Still Living without a Cell Phone

About 11 months ago, I embarked on a cellularless voyage:

  • October 9, 2012: I cancelled my AT&T cellular plan (~$80 a month) in favor of a free WiFi-only existence ($0 a month).
  • October 31, 2012: I wrote about the first few weeks of this experiment in Living without a Cell Phone.  
  • Shortly after that post, I broke the iPhone 4 that I was planning to use as my primary device. Having been impressed with Apple's refresh of the iPod Touch that year (5th gen), I decided to give it a try.
  • Early November 2012: We moved to Austin, Texas. I led a WiFi-only lifestyle for a couple months. Being in a new city, I quickly learned that the most difficult aspect of such an endeavor is not having access to mobile navigation.
  • January 2013: I almost missed an interview (that landed me a job), because I couldn't figure out the directions I wrote on a piece of paper. Around that time, I purchased a FreedomPop Photon hotspot, settling for the 1GB / $10 a month plan.
  • Present day (end of September 2013): Still rocking the FreedomPop and iPod Touch (5th gen). Still relying on Talkatone and Apple's communication suite: iMessage, FaceTime, and now with iOS7, FaceTime Audio.

It's been 355 days since I cancelled my phone service. Although I ultimately buckled from my WiFi-only aspirations, at $10 a month (plus a $99 deposit for the hotspot) FreedomPop's solution is cheap and fits my needs perfectly.

While it works great for me, it's not for everyone...at least not right now. If the main reason you own a cell phone is to make and receive calls, and your livelihood depends on that functionality, I can't recommend this type of solution with today's technology. While I make or receive the occasional call, the audio is prone to cut out or sound garbled with these apps on my iPod via this hotspot, especially when using some form of transportation. I was hoping that iOS7 and FaceTime Audio would push the experience forward, but in the field it works about the same as Talkatone (somewhere between pretty good and pretty terrible, the determining factor being whether or not you are using some form of transportation).

The main driver of getting the hotspot was to help me navigate the maniacal roadways of Austin. The Maps app is a substandard experience on the iPod (it's always been that way).  It works but you have to manually swipe through directions. Couple that with a hotspot connection that drops when moving, and what you get is something that is not particularly safe to use while driving.  Even if you're just navigating as a passenger, it's frustrating. I know my way around Austin, so I don't use Maps on a daily basis.  Just like making calls, if you rely on Maps to get you through the day, I can't recommend this solution.

It's important to note that a contributing factor of these experiences is the iPod. While it's a great device all around, VoIP calls and maps/location services suffer because it's not a phone.  I'd be interested to try my experiment with a new iPhone, or a Moto X, or any other top-tier Android phone, and see if using that type of hardware improves the experience over the iPod.

These apps and devices will improve, the experience will too.

So what about people that don't rely on making calls?  Like an increasing number of us, I find myself talking less and less on my mobile device, instead relying on text, image, or video-based communication methods. Making a phone call is my least preferred method of communication, so not having a bonafide "phone" isn't a big deal.  If this sounds like you, I urge you to consider this experiment.  It's fun to orchestrate and put into use.  It feels like having a treasure map and a compass.  And it's cheap.

When people ask me what phone I have, and I say, "I don't have a phone," they're like..."Huh?"  Everyone is entranced in the smart phone market and their next upgrade. No one seems to consider these totally viable alternatives.  For a lot of these people, those that find themselves using less "minutes" or making fewer calls, it's more than just an alternative, it can be an exciting lifestyle change.

If you have a question or comment, feel free to reach out or leave something in the comments section.



Living without a Cell Phone

On October 9th, 2012, I fulfilled a two-year cellular service contract with AT&T for an iPhone 4.  For most customers of the cellular spectrum, the end of such a contract is a time to rejoice as their options to upgrade to the latest and greatest phone are once again unleashed. However, for me it was a time to rejoice not because I had the "subsidized" opportunity to grab the iPhone 5 or similar-grade Android phone, but because I could finally institute a diabolical plan I had been thinking about for months.

