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Picking Your Wireless Carrier (USA) part 07: Update

Just want to post some updates to the choice of prepaid plans and MVNOs.

First, AT&T. It is rumored that they will announce an update on their prepaid goPhone plans, namely the $50 tier to give you unlimited minutes, unlimited text, and 2GB data. Currently, the $50 tier is only for dumbphones, and it’s $65 for unlimited minutes, unlimited text, and 1GB data. Note that this is still a rumor. This is actually not bad if you want to spend $50 a month. It definitely put a lot of pressure for AT&T MVNOs like Airvoice and Red Pocket.

Next, T-Mobile. T-Mobile Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Picking Your Wireless Carrier part 03: T-Mobile MVNOs

All right, now we already see the savings you can get by switching to these MVNOs. IMO AT&T MVNOs are still a bit “pricey,” probably because of AT&T itself. How about T-Mobile? Being the fourth largest carrier (the bottom last), T-Mobile seems to offer more value, and with that, there are tons of T-Mobile MVNOs out there.

Before we go further, let’s take a look at T-Mobile’s own prepaid plans, dubbed “monthly 4G.” Please note that the term 4G here is faux 4G, aka 3G or 3.5G, HSPA+. T-Mobile has not rolled out LTE yet. If you go to their site, T-Mobile is touting its $70 unlimited everything (minutes, text, and data). Doesn’t sound to bad. The catch is there’s no tethering/portable hotspot. T-Mobile actually advertise unlimited data on all of their plans, a common recurring theme amongst the MVNOs too. The differentiation is how much of that data is at 3G speed. The $60 plan gives you 2GB. $50 plan gives you 100MB. You still get unlimited minutes and text. What happens after you reach the specified quota? Your data is throttled to 2G/EDGE speed (more like ISDN speed, ~128kbps).

The most interesting part of T-Mobile’s offering is not those plans though. It’s the $30 a month plan that gives you 100 minutes, unlimited text, and 5GB of data at 3G speed. That is an unbeatable deal if you know you won’t talk that much on your phone. Really, if you know you don’t use that much minutes, stop looking and get this plan. You’ll find no better deal anywhere else. This is such a good deal that even T-Mobile doesn’t offer this at their own stores. You have to buy the SIM (mini and micro SIM are available) online or go to Walmart.

Okay, let’s assume that you will need a lot more than 100 minutes. Let’s take a look at Simple Mobile. Simple Mobile has been around for a while. You will find their kiosks in malls. Their plans selection is very simple. For smartphones, there are two choices, depending on how much data you need at 3G speed. $40 will give you 250MB data at 3G speed, $50 will bump that to “unlimited” (it ends up being about 2GB). Speed is throttled down to 2G/EDGE speed after you reach the quotas. Both plans offers unlimited minutes and text. Cheaper than T-Mobile’s own offerings. Another extra point for Simple Mobile is unlimited international text. Yes, you can text to most countries around the world, no extra charge. The list is pretty extensive. Consider that other carriers charge you up to 30 cents per international SMS, this is a great deal. Of course, if you have been utilizing alternative services like Whatsapp, twitter, Facebook, Line, etc, it’s a moot point.

I am using Simple Mobile now, the $40 plan (pincheap.com is selling the $40 PIN for $38.40. With careful use and wifi at home, I can get by with the 250MB 3G data. Even if I use more, it’s just going to be slower instead of me being charged overages or cut off data completely).

Next operator I would like to mention would be Straight Talk. I have mentioned Straight Talk on my AT&T MVNO post. Straight Talk seems to offer only T-Mobile SIM for right now. Their plan is simple, $45 ($50 with taxes) a month for unlimited minutes, unlimited text, and “unlimited” data. The “unlimited” data turns out to be about 100MB per day and 2GB per month usage. It’s a good deal if you want to have a plan with plenty of minutes and data.

I used to use Straight Talk (with the AT&T SIM). One warning, DO NOT sign up for auto-refills. Sure, the convenience of auto-refills is tempting, but do not sign up for it. Why? If you want to quit Straight Talk, there is no way to cancel your auto-refill/credit card info from their website. The only way to do it is to call their customer service. Well, guess what. I tried calling their customer service many times and I only got a message about how busy they are and to call back later. WTF? Yes, you cannot get a hold of them. You have been warned.

