Everything you need to know about T-Mobile's data-only plans

T-Mobile and other U.S. carriers offer inexpensive data-only plans for the hearing impaired, and such services might also be a good fit for people who don't need to make voice calls over the cellular network.

t-mobile logo tmobile logo
Credit: REUTERS/Rick Wilking

When is a phone not a phone? When you can't use it to place voice calls. Such a phone that's incapable of making calls sounds like an oxymoron. But it is not. T-Mobile offers a sharply discounted plan for consumers who want to use their smartphones only for data and text messages.

T-Mobile's data-only plans costs $20 a month per line for 2GB of data, or $30 a month for 6GB of data — well below the $50 a month customers pay for a conventional T-Mobile plans with 2GB of data, plus voice and text.

The plans aren't new. T-Mobile says it has offered data-only plans for some time, and they're aimed at customers who are hearing impaired and have no use for voice service. AT&T and Verizon also offer them, according to a T-Mobile spokesperson. Anyone can get a data-only plan, but they not available online, only in T-Mobile stores or on the phone.

Why is this news? Earlier this week, T-Mobile adjusted its pricing and data tiers, and a document outlining the changes leaked to a publication called TmoNews, which wrote about the data-only plans. News or not, the plans are intriguing, because many people these days don't make a lot of voice calls, and when they do, they often use third-party applications such as Google Voice or Hangouts or WhatsApp. If you think a data-only plan might work for you, there are a few things you should not.

Is a data-only plan from AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon right for you?

T-Mobile's data-only service blocks all incoming and outgoing voice calls routed through T-Mobile's native applications, including voice over Wi-Fi or VoLTE calls, with the important exception of emergency 911 calls. Although phones on data-only plans have the technological capabilities to reach the cellular network, the carrier's settings block all network calls.

Third-party voice apps work as long as you have access to the data network via Wi-Fi. If you're out of data range, you can't make calls, and in some situations that could be a real problem.

The T-Mobile representative I spoke with was surprised by how quickly this "news" spread on the Web and said the company doesn't currently plan to actively promote it. That begs the question: If data-only plans become popular and eventually cut into T-Mobile's revenue, will the plans get more expensive to make up for that loss? Time will tell, but if you're interested in a data-only plan, it might be wise to sign up sooner than later.

NEW! Download the State of the CIO 2017 report