in charge of testing mobile apps, checked out the Fring two-way calling app on the iPhone 4 and compared it to Apple's FaceTime. She said that Fring's video chat "doesn't even approach FaceTime in the arenas of design, video quality, and audio quality."

Cutting data service fees down to size

Hello Maggie,
I am a current AT&T customer in California that has somehow avoided the temptation to go down the iPhone route for various reasons including:

I just do not see a justification to pay $30 a month for a data plan when wireless is available everywhere, at home and in the office in my case.

I am not a big fan of signing long-term contracts with cell phone companies.

However, I recently purchased an Apple product, an iTouch, and I have fallen in love with it. I do everything on it except make and accept calls and text messages. I now have to carry my old phone, a Palm Centro, and my iTouch everywhere and I'd rather have one device for all my needs.

So my question is if I purchased an unlocked version of the iPhone 4 from a supplier in Canada, cut my existing SIM card down to a micro SIM card size using the Cut My SIM device, will I be able to use the iPhone on my existing AT&T plan only as a phone for receiving/sending calls and text messages, without having to be charged for a data plan? I could use Wi-Fi for any of my data related needs.

I have been trying to figure this one out for a while now and thus, I would greatly appreciate your insight and suggestions.

Kind Regards,

Dear Edomyas,

I understand your reluctance to sign a new contract and pay for data service. But the truth is that it's going to be difficult for you to avoid paying for data service.

You are correct that you could use the Cut My SIM device to chop up your existing SIM card to make it fit into the iPhone 4 micro SIM slot. I have not tried this myself, but I have heard about people doing this.

The tool, which is made of stainless steel and looks like a small stapler, perfectly cuts a GSM SIM card to fit in to a micro-size tray. It also comes with a "special SIM card holder" so you can go back and use the SIM again in a standard GSM phone.

But the real problem for you is not using your existing AT&T SIM card, but avoiding the data subscription fees. AT&T requires all smartphones, including iPhones, regardless of whether they were bought unlocked or not, to subscribe to a data service.

AT&T can detect smartphones on its network, and it can slap on the additional data fee even without you agreeing to the fee. There is a chance that AT&T may not notice you are using an iPhone with a regular SIM. So you could try it and see what happens. Many users have complained that the carrier figures this out and simply starts charging for the data.

If you want the iPhone but don't plan on using much data, you might want to consider signing up for the $15 a month plan, which gives you 200 megabytes of data per month. Otherwise, you might simply have to stick with the iTouch and Palm Centro combo. Sorry!

Thanks for your question.

Deciphering AT&T's new data fees

Dear Maggie,
I read with interest your post regarding data plans and smart phones. We recently bought a Samsung Jack for our son primarily because we wanted the bar phone style, QWERTY keyboard, and Wi-Fi. We were somewhat dismayed when AT&T hit us with the $30 per month data plan. When we questioned it, stating that we did not want it, they told us we had no choice. When their system senses that a customer has a smartphone, they automatically tack on the expensive data plan. Is there anything we can do about it?


There isn't much you can do to avoid paying for a data service plan if you are using a smartphone. As I stated in an answer to an earlier question in this column, AT&T can detect when a smartphone is being used and because the company requires those types of phones use a data service, they can charge you for the service.

That said, you should be able to choose the data package that you want. In June, AT&T began offering two data packages for smartphones. The $15 package offers 200MB of data per month, and for $25 users can get 2GB of data per month. The $30 all-you-can-eat unlimited plans no longer exist for new customers. So I would call an AT&T rep or go to the company's Web site and make the change to the least expensive plan. If your son doesn't plan to use the data service much, then he will be fine with the 200MB plan.

The other option is to buy a new phone that is not considered a smartphone. In a previous Ask Maggie column I provided a few examples of phones offered by AT&T that do not require the $15 data fee.

Good luck!

Ditching voice

Dear Maggie,
I want a smartphone without voice or texting, just a Web browser. To put it another way, I want an iPad that will fit in my pocket or an iPod Touch with 3G. I'd be fine with paying $25 or $30 a month for data. Is there such a thing? Is there anybody who sells a data plan without the voice and texting?


Dear Keith,

AT&T does not allow you to buy an iPhone without also subscribing to a voice service. So simply having an iTouch with 3G data access isn't really possible. All iPhone subscribers must also sign up for a voice plan.

But lucky for you there are a couple of major U.S. carrier that do offer smartphones without requiring a voice package: Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA. For example, you can get the new HTC Evo on Sprint and sign-up for an unlimited data package with no voice minutes for $29.99 a month. The service allows for some outgoing calls at a cost of $0.20 per minute for local calls and $0.40 for long distance calls. All incoming phone calls are blocked. 911 outgoing and incoming calls are not blocked.

Sprint also offers data-only service for other phonesincluding the BlackBerry Bold and BlackBerry Curve, Palm Pre and Palm Pix, HTC Hero, and Samsung Moment.

T-Mobile allows its BlackBerry subscribers to get a data-only service which costs $39.99 for unlimited Web and email without a two year contract. Under this plan, subscribers pay full price for the device. With a two-year contract and subsidized phone, you can get the unlimited Web and email only service for $49.99 a month.