Ultra Mobile did a different approach on their plans, using speed as the differentiating factor. Their $40 per month plan gives you unlimited everything, data at 128kbps speed. For $50 a month, you get 1GB data at 3G speed. Just like Simple Mobile, Ultra gives you unlimited international text. If you think about it, their plans are actually not any different than Simple Mobile’s. With Simple Mobile, at $40 a month, at least you get 250MB data at 3G speed before bumped down to 2G. The upside of Ultra is that it gives you some international long distance credit ($20 for the $50 plan, $5 for the $40 plan), and you can actually pay extra to get some 3G data quota if you need it ($10 for 500MB). More choice, the better. Ultra sells a double-punch mini + micro SIM for $10.

Oh we are not done yet. There is another T-Mobile MVNO called Platinum Tel. Their plans parodied Simple Mobile’s. $40 for 250MB 3G data, $50 for 2GB. Unlimited everything, including international SMS. The special thing to note about Platinum Tel is their pay-as-you-go plan, where the rates are actually pretty reasonable. 5 cents per minute, 2 cents per SMS/international SMS/MMS, 10 cents per MB, and $10 denomination good for 60 days. They sell their mini SIM for $5.

There’s another T-Mobile MVNO called Solavei. I’m not going to talk about it as it’s more of a pyramid scheme, and you have to pay some sort of a membership fee.

Last but not least, Go Smart mobile. This is actually launched by T-Mobile themselves. Prices are pretty good. $45 will net you 5GB at 3G speed, while $35 gives you unlimited 2G speed. Unlimited minutes and text. Unlike the other MVNOs, international SMS cost extra, $5 for unlimited international SMS. Do note the fine print though, T-Mobile will prioritize packets for its regular post-paid customers first. Although this shouldn’t be an issue during normal use, people sometimes are getting busy signals during peak hours.

So, plenty of options. Again, remember how you would be paying at least $80 a month an up on those post paid plans with the big carriers? Now, the prices hover around $40-$50 a month.

I do need to point out that not everything is rosy on the MVNO sides. I already pointed a caveat on Go Smart, where it gets less priority compared to T-Mobile’s own post paid customers. Also, despite everybody claiming unlimited this and that, in reality, there is a limit. Although it shouldn’t hinder normal usage, if you really want unlimited minutes in a literal sense, getting into the expensive post paid plans with the big carriers might be a safer way than having your service interrupted. Also, certain services might not be available on MVNOs. For example, with Simple Mobile, I cannot accept short code SMS, which is used frequently for mobile banking. Something to consider if you rely on something like that.

Once you know what you are getting into, enjoy the savings. I might touch a little bit on CDMA MVNOs next.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in comparison

 

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Picking Your Wireless Carrier part 02: AT&T MVNOs

Now that we know how expensive it is to have a smartphone using the big carriers, how can we save money? Enter the MVNOs, short for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. What are they? They are virtual operators, meaning they don’t have any spectrum on their own, so they lease some from the big carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon) and resell it to consumers. Since they are competing against the companies that own those spectrum to begin with, MVNOs generally offer better prices to attract consumers, and most, if not all of them, offer their plans as contract free, as prepaid and/or pay-as-you-go.

Notice that I said no-contract. Although most MVNOs still sell phones under their brand (mostly outdated cheap phones), the idea is to bring your own phone. This means no subsidy. Considering the savings you would get on the monthly plans, you still end up cheaper, especially if you purchase your phone for cheap (ie. a Nexus 4, or second hand).

Before we go further, I need to point out that the concept of prepaid and pay-as-you-go is separate in the US. In most other countries, those terms are the same. You put in money in your account, and it will be deducted when you use the service.

In the US, the terms prepaid is not considered to be the same as pay-as-you-go. The classic definition of prepaid, where you put money on your account, and then your account is deducted when you make calls based on the per minute rate is called pay-as-you-go. The concept of prepaid in the US is similar to post-paid, meaning you pay a fixed amount on a monthly basis for a pre-determined service. The difference is you pay for the service in advance before you can use the service, pre-paid, compared to post-paid where you pay after you use the service at the end of the billing cycle. In the end, it’s the same thing, you pay in advance to use the service, but you will see the two different terms being used separately in most US wireless carriers’ sites. I probably will not cover pay-as-you-go plans as most MVNOs’ pay-as-you-go offerings are lousy (very expensive per minute/per SMS/per kb rates).

