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what's smarter than a smartphone?
having all the fun, getting more options, paying less
by jeffrey d. walker
pop culture

A hand held device that can do practically everything used to be reserved for people like Dr. McCoy and Dr. Who. But these days, smartphones bring science fiction to life.

I've been slow to bite. Sure, I've been envious every time one of my friends on AT&T publicly diddled their iPhone in front of me. I've tried not to drool, and reminded myself that I was a happy Verizon customer who couldn't have such things anyway (sure, there were other options, but the iPhone was the Apple of my eye).

And then, at last, the iPhone was coming to Verizon. And science fiction was destined to be in the palm of my hand!

And then reality set in.

First off, Verizon ticked off my pregnant wife when she got her new phone recently when upgrading. I won't get into all that, but needless to say, I was miffed due to her being miffed.

Second, if you missed the seventh word in that first reason, my pregnant wife means I have a new mouth to feed in the next couple of months. And so, my disposable income is going down (right when my desire for data goes up).

And third, if for nothing else, I always love a chance to try to game the system.

And so, the challenge was to have all the power of a smartphone, in particular the iPhone, only have it cheaper. This meant using a non-traditional means of service (i.e. not AT&T or Verizon).

In order for this to work, as it has for me, you need to first review your usual cellular habits. For example, when I looked over my Verizon voice plan charges, not once had I used anywhere near the 450 minutes per month I pay for with Verizon ($39.99/month minimum talk plan).

I use my cell mostly in short bursts - coordinating with friends, double checking grocery lists with the wife, etc. The other main use for my cell phone is for work, traveling to various courts around New York's southern tier. Typically, if I'm having a longer conversation, I do it at home or in the office.

I do, however, engage in a bit of texting ($5 a month texting fee suits my needs usually). So, the voice charges and texts I had with Verizon should add up to $44.99 a month; however, my bill was never less than $55 a month after adding on taxes, the 911 charge, "Fed Universal Service" charge (what?), and, the occasional errant Canadian text.

I'm not saying these charges are bad, but they weren't great for my needs. And, to have the Verizon iPhone, you have to kick in for mobile data - a $29.99 mandatory for "unlimited" data. So, if I went with the iPhone at Verizon, the total monthly charges would be no less than $74.98/month, or, $899.76/year (pre tax, 911 fees, and other charges).

AT&T's iPhone is a little less (since they are now desperate for customers who are flocking to Verizon). Currently the iPhone at AT&T requires a two year contract with AT&T's minimum data service starting at $15/month - but more on that in a minute.

AT&T’s cheapest voice plan is also $39.99/month, and text packages from the website start at $10.00/month. Total for AT&T is $64.99/month for the cheapest data package, totaling $779.88/year (not including taxes and other charges).

So, technically, $64.99 a month is the price to beat. How'd I do?

First, how I did this: How do you get an iPhone without service?

You'd pay $499 for the 8GB iPhone new from Apple without a contract. However, an iPod touch runs $229 new (there are also deals on refurbished and used models). An iPod touch can do everything an iPhone can do for the most part, except make cellular calls. However, that doesn't mean it can't make calls using VoIP protocols (such as Skype, Line2, or several others).

This strategy was not invented by me: (See this CNN report)

My plan was to use an iPod* and a portable internet hotspot (in particular, I chose the Virgin Mobile MiFi2200, with 3G data available for $10 for 100MB of usage for 10 days). I could use a free texting service, and basically only pay the data costs while avoiding the voice and text charges.

Intended total: $10 every 10 days for 365 days a year = $365 per year.

Great deal, right?


Three issues arose with this plan.

1) VoIP programs do not allow 911 calls. Not that this is essential, but if there was an emergency, what would you do?

2) I soon found out that a VoIP call using a hot spot while wizzing along at 65-70 MPH may not be as clear as you'd like. Put it this way: you know when the internet "hiccups" and freezes your download for a second before restarting? Yeah, that's ten times more annoying during a phone call. Moreover, I found places where a traditional cell call works, when 3G does not. Ergo, relying on this method exclusively cut my talking area down.

3) My car's Bluetooth speaker would not recognize an incoming VoIP call as a call and answer. (Outgoing worked ok, but for the delays mentioned above). And, since using a cell phone while driving is illegal, if my Bluetooth won't work, I'm breaking the law.

I needed a way to use a cell when I wanted (in the car and in remote places), but still be able to use the VoIP when it was convenient.

Enter, Google Voice

Google voice lets you choose a free phone number (or, in my case, I ported my old and well known Verizon number to Google Voice for a one time fee of $20), and then, you have the option to forward your calls anywhere you want. FREE!

When I'm at home, my home phone can ring. I can choose to have my office phone ring at work. If I want, I can ring to a free VoIP number on the ipod and talk on that if I have a good solid 3G connection (the app I'm using is "TextFree with Voice", which permits free texting and all incoming Voice calls are free). This way, calls that would have been to my cell can be ported anywhere.

Next, I signed up for a prepaid cell phone from Tracfone. For only $21.59, I got an old Motorola flip phone, with 140 minutes of voice calls, active for just short of 5 months. It has Bluetooth, so if I'm in the car, I can set Google Voice to ring to the Tracfone and use it there.

