Cell Phone Providers
First, let’s briefly discuss your bill: “How much am I currently paying? How much am I actually using per month? Can I reduce this usage if I had a home phone? What network am I on? Am I under contract? What’s it going to cost to jump ship?”
These are all questions you should be asking yourself before you shop the alternatives, and once you’ve got rough numbers and a plan or two together, you can poke numbers into the Wireless Plan Calculator
to work out your ROI on switching.The Basics
Let’s talk MVNOs themselves. Although sometimes risky, and often associated with “burner phones” used by drug dealers and Michael Weston, prepaid service is a perfectly legitimate means to have mobile phone service so long as you approach it intelligently. Going this route, you own your phone and you’re provided the service you pay for. No strings, no muss, no fuss… but there are some points to consider as you start to shop around.
The best advice is to stay away if at all possible from any provider that doesn’t allow you to bring your own phone (BYOD – bring your own device). Sometimes it can’t be helped in situations where you need CDMA service for example, but for the most part it is best to simply stay away from any
MVNO that forces you to buy one of their handsets to get service, and won’t ever provide you the option to carrier unlock it to take elsewhere. The next best bit of advice is to stick with an MVNO that actually has some history and been established for a few years in the wireless market you’re getting service in (in our case, the United States).
The MVNO market can be cutthroat and the profit margins are razor thin, so it’s best to stick with a scrapper that’s not only proven themselves, but still prices themselves competitively with wholesale market rate changes from their parent network. This helps mitigate the risks of losing your number to an outfit that closes shop and blows away in the middle of the night like TalkForGood
did. Established companies fresh to the wireless telecommunications market or foreign telecom brands trying to break into the US market don’t necessarily ensure success.Plan Shopping
When shopping for plans, you should understand that of all the services provided, data will be your most expensive. If you’re not willing to go on a significant data diet, this guide isn’t likely to help you save enough money to warrant the risks of switching to an MVNO provider for your services. Before you shop for any plans, you should be aware of what your actual usage numbers are. Be educated about what you need. From there, you can work out how much you can potentially offload to other technologies and cheaper data networks with voice, SMS and data usage.
If you’re stationary at home most of the time when you’re making calls
, perhaps consider bringing back the home phone with a VoIP provider, as mobile anything (voice included) is always more expensive than their wired counterparts.
As for SMS text messaging
, understand first and foremost that text messaging is a racket and a cash cow, even in prepaid. A single SMS text message is roughly 1120 bits in size (8 bits to 1 byte, 1024 bytes to 1 kilobyte, 1,048,576 bytes to 1 megabyte, 1120 bits = 140 bytes). By the math alone (if I did it right), you should be able to send 7,489 text messages in 1MB of data. This means, at even 2¢ an SMS message at P’tel, you’re paying $149.78 for 1MB of data, and that’s one of the cheapest SMS rates!
On one hand, it makes those $5 or $10 unlimited text bolt on plans look more attractive, but you know what looks even more attractive still? That 10¢/MB data rate. Needless to say, this bit of information can pretty much justify the purchase of a low frills smartphone that can run SMS text alternatives like Kik or XMS. Of course, any data usage is your enemy when you’re being billed by the megabyte, so steps should be taken to stem that data usage as much as possible.
As for that data
usage, keep in mind that the faster your connection, the faster you’ll likely burn through it. You don’t really need 4G LTE or even 3G service for sending text messages or emails as text is tiny. You don’t even really need much bandwidth and speed to browse the internet if you turn off image loading in your mobile browser. What eats up your data usage is media (music, video and photos), which coincidentally needs the fastest throughput in the first place to work. This means that you should use offline media for your music, videos and GPS data. This is the future right now
, and smartphones have a ridiculous amount of storage capacity these days. Why should we be dependent upon network reception and have to pay a premium to download information that we can easily carry
with us and have instant access to so long as the battery holds a charge?
It also typically isn’t cost-effective to try and offload your minute usage onto an mVoIP provider. It’ll be cheaper and the call quality will be more reliable if you just pay for the minutes you use or get an “unlimited” minute plan if you need to talk that much away from your house. Basically, PAY FOR WHAT YOU NEED
. This will be a valuable phrase to internalize as you read through the rest of this guide.
Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s introduce some of the most cost effective wireless providers available!Recommended MVNOsP’tel
- A fantastic T-Mobile GSM based MVNO with pay as you go rates of 2¢ a text, 5¢ a minute, 10¢ a MB of data with airtime on refills starting at 60 days, and regarded as one of the granddaddies of the MVNOs. Monthly rates are available as well. Although not a cheap data provider, you’d be surprised how far a megabyte can go with text communications. They offer BYOD (bring your own device), and reasonably priced, good quality phones. For maximum flexibility and cost savings, I would highly recommend investing in a GSM handset that matches your needs if you don't have one already and just buy a SIM card. We’re longtime customers, and it’s good service.Airvoice Wireless
- Currently the king of cheap monthly pay as you go AT&T MVNO providers at 4¢ a minute, 2¢ a text, and 6.6¢ MB data with 30 day refills using their 250 Minute plan. Airvoice is technically now cheaper per minute than even P'tel, their customer service is superior to Locus’ H2O Wireless, and is technically one of the older GSM MVNOs in the nation. Trivially easy to BYOD as they’re an AT&T GSM carrier. They’ve returned back to the “Unlimited” talk and text trap as so many other providers have with bigger packages, but before they did, the same priced packages in question offered up to 5000 minutes and 10,000 text messages. It appears that Airvoice’s soft usage cap would still fall roughly in line with those usage numbers, but if you’re a heavy mobile talker, still be aware of the risks involved with undefined usage caps with “unlimited” plans. SIM cards cost $5 and can be ordered through them directly or from them directly through Amazon. My parents are on Airvoice.Pure TalkUSA
- Pure Talk is an AT&T MVNO that has been around since 2009, but owned by Telrite (a Georgia-based telecom), who’s been around since 2000 and doing MVNO business since 2004 (first with Verizon, but now only AT&T). Their prices are neither spectacular or terrible for the most part, but like Spot Mobile in relation to P’tel, there’s a couple shining little mid-range packages listed under their “Mobile Simple Plan” with better per minute and text rates than what Airvoice provides without going into the “unlimited” territory. On the down side, no data is included with these packages. They also provide smaller family usage plans with reasonable per line rates and rollover, even if their minute and data rates aren’t the cheapest. Support can be a mixed bag at times, but are usually pretty friendly (and better than Locus’ H2O Wireless support), and you can bring your own unlocked GSM handset without much trouble.Ting
- Relatively new on the scene (2011), Ting is owned by internet services giant Tucows.com and came out of beta back in March of 2012. They are a Sprint based MVNO with a twist – voice and SMS roaming on the Verizon network in country and roaming support in several other US territories and countries! That’s right, we have a CDMA MVNO that allows roaming off network, here, and this is partly made possible due to their doing business as a postpaid provider. Although not as cheap for what’s provided as other Sprint based MVNOs, they are quite reasonably priced for heavier users, SMS fiends, and people desiring “family” plans. Also, if your Sprint voice coverage winds up spotty in places, the little extra a month might be worth it to you for gaining the ability to roam off-network. Their pricing gimmick is tiered-based usage levels for voice/text/data with it acting as a usage bucket for all phones on the plan, and auto-adjusting to either the higher or lower priced service tiers depending on usage, so there’s no overages or paying for drastically more than you needed. Handsets can be expensive for buy-in, but they also have BYOD support now for most Sprint phones.Consumer Cellular
- I will readily admit that in the past, I have bagged on Consumer Cellular. I haven’t cared much for their advertising rhetoric, AARP old person technology fear tactics, and “oh, how gauche” attitude they take towards prepaid services, and it helped given the ridiculous prices they had going for the longest time. However, they have since gotten quite a bit more competitive with their pricing, especially on the data front. As to the customer service quality, given their AARP connection, they’ve got to keep their support levels up to keep their users happy. They’ve also been around since 1995, and are a big enough fish that they're now an AT&T wholesale reseller to other MVNOs. There’s still some serious caveats to the service that you should watch out for, but they’re a good option for GSM family plans and people who want to be voice-less data hogs. If you like the idea of Ting, but want GSM service? This might be the way to go.Selectel
- A reasonably decent Verizon based MVNO that supports Verizon CDMA and LTE handset activation with reasonably priced smaller monthly prepaid packages starting at $15/month for 300 minutes, 300 text messages and 15MB of data (LTE minimum package price $20/month). They also have a $75/year plan with 200 minutes and texts, and flex cards to handle overages on limited plans. Selectel has been around long enough to be stable, and a good place for both Verizon and Page Plus refugees looking to save money. They allow BYOD, and are a fantastic option for most Verizon refugees who are out of contract and close their account on good standing as you can bring most phones with.Virgin Mobile
- Virgin is a Sprint owned MVNO on their own network, which is a bit of an oxymoron. Although they have only moderately reasonable minute packages under the PayLo brand, their Broadband2Go service is one of the cheaper prepaid data providers you can get starting at $5 a day for 250MB of data, and $55 for 6GB for a month. This is the provider you want if you’re away from home for a few weeks every so often and you need a more secure network connection and more reliable bandwidth than the local hotel can provide. Used Virgin USB modems and MiFi hotspots can be picked up on eBay and CraigsList for cheap. Their Beyond Talk plans are also reasonably priced for you data junkies out there.Honorable Mention
There’s still a few MVNOs worth at least a mention if any of the above plans/providers don’t quite work for you. These are providers who have a couple warts, like uneven customer support, untried business history, or overly
niche plans, but are better options to consider than the providers in the next section. I won’t suggest them personally and will encourage you to make one of the above providers work if possible, but they still deserve some extended research if that can’t happen.
