T-Mobile to introduce data-only plans: Are phone calls getting left behind?

The carrier will reportedly introduce a range of plans on Wednesday that offer unlimited text messaging and fixed amounts of data at a range of prices but lack voice calls.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Women make a call on a pay phone along the route where U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama will pass on her visit to Hemingway House, in the San Francisco de Paula district of Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. T-Mobile is reportedly introducing a set of data-only plans that don't include voice calls.

Will using a cellphone to make a call eventually go the way of the phone booth?

T-Mobile appears to be moving in that direction, as it will reportedly launch a set of data-only plans on Wednesday, offering users varying amounts of data and unlimited text messages, but without the ability to make voice calls.

According to a leaked image provided to TmoNews, the company’s new Simple Choice Data-Only plans will range from 2GB of data for $20 per month to 22GB for $95.

The plans – which are offered at the same prices and increments that T-Mobile makes available now for tablet devices – play into T-Mobile's narrative of being the “Un-carrier,” touting its ability to offer customers a variety of flexible plans. It appears to be betting the plans will appeal to users who have jettisoned phone calls in favor of text messages, messaging apps, or VoIP video calling services such as Skype.

The company currently offers a $30 plan that included 5GB of data and unlimited texts with only 100 minutes of calling time each month.

While smartphones are increasingly offering users a variety of ways to stay in touch, people who decide to abandon calls entirely may still be a relatively small group.

Back in 2011, 53 percent of people who own a cellphone preferred to receive a voice call when they wanted to be reached, a Pew Research study found, while 31 percent preferred a text message. 14 percent said their preference would depend on the situation.

By 2013, the number of cellphone users communicating by text message had increased to 81 percent, while about 2 in 10 used video calling features on their phones, Pew found.

But some have pointed to the advantages of making a call in an increasingly rapid-fire age, such as the benefit of hearing a person’s voice, unfiltered and uninterrupted, that can sometimes go missing in a text message.

“We live in a world where you can order anything you could ever think of from apps and websites — taking the time to pick up the phone and call someone is special,” wrote ThoughtCatalog’s Ella Ceron.

In businesses such as sales, some have taken to hiring “phone-use consultants” that train workers – particularly younger people used to sending information by email or text – to focus on the personal rapport offered by a call.

“You're not selling if you're just asking a question and getting an answer back,” Patty Baxter, a publisher in Halifax, Nova Scotia told the Wall Street Journal in 2013.

Other carriers have also gradually branched into offering plans that don’t include voice calls. US Cellular, for example, offers a $60 plan that includes unlimited text messaging and 5 GB a data but charges users 25 cents per minute to make a call.

A similar data-only service called Charge Mobile Data, which works on any device that uses Sprint’s LTE network, including most Apple and Google Nexus devices, launched earlier this month.

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