Feb 18 AT 2:14 PM Ian Wheat 23 Comments

Android for the disabled: Carrier friendliness

Remember how excited you were to find out that Google was releasing an open platform? Weren’t you eager to use an OS capable of running or doing just about anything that can be coded in that crazy Java language? I certainly was, and still am. One of our favorite benefits of such a platform is customization. The ability to run just the software you want in just the way that fits your needs.

So what about those of us with less common needs? No, not my “need” to be able to stream Pandora smoothly to my phone—I mean how some people need, or don’t need, certain services because of real physical disabilities.

In the world of businesses selling services, different means difficult. Sure, companies diversify their services all the time to reach broader audiences but when it comes to differences in actual needs—not differences in taste, desire, want—service providers are slow to respond.

We’re talking about meeting the needs of the disabled here, not our own personal “need” for faster cell data networks.

Did you know that some cellular carriers do not offer data-only plans, even in 2010? And the carriers that do offer data without voice plans don’t exactly go out of their way to advertise them, either.

Back in November, Android and Me ran an article about the problems T-Mobile customers were having with getting a data only plan for their G1 or MyTouch3G phones. I’m sorry to say that the situation has not improved much since then. In fact, T-Mobile is, based on my amateur research, the most expensive of the four biggest U.S. carriers if you want a data only plan. BlackBerry users can have a fairly cheap data only plan, but users of other smartphones are required to have a voice plan as well.

In the pricing layout, T-Mobile is followed by Verizon, then AT&T, and winning the fight, Sprint. Sprint allows its customers to purchase a fully subsidized HTC Hero or Samsung Moment with this plan, too. The only downside here is that the plan must be ordered online.

Here is a breakdown of those plans, based on my own amateur research. (By research I mean that I called each company and scoured their web sites until I found this information.)

T-Mobile

  • Price: $59.99 for “Even More Talk 500 Minutes”
  • Addons: $20 for unlimited data and messaging
  • Total: $79.99
  • Where to buy: Call in to T-Mobile sales line or ask nicely at a corporate store

This is really disappointing. T-Mobile has been such a big proponent of Android handsets since day one, but they only offer data-only plans to BlackBerry users. Apparently you can still upgrade from a SideKick plan to a G1, possibly a MyTouch3G, without being forced into a voice plan, but that’s definitely the exception, not the rule. T-Mobile gets an F on my grading scale.

Update: T-Mobile also offers an Even More Plus plan for $59 that includes 500 minutes, unlimited text, and unlimited web. This is a non-contract plan so customers must pay full price for their handset.

Verizon

  • Price: $54.99 for “Nationwide Messaging with No Voice Minutes”
  • Addons: None needed. Comes with unlimited data and messaging.
  • Total: $54.99
  • Where to buy: Online at VZW.com, possibly in a Verizon Wireless store.

I have to say I was really surprised to find this plan on the Verizon web site. It’s reasonably priced, works with any smartphone that VZW offers, and was fairly easy to find. Overall I’d give say this warrants a B- considering the coverage you’d get with it.

AT&T

  • Price: $30.00 for unlimited data only plan
  • Addons: $20.00 for unlimited messaging.
  • Total: $50.00
  • Where to buy: In an AT&T corporate store. Apparently not available through AT&T sales toll free line.

This one was harder to find. I had to call the toll free sales number, ask two people, and then call the local corporate sales store. The good news is that you can have any smartphone you want with a data-only plan for just $30 per month. To get messaging just pay another $20. Not a bad deal, considering that AT&T does have very decent coverage. I’d give this plan a B.

Sprint

  • Price: $29.99 for “Sprint Relay Data Only” or SRDO
  • Addons: None needed. Plan comes with unlimited data and messaging, as well as 5GB of PAM (Phone As Modem, aka tethering)
  • Total: $29.99
  • Where to buy: Online only at Sprint Relay Store.

I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Sprint not only offers a full suite of relay (text, audio, video) services for deaf customers, but they also have an online store with products and services targeted specifically toward the deaf. (True, AT&T also offers a wide array of relay services, but Sprint has more information and better pricing on their data only plans.) Considering that you’re taking a downgrade in coverage but an upgrade in price, I’d give this plan an A- and call it a day.

So we know that if more carriers can follow Sprint’s example, they can step up their game and improve their offerings, targeting the deaf and hearing impaired market segment. But what about app developers and Android hackers? Android is a very full-featured platform and is possibly the closest thing to a full-fledged desktop operating system within the mobile phone market. What can be added to make it more deaf-friendly? Or will better data-only plans sufficiently meet the needs of the deaf Android user community?

Here is my challenge for app developers, operating system hackers, customization tinkerers, all of us—spend a bit of time thinking about what you can do to make or keep Android a platform that is easily used by the handicapped and disabled.

And here’s another challenge, one for cell carriers: step up and be fair to those who already have a hard enough time communicating. Do your part. Don’t be evil.

Challenge for AAM readers: What can we do, as a community, to increase the usability of Android for people with all sorts of disabilities?

As a long time fanatic for open source software and operating systems, Ian Wheat naturally fell for the little green Android. They live together quite happily, with Ian's wife, in Roanoke, TX, and spend many hours together writing about technology, watching funny television shows, and killing zombies in Left4Dead2.

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