For this post, I am going to focus on AT&T and its MVNOs. Before looking at the MVNOs, let’s look at AT&T itself. AT&T offers a prepaid plan on its own, part of its go-phone plans. It’s a bit confusing as AT&T disallow smartphones on certain plans. I’m going to focus mainly on plans that you can use on smartphones with data plan. AT&T’s most economical prepaid plan for smartphone would be the $25 plan + data packs. The $25 per month plan gives you 250 minutes, unlimited text, and you can add on 1GB data for an additional $25. So basically it’s $50 a month for 250 minutes, unlimited text, and 1GB data. You can bump the data pack down to $15 for 200MB if you wish to. Moving up to $65 a month will give you unlimited minutes. Compare this to AT&T’s own post-paid plan for smartphones, where the cheapest option would be $60 a month for 450 minutes, no text, and a mere 300MB data, this is not a bad deal. The catch is that the go-phone coverage area is less extensive than the post-paid plans, but shouldn’t be an issue for most people that live in cities. You can get the SIM chip for free by going to AT&T stores. I would recommend going to an actual AT&T corporate store, not a reseller, as most resellers would try to charge you money and/or scam you.

Now, let’s take a look at the MVNOs. First I would like to mention Red Pocket. They are one of the bigger AT&T MVNOs. Their prepaid plans are very simple. The most economical one for smartphone usage would be the $50 a month plan that gives you unlimited voice, unlimited text, and 500MB of data. A fair trade-off compared to AT&T’s own go-phone plan. You get unlimited minutes, but less data. There is also a $55 a month plan that bum up the data quota to 1GB. Red Pocket is one of the few MVNOs that actually sells a nano-SIM for iPhone 5 users.

I would also like to point out that you can save up a bit more (a dollar or two) on your monthly cost by purchasing the refill PIN from 3rd party resellers. For example, the $49.99 PIN at pincheap.com is $47.99, no tax. Hey, those extra dollar adds up you know. ­čÖé

Next, another popular AT&T MVNO is Airvoice. For $40 a month, you get unlimited minutes, unlimited text, and 500MB data. It gets better already huh, especially when you compare to the post-paid plans from the big carriers that will cost you at least eighty ninety dollars per month. $55 a month bumps the data to 1GB. There is a catch with Airvoice though. Even though you have 500MB of data, you only have access to the first 200MB (I think. 400MB for the 1GB plan). For the rest, you have to call their customer service to enable it. This can be really inconvenient. So caveat emptor.

I would like to point out Airvoice’s pay-as-you-go plan. Although the rates are nothing special (10 cents a minute, 10 cents per SMS, $1 monthly charge), their lowest denomination, $10, is good for 90 days. This is a good pick for a backup phone, even if you are paying $1 per month to keep the line. Most other operators and carriers will only give you 30 days. Airvoice only sells a mini SIM chip, although you can search ebay or Amazon to find people selling a pre-cut SIM to micro/nano size easily (for cheaper too!)

Lastly, I want to mention good2go mobile. I don’t think it’s a well-known company, but it offers a neat feature. Its most economical plan would be $40 a month that gives you unlimited calls, unlimited text, and 250MB of data. For $50 a month, you get 1GB data. The neat thing about good2go is that you can add on some more data when you need it. So instead of paying $50 a month for 1GB of data that I might not use, I can just pick the $40 a month plan, and I can add 500MB data for $10 when I actually need it. They offer mini and micro SIM from their website.

Well, how about that. Looking back when the cheapest smartphone plan from the big carriers would cost you $80-$90 a month, now you are looking at less than $60 a month prices. Consider a typical 2 year contract. Let say you save $20 a month by going with an MVNO. In 2 years, you have saved $480, and that doesn’t include taxes that you have to pay on those post-paid plans. Add on to the fact that you can buy refill PINs for a dollar two less, that is quite a big savings. If you save $30 a month, that’s at least $720 in your pocket for two years! You can buy a new iPhone with that. Oh, and get this, if you finish your contract on those big carriers’ post-paid plans, your monthly plans are not getting any cheaper, even though technically you have fulfilled your subsidy.

As a side note, there used to be another large MVNO utilizing AT&T towers called Straight Talk. Straight Talk offered both AT&T SIM or T-Mobile SIM. You can find them at Walmart, but they also sell the SIMs on their website. Their plan is $45 a month ($50 with taxes if you buy the PIN from the website) for unlimited minutes, unlimited text, and “unlimited” data (which translates to about 2GB. Still, it’s not bad). Comparing the prices, Straight Talk had the best deal if you need a bit more data than the 1GB offered by the other MVNOs. Problem is, for some unknown reason, they no longer offer the AT&T version of their SIM on their website. Only T-Mobile SIM is listed now.

On my next post, I will explore T-Mobile MVNOs, where the selections are a ton more, and also the bang for the buck.

Addendum: I forgot to mention H2O wireless, another AT&T MVNO. They have decent plans, although fairly similar to the other MVNOs. $50 a month gives you unlimited minutes, text, international text, and 500MB data. $60 bumps the data to 2GB. $40 bumps the data down to 100MB. Mini and micro SIM are available for $10.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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