A cord-cutter’s life
The cord-cutter movement is growing quickly and with good reason. Cable TV is an outdated model that forces an obnoxious number of interruptions into your entertainment. It serves content on its schedule, not yours. It’s expensive. The vast majority of what is offered to you isn’t something you want at all.
Cord-cutting is a term usually reserved for discussions of TV service or in some small cases dropping of land-line phone service in favor of just a cell phone. In my latest experiment I’m going to take it a step further. What if we looked at cell phone service the in the same way? What is it that you really want or need on your terms?
The service-less phone
When it comes to my cell phone I am in that class of users that annoys phone companies offering unlimited data. I routinely use 20GB or more monthly through a variety of channels: video watching, remotely controlling systems, transferring files between machines, and so on. I like to think of myself as a power user in that regard, and so unlimited data is an absolute requirement for me. This has led me to choose and stay with Sprint for most of my adult life.
Sprint has one of the poorest coverage areas and slowest services, but they offer the best deal in unlimited data. Until you cross the 23GB mark, you get full LTE service. After that, you get lower priority service, though not necessarily throttled. It is, sadly, the best offer in the US at present. It also costs a lot of money. $79/month + upcharge for smart-phone, etc. For my wife and I, that means we pay around $175US/month.
Now here’s the thing, most of what comes with that charge are things I don’t really want. I don’t need unlimited texting or unlimited talk time. I use both to a moderate degree, but I have also been a long time Google Voice user, which offers both voice and text for free. The Sprint add-on apps are more burden than boon, and I root my phones for the purpose of removing the bloatware.
So what if I take the cord-cutter approach to my cell phone? What I really want is data, unlimited amounts of it. I don’t need the rest because I have other solves. What are my options?
Starting next week I’m going to be piloting a personal experiment in “cord”-cutting. There’s not really a cord involved, but you get the idea, right? The key to my plan is to replace normal phone functions with free or cheaper replacements.
Skype currently offers the best voice quality over an internet connection. It is also incredibly cheap to use as a phone replacement. The cost of Skype-in numbers is about $30/year with their promotional rates. That’s $2.50/month! Your friends can dial that number and Skype answers on your computer or phone. When you dial out using Skype you’ll need a subscription for that as well. To call the US and Canada it’s an additional $2.99/month, bringing our grand total Skype cost up to the whopping $5.49/month.
I mentioned earlier that I’m a Google Voice user. This service is free from Google and allows you to do things like make domestic calls for free or send free text messages. The interface isn’t the best, but it does give you access to create a phone number and have calls and texts to that number forward elsewhere. Since I’ve been using this for so long, this is the number everyone knows to reach me. I’ve set this to forward to my Skype In number, and Skype is set up to show my Google Voice in caller IDs when I call others. In effect, to the outside world I can use Skype and it looks like I’m using my cell phone.
The final piece to the puzzle is an internet connection. Skype is great, but when you’re out and about you can’t rely on having a WiFi connection to tether to. At work and home, sure, there’s probably reliable internet, but what about in the car, or at the mall, or wherever humans go these days? It was time to bite the bullet and find a WiFi hotspot that could deliver on solid connectivity at a reasonable price for the data. I settled on YourKarma for this experiment.
The Karma hotspot offers 4G LTE using the Sprint network, which gives me the same level of coverage I’m used to, but at a significantly lower rate. See, I want unlimited data overall, but not necessarily while I’m at the park or on a drive. With Karma I get a certain amount of data for a fixed fee. I’m starting with 5GB for $40/month. If there’s unused data at the end of the month, you keep it. Your data doesn’t expire.
The Karma hotspot is also interesting because you can’t lock it down for just yourself. It’s designed to be a public hotspot. Others aren’t using your 5GB, but they are piggybacking on your overall bandwidth. In return, Karma gives you a 100mb boost when someone else connects to your device.
I plan to carry the hotspot with me at all times in my bag, probably permanently plugged into my fantastic backup battery to extend the life to near-permanent levels.
If this sounds interesting to you, you can use my YourKarma link to get $10 off for yourself.
I’m not cutting off Sprint just yet. I’ll be running in Airplane mode with WiFi enabled for the next month or two getting a feel for the rough spots before I go all-in. I expect some dropped calls and awkwardness here and there, but for the grand total bill of $45.49/month I think I can deal.
Update March 6, 2017
Well that plan didn’t last long. Once the Karma arrived I gave the no-phone thing a solid two weeks of trial before I had to abandon the project. Why? Mobile hotspots do not deliver reliable, fast internet access. They may claim to do so, they may have numbers that suggest it’s true, but it just doesn’t work in practice. I was not able to maintain a Skype call or Google Voice on that connection for any length of time. Often my coverage would vanish completely in the same location it had worked previously. All-in-all, the technology wasn’t up to the challenge.
In case you’re wondering, I have since migrated over to Google’s Project Fi. It’s a pretty sweet service which I’ve been more than happy with.