November 12, 2011, 7:46 AM — These days, smartphones with speedy Web connectivity are easy to find, so consumers should be able to get by with just a roomy data plan, dumping voice service in favor of VoIP. But is that practical? To see how feasible cutting voice service is, I decided to go VoIP-only for a week, on the new T-Mobile/Walmart prepaid plan that offers 5GB of 4G data on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 14.4 network for a measly $30 per month.
Do Users Still Need Voice Service?
When I think about what people do with their smartphones on a regular basis, I wonder why we still call them "phones" at all. Play games! Stream music, movies, and live video broadcasts! Hold videoconferences! Call someone? Yeah, I guess you could do that.
Mobile broadband connections have become fast enough and widespread enough that you should be able to cut down the voice-service component of your cellular plan, if not eliminate it completely--which would save you anywhere from $40 to $70 each month. However, mobile Internet connections aren't nearly as consistent as your average residental DSL or cable modem connection is, because they rely on radio waves to send and receive data. As a result, your mobile Internet connection's bandwidth (the amount of data you can transmit per second) and latency (the time a packet of data takes to travel from your handset across the Internet to the intended recipient, such as Netflix's or Skype's servers) fluctuate wildly.
Such connection problems are fairly simple to deal with when you're streaming music or video, but less easy to fix for a voice conversation between two people. After all, you won't notice if your smartphone needs a few extra seconds in the beginning to buffer the entire fifth season of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but you certainly will notice if your phone conversation suffers from a few seconds of lag. Considering that the T-Mobile/Walmart service is just $30 a month, though, such lag might be an inconvenience that some budget-minded folks are willing to tolerate if it isn't too bad.
How to Go VoIP-Only
I used the T-Mobile Exhibit II 4G, which is the current flagship phone offered for this particular plan. This unremarkable Android 2.3 Gingerbread handset feels like a slightly smaller, lighter version of the first Samsung Galaxy S line of phones, which sell for $200 with no contract. Not a bad deal for a budget-conscious buyer. The T-Mobile/Walmart prepaid plan provides 5GB of data at 4G speeds (after which it throttles down to the 3G network), plus 100 voice minutes (and a rate of 10 cents per minute after that).