What Life Is Like For A Smartphone User Without A Data Plan

Guest author Tim McCormick is a product developer & writer in Palo Alto, CA interested in publishing, learning technology, and urban innovation.

In How To Drop Your Data Plan And Keep Using Your Smartphone, I explored how you can use a smartphone effectively while paying little to no phone charges. Now, here are some observations on what I’ve learned about the consequences and benefits of this low-cost, carrier-free smartphone approach.

poster by 2wenty, Los Angeles. Photograph by Julie Faith, 2011. poster by 2wenty, Los Angeles. Photograph by Julie Faith, 2011.

1. Always-on, ubiquitous Internet connectivity is rarely necessary

In fact, I often prefer access to be intermittent and discontinuous. Mobile phones and particularly smartphones have well-known addictive propensities, which are fueled by constant connections. Intermittent connection counters that, and makes you defer or drop tasks that require Internet, which is a helpful encouragement to prioritize or triage tasks. Without a live connection, you can more easily move to a more reflective, observing state, and choose other activities such as focusing on work, reading, meditating, or actually seeing the scenery out the train window.

Intermittent connectivity helps to automatically counter one of the key behavioral problems with the Web and mobile tech: the so-called “buffet table problem.” That is, when you have seemingly infinite more options to explore, like an endless buffet table, you tend to keep foraging, hoping for better options; rather than stopping, sitting down, enjoying and digesting what you’ve already gathered. In combination with “save it for later” behaviors (see #6), not-always-on connections help you stop and absorb what you’ve already gathered.

2. You might want to limit, pause, or stop picking up incoming calls.

Granted, you might well have work, personal or other relationships in which being available and picking up calls is expected. It’s also worth observing that norms around picking up mobile calls vary widely across cultures and often, I think, across generations. I’ve found that this issue elicits surprisingly powerful and varied reactions from people, more than any other part of my smartphone experimenting. Some people think it’s terribly rude to not pick up, and other people think it’s terribly rude to call and expect to interrupt others, demanding their full attention without knowing their context.

Weibo.com Weibo.com In the subscription-free smartphone setup I’ve described, you can take all incoming calls anywhere via your prepaid mobile plan (i.e. SIM card), like you probably do now via your mobile subscription. Or, you can set up your phone number to only or first go to your VOIP app like Skype or Talkatone, which should work whenever you have Internet access. (note, on my phone, iOS 5.1.1, I have had some difficulty with Skype or Talkatone ringing but not connecting the audio, but I don’t think this is a general issue).

In any case, I think that if you’ve going to rethink and experiment with your communications, you should definitely consider how and when you take calls. Apple has jumped into this space with the new “Do Not Disturb” feature of iOS 6, a mode you can turn on which turns off ringing and notifications from contacts other than your “favorites.” Likewise, with Google Voice you can set up rules for how different callers or messages will be handled, at what times.

The simplest, catch-all approach, I find, is to let all incoming calls go to Google Voice, which can immediately transcribe any voicemail and email and text it to you. While you may want to have a bypass for, say, significant others and crucial work calls, I’ve found that it’s a relief to never be concerned about the phone ringing at inappropriate times, and to not be always maintaining the readiness to reach a ringing phone within seconds and totally switch context. In fact, given how hard many of us are constantly trying to maintain focus and productivity, amid highly complex information environments, it’s surprising that we would ever answer arbitrary incoming calls — and increasingly, people I know don’t do so.

The immediate voicemail transcription can be quite transformative, because it’s usually much faster and easier than retrieving voicemails, and also produces a useful, permanent, searchable record. You may quickly find that it’s an efficient, unintrusive way to handle most calls. Viva la revolución against interruptive communication, and for considerate systems!

3. Text messages can address many urgent communication needs.

SMS doesn’t require a contract or always-on Internet access. Anyone who knows you well will know that a text is more likely to reach you than, say, email, which is true for many people who may carry always-on smartphones but don’t always check or get email. SMS is generally a more dependable channel than mobile Internet, as it works on a more basic network level (the same as voice) that is available over wider areas. Voicemail can be auto-transcribed to SMS, as discussed above, and even email and other notifications can be set up to trigger text messages, using e.g. filters in Gmail.

(c) 2009 Chris Willis, CC-BY-2.0 (c) 2009 Chris Willis, CC-BY-2.0

4. Many location services can work without Internet/data plans.

Phones determine your location primarily from the cellular network, which works on any activated phone (i.e. with any valid SIM card). Maps can be preloaded, and your current location on them tracked this way, without data service.

Even new location-based service (LBS) apps such as Highlight (a “social proximity” app) seem, in my tests, to work fine without an always-on pervasive connection.

5. Sharing wi-fi can have a positive effect of making you more aware and appreciative of this “geography” of access

e.g. coffee-shops or libraries. If you get in the habit, it may not be hard to know where to go when you need access, and you are incented to patronize community-oriented places like cafes and libraries. In future, I expect that “social connectivity,” sharing access between individuals e.g. through Open Garden or Karma, will become more common, and possibly even create a desirable social / interpersonal dimension to network access.