The Brands to Ignore
- Kajeet - Sprint
- RedPocket - AT&T (Sprint, Verizon service still new)
- H2O Wireless - AT&T
- BYO Wireless - Verizon CDMA (still new-ish)
- EcoMobile - Sprint
- Liberty Wireless - T-Mobile
(America Movil) which isn’t the cheapest, and support can be a nightmare unless si tu habla español. Additionally, they have terrible phones, you can’t bring your own device (with the exception of StraightTalk and specific NET10 “unlimited” plans), and if you ever need to replace a SIM card with one of their handsets, forget it… you’re better off buying another phone. If you want a new phone, you’ll have to re-register and port internally if you want to keep your phone number. It’s just awkward and not worth the money for the most part. If you’re interested in why you see so many recommendations for StraightTalk’s service on the internet from various bloggers, it’s because they pay a high commission rate
has their own prepaid division, but it’s not the most competitively priced. With the exception of the 100 minute/5GB package for the data fiends, there’s not much ground to bother mentioning them as their offerings at best are no better than some of the worst rates available from other MVNOs on their own network. You’ll also notice a lot of T-Mobile branded prepaid services being sold through department stores like Walmart Family Mobile
and Target’s Brightspot
. Read their terms of service and privacy policies carefully
, and be aware that signing up for service through these providers is basically giving these cathedrals of consumerism a level of unrestricted access to your communications habits that would be a dream come true for pretty much any data broker to gain access to. Goodbye privacy!
Finally, there’s Republic Wireless
… the little provider that’s pretending what’s old is novel. Their gimmick is $10-40 a month unlimited usage with WiFi and Sprint network coverage. Theoretically, it’s a great idea. A pre-configured Android phone that defaults to WiFi for calling and seamlessly integrates cell service and VoIP? Fantastic! Unfortunately, execution’s left a lot to be desired and their entire sales pitch is so oiled up pushing your greed buttons that most people ignore the math and the fine print gotchas. The reality is, if you understand how it works (and you can potentially do that after reading this guide and other resources posted here) you can replicate it on your own likely for less using any cheap carrier and an Android phone with Google Hangouts instead
, amongst countless other methods.
Although Republic has appeared to make a concerted effort to address some stickier points, there’s already a history of ongoing shortcomings and issues, and the execution is still left wanting. Their terms of service are harsh, and the service for what you pay for isn’t as competitively priced as it appears. Don’t even consider it if you’re looking at their $25+ rates. Like StraightTalk, they also pay out a healthy bounty on referrals
which is why you’ll see so many bloggers out there singing praises about the service. If you still insist on going with a proprietary VoIP on a smartphone solution from a young MVNO, consider going with TextNow
‘s setup instead as the pricing is more honest for what you’re actually getting, they offer actual phone and email support, and they’ll even let you bring your own Sprint Android handset instead of forcing you to buy their own.
There’s other carriers spanning good from bad, new and old, but the brands above (both good and bad) are the providers that you should be aware of the most going into this venture.The companion page, Cell Phones can be found here.Index
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For the complete, unabridged version of Daley’s Frugal Communications Guide which contains far more detailed topical information, reviews, supplemental information links, as well as hardware and software recommendations, please visit Technical Meshugana.