I would no longer have a cell phone.

Instead of upgrading to the latest phone for $199 and another two-year contract, I upgraded to a much better service all together--nothing.  No contract.  No subsidized device.  No data.

Huh?  You don't have a phone?  What do you do if, if you get a text message?  What if?  What if?

What if...what?  I remember a world where cell phones did not exist.  People got along fine.  They just didn't have a constant connection to everyone and everything.  We called a business for their hours, or a friend to see if they were home, before we left the house.  We had to plan ahead.  And when in a pinch, we used pay phones.

In today's world, we use cellular towers and our data plans to do all of these actions on the go.  It is convenient, but expensive.  Over my two-year contract with AT&T, I ended up paying close to $2,000.  So the actual cost of that iPhone 4 and contract was well over that initial $200 price tag.  And for what?  So I could post thoughts on Twitter, photos on Instagram, and check into the world of email (which is already a damn drag) whenever I pleased?  What if I could reduce that amount to zero, I thought.  

$0 per month.  

I had been using Google Voice for some time, which allowed me to send and receive calls and texts from a computer.  Apple has their iMessages and Facetime services, which allow for text messaging and video calls to be made between iOS and Mac devices via WiFi.  Figuring I was tech-savvy enough to pull it off, I decided to wait my contract out and cancel my services with AT&T at that time.

So here I am, three weeks into my cellularless life.  Has my life ceased to exist?  No, not at all.  If there is any direct impact, it is that I find life more peaceful.  While I can only connect to the internet when on WiFi I can now connect to the rest of the world in simpler terms, in ways I forgot (having lived with a cell phone for the last ten years).  When riding as a passenger, you notice trees and buildings and life.  When standing in line at a grocery store, you see people interacting, bargaining and helping each other.  It may sound forlorn or trite, but when we open Facebook or Angry Birds to pass a couple moments in a car or a grocery line, we forego a transient beauty ensconced in these mundane experiences.

When I tell people about life without a cellular contract, they ask me, "How does it actually work?"

Like I mentioned, I've been using Google Voice for a while.  Google Voice is (currently) free to anyone with a Google account, and it ties directly into your phone's messaging app and call function.  Once my AT&T number was turned off, I quickly learned that Google Voice could no longer forward calls made to my Google Voice number to my iPhone 4.  While I could use it to text (over WiFi  of course), I could no longer dial out.  

For a period I resigned to using Skype for mobile calls, fired up the app and noticed I had about $4 in Skype credit.  About a week later, I happened to tune in live to Know How... (which is a great "how to" show on the TWiT technology network) for Episode 16, Staying Connected without a Cell Phone.  In this episode, hosts Iyaz Akhtar and Tom Merrit walked through a variety of solutions for folks like me going bravely into the cellularless world.  Iyaz showed off an app called Talkatone, which as it turns out was the missing link in my diabolical plan.  (Insert MUAHAHAHA here.)   Talkatone acts as messenger between Google Voice and your phone, allowing you to send and receive calls over WiFi.  Granted, the quality of the audio is lacking compared to a cellular network and the app does have ads, but it all works for free and it gets the job done.

Sure, if someone texts me when I'm driving or anywhere without WiFi, I will not instantly receive the message.  But as soon as I enter a wonderful WiFi zone, I promptly receive that notification.  Instead of posting a hastily-filtered image to Instagram the minute I come across it, I snap a photo and save it for a more thoughtfully-edited #latergram.  If I want to tweet something funny or interesting when I'm not connected to WiFi, and I can't remember when I get back to WiFi, then it probably wasn't worth tweeting in the first place.  I can still do everything I ever need to do with a cellular connection, it just waits for WiFi   While it waits, I do not, I can live and experience the world again.

I can watch people and relationships and birds in trees now.

I've embedded that episode of Know How... below for anyone that is interested in learning more about cutting the cellular connection.