just one more geek in a sea of austin techies

August 21, 2012

Smartphones without a Data Plan #PhoneGeek

If you own a smartphone you know the drill:  mandatory data plan. Even if you're willing to go wifi-only with data and restrict cellular to voice service your carrier won't allow you to not have a data plan. Well I'm here to say that there is a way to avoid the mandatory data plan (for now) but going that route does have a few pitfalls...

Yes, you can have a smartphone and not be forced into a data plan!
For years I've been irritated that you can't opt to go voice-only with your smartphone cellular plan and rely on wifi for data connectivity.  Data plans are the new pot o' gold for cellular providers.  Texting is still the most expensive form of consumer-level communication on earth (care to pay a 6500% markup, anyone?) but data plan charges bring in two-to-three times as much revenue per service plan.  Well over half of all new phones sold are smartphones so mandatory data plans is where the money is at.  Even the comparatively tiny market of cellular-connected tablets is expected to fetch more than $15 billion in revenue over the next five years.

If you like the idea of going voice-only with your cellular plan but can't stand the idea of not having an internet-connected computer (smartphone) in your pocket then I have good news: you can have it both ways. A phone with a voice-only cellular plan and wifi-connected internet. Read on...

SIM cards = Options

In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile employ GSM networks and phones featuring removable SIM cards.  (SIM card-based phones are pretty much the standard outside of the US.)  This means you can move your existing cellular phone service from one phone to another simply by moving the SIM card between phones.  There is no need to have the carrier "activate" or "deactivate" phones.  This is an immensely useful feature.  For example, let's say you  have an iPhone with AT&T service.  You may not want to carry your cherished 4S in your pocket as you wash your car or go boating. Just pop down to WalMart and pick up a prepaid AT&T "GoPhone" for under $20. Temporarily move your SIM card from the iPhone to the $20 phone while you're out on the lake. Your iPhone remains safely away from a watery death and you can still text "I'm on a boat!" messages to land-bound friends. This is a "win" for the consumer as most prepaid cellphones are subsidized:  that $20 phone actually cost AT&T quite a bit more so you're getting more than you paid for. (This is also probably why you never see any information from AT&T promoting this awesomely-useful option.)

Data Plans: How Does AT&T Know That I Need One?
Every cellular device has an IMEI number -- a number that uniquely identifies that device.  IMEI numbers are how cellular providers are able to tell one phone from another.  Any phone purchased form AT&T already has its IMEI in AT&T's database along with the make and model of that phone.  This means that when you use a phone that was originally sold by AT&T the company knows exactly which model phone you have based just on the IMEI.

The initial 6 or 8 IMEI digits make up the Type Allocation Code (TAC). This section of the IMEI identifies the make and model of the phone.  This means that, even if you did not purchase a phone from AT&T, there is a way for AT&T to look up what phone you are using based on the TAC.

"Shady" TAC Codes
This is where things get interesting. The TAC portion of the IMEI is governed only by an "honor system".  That is, there is nothing enforcing a manufacturer to correctly report the make and model of a particular phone.  Put another way:  a phone maker can elect to use any TAC code regardless of the actual model phone it is applied to.  As long as the trailing serial number portion of the IMEI is a unqiue value, the TAC itself can be any value and the IMEI will still work.

Most phone makers have no reason to mis-report their phones' TAC codes -- so why is this information useful?  Three words:  Made In China.

When a Smart Phone is not a Smart Phone
As with most small, easy-imported electronics, cell phones have no shortage of Chinese-produced knockoffs.  The Chinese market is hardly restricted to knockoffs: some of the most compelling price-per-feature phones are now being made in China with decent quality to boot. Add to this the rich collection of no-name feature phones (like this one with Bluetooth, camera, touchscreen, JAVA apps, FM radio and a TV tuner for under $50?!?) and you'll find the Chinese market to be an excellent source of options extending far beyond the dozen models at your local AT&T store.

The Chinese cell phone sector is still somewhat (ok, very) unregulated by US standards. You can get a wide array of knockoff Windows, Android and iOS-based phones that clearly violate copyrights and product patents. You can also get legitimate phones not directly available to the US market. Because most of the world operates on GSM networks with SIM-card-based phones, you have a lot of options if you're an AT&T or T-Moblie customer.

If you're careful in your shopping you can pick up smartphones that do not report themselves as smartphones.  That is, the TAC portion of the phones' IMEI numbers report the phones as non-smartphone models. This is one reason you often see a phone's IMEI supplied in eBay listings (the other reason is to allow buyers a potential means to verify a phone hasn't been reported as stolen).