This is generally the antithesis of the telecom industry’s agenda, which is usually to assert that bandwidth is scarce and every individual (or at least household) must pay separately for their allotment. The telecom industry has an enormous interest in this, because it forecasts that essentially all U.S. telecoms revenue growth in the next five years will be from mobile data. However, I believe that in most situations, bandwidth is actually plentiful, if we would just share it well — which is probably why VCs are betting on Open Garden and Karma.

I’ve experimented with this angle myself, by making my mobile wi-fi hotspot visible with my name and contact info on it, and letting other people use it as events. It becomes another calling card, and way to connect socially.

6. With intermittent access, you learn to use save-it-for-later mode, which has many user-experience and efficiency advantages.

(c) 2011 Sigfrid Lundberg, CC-BY-SA-2.0. (c) 2011 Sigfrid Lundberg, CC-BY-SA-2.0. For example, you might start using Instapaper to save articles for later reading, or one of the similar services for video. This turns out to have many other benefits, as the user experience tends to be far better this way than in attempting to get Web content live on a mobile phone. You realize that much of the Web is designed with a presumption of immediate downloadability, but actual devices and networks (especially mobile) continually frustrate that presumption. If you can let go of the expectation of immediate loading and access, then Web use may become much less aggravating.

Also, if you just bookmark URLs and let a save-it-for-later service like Instapaper retrieve and transform the content, this practice may greatly reduce your data usage, and your exposure to the privacy/security risks and malware that are pervasive in open Web content.

Especially in the case of video, save-it-for-later lets use much slower, cheaper connectivity; or perhaps defer the transfer until you are on a faster or free network (Starbucks?). This is a smart architecture for many circumstances, such as anywhere networks are temporarily overloaded such as at an event, or in the rural and developing worlds, or if you’re using frugal connectivity such as dialup or a free Freedompop hotspot.

Finally, save-if-for-later can support healthy separation of life modes, for example by letting you store up videos of interest and then watch them at home with loved ones in in the time when your former, less enlightened self might have watched television.

7. Mobile phones can provide compelling, up-to-date stuff to do even without being constantly connected.

Often, we use phones just for some diversion while standing in line, waiting for a bus, etc. If you regularly save materials for offline access, such as read-it-later articles or video, then you have a dependable and satisfying way to use those in-between times.

8. It’s good to get outside of the smartphone data-plan bubble and see how the other half lives.

If you coast along in your high-cost, data-plan smartphone contract, you’re cut off from how most people use mobile phones and the mobile Web. There’s a whole world of innovation and other practices out there, such as pre-pay models, multiple SIM cards, free texting, etc — used by large segments of the U.S. population, not to mention most of the developing world, where most future mobile and Internet users are. (another tip: go check out the phone section at your nearest Wal-Mart, a world apart from the Apple Store, and see the amazing array of pre-pay plans and disposable or basic phones.)

9. I feel better not giving my patronage to incumbent telco/cable providers.

As someone who believes strongly in and depends on the open Internet, I have great reservations about in any way supporting companies such as AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast. They have long histories of opposition to consumer choice, network neutrality, competition, civic broadband, and privacy rights. They are perennially among the top lobbyists and campaign donors at state and national levels, almost always working towards agendas that I don’t support.

I much prefer to divert money from such incumbents and give it to new entrants and innovators such as Clearwire, Freedompop, or interesting new smartphone apps like Instapaper, Highlight, Tweetbot or Netbot. Or just anything else.

(c) 2011 Emilio Labrador, CC-BY-2.0 (c) 2011 Emilio Labrador, CC-BY-2.0

Afterword: The IRL (In Real Life) Fetish

I’m aware that there is now a teeming industry of books and articles about technology addiction and the purported need to unplug. Or as Charlie Nadler puts it, we seem to be addicted to stories about being addicted to technology. In regard to media, this has been a recurring theme at least since the days of the telegraph; for example, the 1881 medical text American Nervousness argued that a new illness had arisen in the U.S due to “steam power, the periodical press, [and] the telegraph.”

In regard specifically to our current flowering of complaint about mobile and Internet technology, sociology student Nathan Jurgenson’s often-mentioned essay “The IRL Fetish” (The New Inquiry, June 28, 2012) argues that this urge to unplug smacks of privilege and self-delusion:

“Let’s not pretend we are in some special, elite group with access to the pure offline, turning the real into a fetish and regarding everyone else as a little less real and a little less human.”

I appreciate the identification of cliches and agree that it’s fallacious to posit separate “online” and “offline” realms. However, I think the argument tends to dismiss the search for more mindful and practices, by labeling them fetishistic, pointless, or elitist. Jurgenson’s argument seems to me a bit marginal: the basic, global need to find good tools and manage them well is surely a much larger topic than the inauthenticity or bad faith of certain privileged decriers of online addiction.

Maintaining focus, attention, prioritization, goal attainment, energy, and willpower are basic goals for almost anyone, in any era, and it’s fairly clear that our current digital/mobile-permeated environments are creating major new challenges and need new approaches.

Lead image: (c) 2011 Sigfrid Lundberg, 2011, CC-BY-SA-2.0