living off of data

In the Spring of 2011, I was very much jaded by the telecom industry. You buy a smart phone ($80+) and home TV/Internet ($100+) and after almost $200 a month you’re still stuck out in the cold when you want to watch TV on the go or connect a mobile laptop to the internet. 500 channels with nothing on, paying for commercials, double paying for internet, re-runs, dropped calls, and overage charges. All for ~$2500 a year.  And I wasn’t the only one feeling this pain.

What was I paying these people for?

My cell contract was ending soon, so I had a thought: “What if I ran my entire life off of a mifi card?”
Not being a couch potato myself, it was easy to imagine doing this for internet and TV, but using it as a cell phone proved to be a more complex situation. So I began researching VOIP options.

I’ll skip the months of geeky research and just show you what I ended up doing:










So I cancelled my cell phone and had the number ported to Google voice. As far as family and friends were concerned, there was no difference. But I gained the ability to set up rules for my phone calls. For instance, calls between 7AM and 4PM will ring my work phone as well. The caller doesn’t know they are calling my work number and Google voice asks if I want to accept the call. If the call goes to VM, Google emails me the transcript. So I have full control over everything.

But what about data usage/internet speed/video&phone call quality?
My family will be the first ones to tell you that the VOIP calls weren’t that good at first. The phone wouldn’t ring but I’d get the missed call alert. Calls would connect slowly, have background noise and drop after 2 minutes.

I’ll admit, if I wasn’t geeking out on the whole process, I would have given up after a few weeks.

But the apps got better. I eventually settled on talkatone for my only phone app as there others weren’t as good and talkatone slowly ironed out all the bugs. (some still exist, but tweaking the app settings will fix them)

A $40 a month 4G mifi card from Verizon gave me 5GB per month and ensured the phone calls barely made an impact on my monthly usage. Speeds in the Philly area are faster than Cable and DSL, so no issue there.

The real question on data usage was TV. Email, article reading and general browsing proved to be much like the phone calls: barely an impact. I could use them all I wanted and be lucky if I hit 1GB by the end of the month.
Netflix allowed me to throttle down the video quality to ~300MB per hour. (barely noticeable)
After calculating that I should average 160MB per day of data usage, I realized that I could watch about 3-4 45 minute shows a week and still be OK. That was fine by me. In fact, it was a motivator to not watch too much TV.

Verizon also kept me honest as email alerts would let me know that I was 50%, 75% or 90% through my data for the month. I often found that I wouldn’t hit 50% until just before the last week of the month. For a while, this meant watching a couple of netflix movies before the new charging period began :-)

Battery life on the mifi?
4 hours. I found myself being very mindful of how long I left it on when out with friends. Often I’d turn it off and only turn it on from time to time to check for phone calls. But it charges off of USB so charging in the car was easy. I would leave it on all the time at home, in the car and on short trips.

The big snag:
It was kind of annoying carrying the iPhone and mifi card during the summer in my pocket, especially since the mifi could get rather hot. This problem was compounded when my iPhone’s screen began to die. I opened it up and cleaned the screen connector. This helped for a while, but it eventually died. At that point, I had just recently bought an iPad and began using that with headphones as my “cell phone”. It sounds crazy, but it actually works well. Also, I don’t make many phone calls anyway (email, txt, etc.), so the only time it’s a problem is when I would rather have a small device in my pocket.

For that reason alone, I’ll probably buy a “real cellphone” again soon.

…my family will probably thank me.

Would I recommend doing this?
Unless you’re going to geek out on the technology or REALLY need to save money: no.
Also, now that Verizon has to allow tethering for free, it’s probably a better option to just get a smartphone through them. I’m sure the other carriers will follow soon as well. Although I’m not sure how I feel about the new shared data plans.

Edward Romano Written by:

I dabble in, and occasionally obsess over, technology and problems that bug me