Cell Phones (MVNOs are your friend!)
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.
Now, let's introduce some of the most cost effective wireless providers available!PlatinumTel
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 90 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 and just buy a SIM card. You might have to shell out $100 for a phone, but when you have the potential to be able to get your monthly smart phone service down to as low as $5.00/month, it can be an excellent ROI. We're longtime customers, and it's good service.Pros:
Been around for over a decade. One of the cheapest available per minute and per text rates in the industry, period. Generous 60+ day service time on refills. Free number porting. Frequent promo specials for airtime with handset/SIM purchases. Refurbished phone options. BYOD support. Device tethering is permitted (only) on pay as you go plans. Rollover for unused balance.Cons:
T-Mobile network coverage only! If you don't get good T-Mo service or reception, or wander off the T-Mo network much, you won't have service as they don't allow roaming onto other GSM networks. There have been customer service complaints by others, but the few times I've dealt with them, they've been fine. Refill cards or sellers aren't readily available locally most places, online only for everything. No auto recharge option, top-up is manual only. No call forwarding.Airvoice Wireless
Currently the king of cheap pay as you go AT&T MVNO providers at 4¢ a minute, 2¢ a text, and 33¢ MB data with 30 day refills. Although one of the most expensive per MB of data, Airvoice is technically now cheaper per minute than even Platinumtel, and 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 a GSM carrier so long as you have either an AT&T based or unlocked GSM phone. They've recently gone into 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. One would hope that Airvoice's soft usage cap would still fall roughly in line with those usage numbers, but the change (as of mid-August) is still recent enough that that has yet to be reliably determined. SIM cards cost $5 and can be ordered through them directly or from them directly through Amazon. Parents are on Airvoice.Pros:
BYOD support, especially easy with AT&T phones. Perfect for the AT&T refugee as it's just a new SIM card in your old phone and off you go. Balance rollover. Decent customer support. AT&T GSM network coverage. Free number porting.Cons:
AT&T GSM network only! No roaming off network. AT&T GSM network coverage. Expensive data rates. Short airtime credit, forcing a minimum budget of $10/month. Online or Western Union purchasing of refill cards only. No device tethering.GoSmart Mobile
New on the scene as of the beginning of 2013, GoSmart is actually a T-Mobile owned brand... which is why I'm willing to recommend a relatively untried brand on the scene. They're the go-to for GSM service for people who somehow feel they still need some form of "unlimited" service. Talk and text packages start at $30, with 2G data added for $35 and 5GB of 3G data for $45 a month. Good alternative for those considering Platinumtel, but can't quite get the math to work.Pros:
Free number porting. Cheap option for people who can't rope their usage levels in for pay as you go. GSM BYOD. Owned by T-Mobile.Cons:
T-Mobile network coverage only! No call forwarding. Tiny grace period for re-upping service before losing your number.Ting
Relatively new on the scene, 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. 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. Monthly plans for a single handset can vary from as little as $9/month to as much as $132/month with the ability to have overages billed per min/MB/etc., but that $132 will provide you with 3000 minutes, 6000 SMS messages, and 3GB of data. Handsets are expensive for buy-in, but they're currently about to launch official BYOD support for Sprint devices as of the end of October 2012!Pros:
Great customer support. Roaming support
, including Canada and a mess of other countries! Sprint 4G support. Free tethering and hotspot support. Although new, company is owned by one of the oldest, most profitable internet tech companies. BYOD support for Sprint handsets with clean ESNs.Cons:
Expensive handsets. Crude but expensive BYOD support for a CDMA MVNO. Roaming out of country is EXPENSIVE outside of US territories and Canada.PagePlus
A decent Verizon CDMA based MVNO with reasonably priced smaller prepaid packages starting with "The 12" which is $12/month for 250 minutes, 250 text messages and 10MB of data. PagePlus has been around for a long time, but hasn't aged well with their customer support. They allow BYOD, sort of, 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. Their banned provider and model list is comically long for a BYOD provider though, so unless you're a Verizon refugee or already know what's allowed and how to make it work, you're literally better off just buying a preconfigured phone from PagePlus or one of their resellers.* Pros:
Allows roaming off the Verizon network. BYOD support to an extent, good BYOD support for (soon to be) ex-Verizon users in good standing and out of contract. Decent monthly package prices. Free number porting if activation done through PagePlus directly.Cons:
Customer support is terrible. Roaming prices off network per minute are insane. BYOD is painfully restrictive. Expensive pay as you go options. No device tethering.
(*)Read this post for explanation.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, their Broadband2Go service is one of the cheaper prepaid data providers you can get starting at 100MB for $10 with 10 days access, and $50 for unlimited 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 CL for cheap.Pros:
Cheap used device market. Cheap unlimited prepaid data. Reasonable prices for limited data use abroad, or for the data hungry.Cons:
Sprint customer service. Sprint network coverage only. Only a good provider for data.
There's also Net10/TracPhone/StraightTalk
(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 if you ever need to replace a SIM card, 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. They also over-promise with their "unlimited" packages on StraightTalk, especially with data. If you're looking to spend in excess of 10¢ a minute or more on phone service and need GSM and T-Mobile
has good coverage in your area, go with their
prepaid service or monthly 4G packages instead.
Finally in this list, there's Republic Wireless
... the little provider that could. Their gimmick is $20 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. You can replicate it on your own likely for less using any cheap carrier, Android phone, Google Voice and Talkatone.
Don't even consider it if you're looking at their $30 rate. As a final thought, RW users always cite, "The service will get better once they roll out the next, better phones." If the solution to making your service be able to replicate what a commodity $20 dumbphone can do reliably involves throwing more technology and money at the situation just to make your service suck less
? I'll let you meditate on that one.
