How I ditched my voice plan and went data-only

One year ago, I decided to take my iPhone data-only. No voice plan. No texting plan. Just sweet, sweet data.

I don’t like paying for things that I don’t use, and I rarely use the telephone part of my iPhone. That is, I don’t make many voice calls over the cell network. So I figured I could save some money.

I looked around for data-only smartphone plans in Canada, but couldn’t find any. The carriers don’t seem to offer data without voice.

However, there’s an exception: tablets.

Most of the big carriers are happy to sell data-only plans for use with a data-only device, like a tablet, hotspot, or wireless modem. But can you sign up for a data-only plan intended for a tablet and use it with a smartphone?

Yes. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past year. I use a month-to-month tablet Flex plan from Bell with my iPhone 5. Most months, I pay ~$40/month (tax in) for 5GB of data, and that suits me just fine.

Sound good? Here’s how I got it all set up, and some of the workarounds I’ve found that make living data-only a little easier:

Getting a SIM card

Bell Nano SIM

To pull this off, I first needed a Nano SIM card for my iPhone. Bell sells Nano SIMs off-contract for $10, but I’d heard that if you ask nicely, the Apple store gives them away for free.

Sure enough, when I visited my local Apple store and asked for a Bell Nano SIM, they gave me one. I didn’t have to sign up for a contract in-store, or provide any personal information. Easy.

Setting up a new account

To sign up for Bell’s tablet flex plan, I had to set up a new account. Honestly, I would have preferred a prepaid option, but the flex plan (with its desirable tiered pricing) was only available on a post-paid, month-to-month basis.

Setting up a new account was simple. I telephoned Bell (on Jenna’s phone), asked for the tablet Flex plan, and read them the ICCID from my newly aquired Nano SIM.

Because Bell was running a promotion at the time, they waived the usual $35 setup fee, and offered me “worry-free” (no overages) data for $5/month for the first two months. Bonus.

Shortly after hanging up with Bell, I popped the Nano SIM into my iPhone, and was happy to see that everything worked with zero on-device configuration. Nice.

Secret Bell phone number

A side note: despite signing up for a data-only plan, my Bell Nano SIM does have a Toronto-area 647 phone number associated with it. I can place and receive calls, and send texts to and from this number. But I don’t, because calls and texts are billed by Bell at high rates ($0.40/min and $0.20/text in 2013), and I have better, cheaper workarounds (see below). That said, it’s nice to know that in an emergency, I could make a good old-fashioned telephone call.

Speedy data

In my everyday use, Bell’s LTE is fast. This is typical:

Speedtest

Bell’s top flex plan tier gives me up to 5GB/month — way more than I’ve ever actually used (outside of the first two “unlimited” months, when I went crazy). Data costs $10/GB if I ever go over.

Yes, tethering works just fine, with no additional charges. This is especially handy when Via Rail’s on-board WiFi just isn’t cutting it.

Workarounds: Voice Calls

Like I said, I could make calls over the Bell network, using the number associated with my SIM. But that would defeat the purpose of going data-only, wouldn’t it? Instead, I make voice calls from my iPhone using a handful of alternatives.

For calling “regular” phones, I use Acrobits Softphone for iOS, configured to use a SIP account through VoIP.ms. I ported my local Toronto phone number to VoIP.ms in late 2011, and haven’t looked back since. This SIP setup lets me place and receive voice calls easily, and never uses Bell’s voice network.

I also have a Google Voice account, which I sometimes use for longer outgoing calls. Google’s Hangouts app for iOS lets me dial regular phone numbers directly.

Finally, for calling other iPhone owners, I use Facetime Audio. It’s baked into iOS at the system level, the audio quality is very good, and it works well on both WiFi and cell data networks. I agree that Facetime Audio is Apple’s biggest little feature addition in iOS 7, and I look forward to its debut on the Mac in 10.9.2.

A small Facetime Audio wrinkle: Since Facetime on the iPhone is associated with your iPhone’s telephone number, and since my iPhone has a Bell-issued number that I don’t use (and don’t want anyone to know about), it’s important that I set my Facetime Caller ID to something other than that “secret” number. I use my email address instead.

I know this sounds overly complicated. Believe me, it’s not. Like I said, I don’t make a lot of voice calls on my iPhone, and for anyone who dials me, my phone number is the same as it’s been for years.

Workarounds: Texting

iMessage has almost completely replaced texting for me. All data, all the time.

When I need to text someone who’s not on an iPhone, I use the Google Voice iOS app, and make sure to preface my message with “It’s Dan,” because my Google Voice number is US-based.

A texting wrinkle: Weird things happen when people text my local Toronto (416) number. Because my SIP provider doesn’t support incoming SMS messages, texts often turn into voicemail messages featuring a text-to-speech robot. In the future, I may switch away from VoIP.ms to another SIP provider that supports SMS, like Anveo.

Conclusion

It took a bit of work to get set up, but a year in, living data-only works well, and saves me money.

My ideal wireless carrier would act like a dumb data pipe, and let me pick and choose the services I run on top of it. With a data-only tablet plan, I get as close to that as possible.

As always, your mileage may vary.