This had another unintended benefit: Now, if I want to walk over to the local store, or take my dogs around the block, I can still get calls on the Tracfone and not have to carry the ipod and the MiFi if I don't want to.

Here's the neat part: Let's say I'm at home and I answer a call on the Tracfone (or, I was walking the dog and only had the Tracfone when outside), but I notice that it's going to be a long call and I don't want to burn the Tracfone minutes. One of the features of Google Voice allows you to switch phones mid-call as long as the call was incoming. In other words, I can push the * key at any time when the call came in on my Google Voice number on my cell, and any other phone I have will ring, allowing me to pick up and continue the conversation with the other party not knowing anything happened. And so, I can push * on the Tracfone, ring to my "Textfree with Voice" account, and hang up the Tracfone, continuing the call with no more minutes being used.

I did this tonight at the house when I was watching Netflix on the iPhone (so awesome to do this at home, in airports, anywhere) when the Tracfone rang my Google Voice number. I answered on the Tracfone and decided to chat (my boy Rocko), and so I shut down the Netflix App and fired up the Textfree / Voice App on the iPhone, then hit the * button on the Tracfone. I burned only one Tracfone minute during the transfer, and Rocko had no idea anything happened.

The Tracfone is cheap, but not poor in quality. I found it got coverage in many nooks and crannies that 3G wifi would not. I also tested Tracfone against my Verizon phone before canceling Verizon's service, and found that the voice calling coverage was about the same for both. And, the Tracfone also solves the 911 problem. The only possible drawback is when you decide to call out directly from the Tracfone instead of using Google Voice; your friend are wondering who is calling from this strange number.

As to quality, nothing against calls on the Tracfone; however, at home or on a steady network, the TextFree / Voice calls sound more realistic (like a real person instead of a compressed phone line). Textfree helps by having a red / yellow / green indicator to let you know you call clarity based on signal strength even before dialing.

Slightly more complicated? Sure. Cheaper? Well, so far, with regular usage, I've burned 35 minutes in my first 15 days with the tracphone. For arguments sake, let's just say that I average double that monthly -- 70 minutes every 15 days, or 140 a month.

Assuming I used that much, my monthly costs would total: $21.59/month (new Tracfone each month and minutes) or, $259.08/year. Adding this to the above yearly Mifi costs from Virgin Mobile ($365/year), and I'm at $624.08/year, or just over $52/month.

That's less than I was paying Verizon for standard voice and text!

Moreover, that's over $12 a month savings over AT&T's lowest possible rates. And, about that -- the $15 rate is for only 200MB a month which, if exceeded, an additional 200MB is automatically "provided" at $15 per additional 200MB. In the first month with the Virgin Mobile MiFi, my total data usage came to 337 MB, which would have netted me another $15 on my AT&T bill. Really, I saved over $27.

At that rate, the same iPhone benefits to me are available at a savings of over $324 a year.

And that's just cost savings. There are many other benefits - other features of Google Voice, including personalized greetings for different people or groups, conference calling options, multiple call and text forwarding options; you can see videos of other free features here.

Also, consider that the Virgin MiFi also acts as a hotspot for up to four other devices at the same time as your iPod (or iPad), something AT&T's version of the iPhone can not. The fee to tether your AT&T iPhone to a single laptop jumps your data charge with AT&T to $45 a month (yikes). On Verizon, the new iPhone is supposed to be able to act as a hotspot, however, I have not been able to uncover what this costs. No matter what though, I'm getting a lot more in savings since I can hook up five total devices to the Virgin Mifi for the same low cost.

Not to mention, a frequent complaint about the iPhone is that it's actual phone is susceptible to dropping calls, or is otherwise poor quality (while the video, apps, and other features are good). In my setup, I'm taking the phone part out of the iPhone for the most part unless I choose otherwise. Not to mention, I have no problem browsing the web and chatting simultaneously.

A careful consideration of your current cellular and text usage may be required before going nontraditional on your iPhone plans, in order to make sure you'd actually be saving. But with a little effort, you, too, may be able to have all the benefits of the iPhone at a reduced rate. That's what I call a REAL smartphone.

* instead of having to use an iPod touch, a friend who upgraded to the iPhone 4 on AT&T gave me his old and non-contracted iPhone 3G to use on this experiment. Thanks, Chris Horton for making this possible! Also, thanks to input and consideration by Intrepid's own Russ Carr.


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker


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daniel castro
2.18.11 @ 12:45a

Sticking it to the man.

alex b
2.18.11 @ 5:38p


tracey kelley
2.21.11 @ 7:57a

With my Pooh-tech brain, I don't understand half of what you've done, but good on ya.

russ carr
3.21.11 @ 1:01p

Interesting developments over the past 24-hour news cycle: AT&T buys T-Mobile, and Sprint announces that it is integrating Google Voice.

jeffrey walker
3.21.11 @ 2:23p

Google voice really is the bomb. Even since writing this, I've discovered all sorts of other crap I can do with it -- i.e., call from ANY phone number and still have it read as if calling from google number. killer!

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