How to not make phone calls with a mobile phone (huh?)

Photo by moriza

In this month’s Wired, Clive Thompson has a very interesting take on the changing nature of cell phone use. Rather than making voice calls, most people are using a variety of asynchronous forms of communication to get in touch with one another. Social networking tools, texting, and instant messaging allow us to remain in “constant, lightweight contact,” saving phone calls for deeper conversations.

I’ve noticed this trend myself, and it frankly leaves me wondering how phone usage has gone down yet phone bills have only managed to go higher. The new iPhone and latest crop of Android phones certainly look great, but all of them require a huge monthly bill for both voice and data (messaging plans cost extra, of course). Is there a mobile plan out there that allows us to skip (or at least reduce) the charge for voice calls?

Surprisingly enough, there are a few solutions.

In the US, Virgin Mobile has recently unveiled a $25/month plan that provides “unlimited” data (capped at around 5gb) and messaging bundled with 300 minutes for phone calls (a $40/month plan includes 1200 minutes). Unfortunately, you’re limited to a choice of just 4 phones, only one of which (the Blackberry Curve) could legitimately be considered a smartphone. Their TV commercials are also exceptionally annoying, which may or may not influence your decision to use their service.

If you don’t need to make phone calls at all, the Peek ($20) and Peek Pronto ($60) might serve your needs. These devices allow you to send and receive an unlimited number email and text messages for only $15/month. Additionally, there’s a Peek Unlimited plan that provides you with a Peek Pronto and service for life for $300. There’s also several apps available that provide access to maps, weather, and social networking sites.

Though it could get a little unwieldy, an iPod Touch coupled with a mobile hotspot (MiFi) device could theoretically provide a cheaper alternative to an iPhone. Unfortunately, data only plans don’t come cheap – in the US, Verizon offers a measly 250MB plan for $40/month (the 5GB plan costs $60/month). T-Mobile offers a $25/month 200MB plan and $40/month 5GB plan. Virgin Mobile offers slightly more reasonable plans that range between $10 and $60, but since it’s prepaid you’ll be paying an unsubsidized $150 for the MiFi device.

UPDATE 8/4 - Clear has recently released the iSpot Mobile Hotspot, which sells for only $100. Their unlimited data plan (it’s unclear from the website if there’s a cap) goes for $25/month, which makes it far and away the best value for money of all the plans I covered in the prior paragraph. Unfortunately, it only works with iOS devices (meaning it won’t work with your laptop) and is 4G only, so you’re out of luck (like me) if you’re not located in one of Clear’s 4G cities.

An alternative to a MiFi might soon be coming from Sprint – Engadget has reported that the company might soon be selling a iPod Touch case called the ZTE Peel that acts as a mobile hotspot. No word on pricing, but since Sprint only has a $60/month 5GB plan, it’s likely to be the same.

There’s a plethora of services out there that bring phone functionality to the iPod Touch, but I’ll wrap up by mentioning the two that I use myself. By signing up for a Google Voice account, you can obtain a phone number through which you can send and receive an unlimited number of text messages, as well as access to a voicemail box (there’s also scads of other features – read this guide by Lifehacker if you want to know them all). There is no iOS app for Google Voice, so access is all done through Mobile Safari. Phone calls can be made using the microphone on the Apple earbuds in conjunction with a VOIP service like Skype. Skype allows you to pay-per-minute or pay a flat monthly rate for calls to cell phones and landlines (Skype-to-Skype calls are free). For US users, unlimited calls within the US and Canada is only $3/month.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 3, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I use skype to send my text messages as i find it easier than using my Iphone as i cna use the full size keyboard and the contacts already in my skype account on the computer. Not sure how the prices compare to standard mobile text message, just find it more convenient.

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