As for SMS text messaging
, understand first and foremost that text messaging is a racket and a cash cow, even in prepaid. If you have occasion to text the days away with heavy usage, look into getting a cheap smartphone and a Google Voice account. 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 PlatinumTel, 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 Google Voice
(the perfect SMS text protocol friendly replacement), Kik
, or KakaoTalk
if you and/or your contacts are text message fiends. Even these will cost money, however, and you should ideally try and refrain from having elaborate text conversations on your mobile or consider larger packages from providers that aren't as stingy with the data.
Of course, any data usage is your enemy when you're being billed by the MB, so steps should be taken to stem that data usage as much as possible. Some Android specific software and tips are included in the Miscellaneous Hardware & Software
For the ultra-extreme emergency phone only situation
, there's two options. First
is the 100% free option
outside of obtaining the handset. Any cell phone, even if it's deactivated and without a SIM card or active account can and will call 911
(GSM/CDMA) or 112 (112 is a GSM network only global/universal emergency number - reroutes to 911 in the States) if there's any signal available at all. This is a federally mandated law
, so if you just want a cell phone for extreme emergencies while on the road, go this route. Again, this will even work with GSM phones that have no SIM card. Ideally, the best phone option if you have a choice will be a tri-band GSM plus CDMA world phone to ensure the highest level of coverage if you do a lot of cross-country traveling, otherwise any phone will work
. It is highly recommended that you take the phone you plan to use for this to a retail location for the mobile network carrier that sold the phone initially and have the phone properly reset and deactivated. Just tell them you want to convert the phone to 911 emergency services only - they should
know what to do from there to help you out (master reset and NAM reset if applicable). There's even been tales of some kindly Verizon reps over the years who've included the ability to call non-emergency Highway Patrol numbers for the area while reprogramming the handsets, but there's no guarantee they'll do that. This is also a great option to keep in mind if you're going to try the ultra-extreme WiFi/VoIP only with no wireless carrier option with your smartphone (not recommended). Note: this option is for emergency 911 situations only like a car wreck or fire, not for flat tires and empty gas tanks. Also, if using any wireless phone in this manner, although between GPS (when available) and triangulation allowing them to locate where you are down to around 30m or so best case scenario, be sure to tell them where you're located to ease the dispatcher's job in getting help to you.
As a less extreme emergency phone only secondary option
that still lets you call home or a tow truck or something while on the road if needed, obtain any Verizon or Sprint phone
(might work with other regional CDMA carriers, not 100% certain on this yet - it is important that it's a CDMA phone with a clean ESN, though - most people who do this seem to favor using Verizon handsets) take it into the store and have them deactivate it as before for the 911 only option and get the MIN/NAM set to identify the phone number as 123-456-7890 (the universal deactivated handset identification number). From this point, you should be able to try making a call and getting a woman's voice talking about making a collect or credit card charged phone call. Congratulations! In addition to making 911 calls, you now have access to the American Roaming Network (ARN)
and can make outgoing calls to the US and Canada. Although horrible expensive doing collect or credit card based calls, you can buy a 60 minute PIN card for $20
that will last a year and you can recharge the PIN account at a 25¢ a minute rate afterward. This is the perfect, lowest-cost non-911 exclusive emergency phone for the glove box option available. As before, this is also a great option to keep in mind if you're going to try the ultra-extreme WiFi/VoIP only with no wireless carrier option with your smartphone (still not recommended). If you go this route or the 911 only route, just keep that phone turned off with about a 2/3rds battery charge in the glove box and with a car charger, and you should be covered. For safety sake, be cautious of really hot lithium ion batteries during usage in the summer, though.
For further research on your own for wireless providers, Howard Forums
are an invaluable resource for information. As of October 2012, however, these are the best deals going from reputable companies with established business.
I might also point out from a handset perspective that Apple iPhone 4's are drastically unmustachian
from a data frugality standpoint as they are frequently the highest consumers of needless network data of all the smartphones. Android can be no prize pig itself, but there's greater flexibility to stem needless network data usage with it. Ideally, Blackberries are the most frugal as I've never seen our phones use more than 2MB a month under normal data usage with frequent e-mails, but of the two cheapest MVNOs, H2O has far more expensive data despite the freedom to BYOD, and ACRS
, the only PlatinumTel authorized reseller who offered Blackberries hasn't had any stock available for ages and Blackberries are pretty worthless without BIS service even if you can get them working without it. Better to just bite the bullet and go Android.
I also cannot emphasize this enough: RESEARCH RESEARCH RESEARCH! Don't just go blindly into one provider without finding out what sort of coverage you have in your average roaming area first. As much as I sing the praises of PlatinumTel, it's not for everybody. As great a reception as my wife and I have with them for most of our travels, there's one place we go occasionally where we literally have zero reception: my parent's place in the country. There is literally a Sprint-free dead zone that begins in the center of my parents house and radiates out about 200 feet in every direction. So, great provider for us, crappy for them. Thus the usage of H2O wireless there. Now, you can say that it's a bit pointless to have coverage at home if I'm arguing to use it only in emergencies or when out, but it's still important to have reception in the places you haunt the most, because emergencies happen there, too. Electricity and phone/internet goes out in a storm? Live in the boonies and need GPS coordinates for your 911 call? Factor in everything, ask others about who provides the best cellular network for your area, and don't just blindly trust the coverage maps from the providers as they're known to lie.Updated October 9th with changes to Ting BYOD, and the loss of ACRS P'tel BYOD.
Updated October 26th with Wireless Calculator.Updated January 9th with Platinumtel CDMA/GSM switchover.Updated May 31st with H2O drop, GoSmart addition, more info on doing a Republic setup for less.