What Does My IMEI Say?
Surprise!  There are free online databases you can use to check a phone's IMEI.  I use which has always correctly identified every domestic phone I've checked. This particular database doesn't include information about stolen/blacklisted phones but even if it did it would not help too much -- AT&T and T-Moblie don't block phones reported as stolen. That should be changing soon, though as stolen phones will eventually be blocked from use by all major US carriers.

IMEI lookup is the key in identifying a smartphone that doesn't report itself as a smartphone.  While it is easy to tell if a new phone is a potential knockoff (hint: it ships from Hong Kong) it is not easy to tell how it will show up without checking the IMEI.  Always ask the seller to provide the IMEI before you buy.

As of today (8/20/2012), eBay has a listing for a *new* Nokia Lumina 900 for $275 from a seller in Utah.  The eBay listing includes the phone's IMEI number "359746044575608".  A quick IMEI check reveals the following:

The Phone for Sale on eBay
(Lumina 900 circa 2012)

The phone reported by the IMEI
(Nokia 2390 circa 2005)

This phone is clearly not the real deal but is instead a knockoff Lumina 900 phone (or perhaps an actual Lumina 900 produced and sold through China's grey/black market but that's another blog post...) The phone also clearly will not show up as a smartphone on the AT&T or T-Mobile networks.  That means no mandatory data plan.  Suddenly those knockoff phones just got a lot more attractive...

Middle Ground for Data Plans
You don't have to decide between a smartphone data plan or wifi-only. What if you DID actually have a Nokia 2390? It isn't a smartphone -- it is classified as a "feature phone" (AT&T wisely does not refer to it as a "dumbphone"). Although the Nokia 2390 has no web browser or internet-connected applications AT&T will still happily allow you to tack on a monthly $15 "feature phone" data plan... an unlimited data plan.  Even better, this is a data plan you can turn on and off at will via the AT&T website.  Leave the data plan OFF for normal home-to-work days when you have excellent wifi coverage and turn the plan ON when you travel out of town.  You pay a pro-rated rate only for the days the plan is ON.

Feature phones traditionally used the EDGE (2G) data network but most newer phones make use of 3G networks. This means that if you get a smartphone and if the smartphone reports itself as a feature phone and if the smartphone is also 3G-capable then you can get an unlimited 3G data plan at only $15 a month.  Booyah!  How long will the $15 unlimited data party last?  Who knows?  If you happen to have the right kind of phone, though, it's waiting to be taken advantage of.  

It's also worth noting that I've successfully tested some legitimate smartphones with legitimate IMEI numbers (numbers that correctly identified the phones as smartphones) on the AT&T feature phone data plan without AT&T auto-identifying the phones as smartphones and auto-adding a smartphone data plan.  The smartphones were unlocked T-Mobile phones rather than AT&T-sourced phones but that fact alone shouldn't have prevented AT&T from being able to ID the phones as smartphones.  Your mileage may vary.

Pitfalls (you've been warned)
Chinese phones are not all goodness and light for the phone geek.  Just as smartphones can report themselves as feature phones, the reverse can be true.  Newegg is currently selling some nifty QWERTY-keyboard feature phones from China with Bluetooth, camera, MP3/MP4 player and microSD memory expansion for only $40 shipped.  Sweet!  Unfortunately the phone's TAC code reports the phone as a Blackberry 8800.  That means a monthly $30 Blackberry smartphone data plan is added to your bill as soon as as you connect the phone to the AT&T network.  

Other pitfalls are more obvious:  no long-term warranty, no guarantee your new phone will work out of the box, etc.  I've had generally good experiences with the China-sourced phones I've played with but there was a definite drop in quality compared to the US-sourced phones I've owned.  As with anything, buyer beware.


  1. This was excellent and very helpful! thank you kindly :)

  2. So fast forward to today, what good brand Chinese phones would you recommend? I'm with verizon right now, but want to switch to t-mobile. I need to get 3 phones. The main one, mine, I will probably purchase directly from tmobile because I need all the network bands and good cellular internet. The next phone will be primarily used for voice (and wifi internet), AND as a backup MP3 player for a musician. So he wants a big easy to read screen. The third phone can be just a regular decent chinese smartphone with wifi capability too. Other question, do the good brand chinese phones also do the trick with the IMEI numbers to report them as feature phones? Or just the no name knockoffs do that?

  3. Also the quick IMEI check of that Lumina phone comes up as a Lumina phone, not an old Nokia phone!