Depending on your view, the United States economy has either been in the toilet, or slowly climbing its way back out of the toilet, only to slip and fall back in again, over the last 4 years. As a result, many people are cutting unnecessary services out of their lives, and saving money where they can. As a Husband of one, and Father of two (and a single income family), I am certainly one of those people.
For the last six years, my cellular provider of choice was Sprint. During that time I have seen Sprint go from having the best plans around, to costing slightly less than Verizon and AT&T. As of now, the one thing that Sprint still has to their advantage, is “Unlimited*” Data. See what I did there? That asterisk means that it’s not “truly” unlimited, though they market it as such.
During my time on Sprint, I went from having the dumbest of dumb Samsung clamshell phones, to the Samsung Instinct. This required a move up to the “Everything Data” plan, which drove my bill up by an extra 30 dollars per month, just to get the Samsung Instinct…which wasn’t even a smartphone. If it was, it was the dumbest “smartphone” I’ve ever seen. The same goes for the Instinct s30, which I upgraded to a little while later.
In January 2010, after less than 30 days of using the s30, I sent it back and picked up the Samsung Moment instead. It was an Android device, and it was certainly smart, however it only received 1 update, and that was from Cupcake (1.5) to Eclair (2.1) and that was it. The phone was dead after nine months of life, yet I was signed up for 2 more years with a piece of junk phone. The radios locked up constantly, it overheated a lot, and I had to reboot it, at least twice a day, to get it to do it’s most basic function…make calls.
I finally had an upgrade due on a 2nd line, in Dec of 2010. I took advantage of a Radio Shack promo and traded it in for the HTC EVO. Now, this was a smartphone. A big, beautiful, and fast device. I loved it (still do). Three months later, in March of 2011, Sprint still offered yearly upgrades to “premier” members, of which I was, so I used this upgrade to get the HTC Arrive. You can read my review of that device here. At first, I loved it…but it was the operating system and user experience that I loved. After a few weeks, I really began to dislike the Arrive (except for the keyboard. That is still the best keyboard I’ve ever used on a qwerty device).
I could keep going on and on, but to sum things up, I eventually sold my EVO to get a Nexus S 4G (via eBay) because I wanted the latest Android software updates for my phone. Big mistake. From the moment I bought the device until the time the phone finally received the famed “Ice Cream Sandwich” update, was almost four months after the other Google Nexus devices did, and then Sprint killed it.
I had finally had enough of the smartphone leapfrog game.
My Move to Pre-Paid
By February of this year, the contract was due for renewal on my line. I decided not to renew, and took my number to T-Mobile pre-paid instead. I bought a Dell Venue Pro from Amazon as well as a T-Mobile pre-paid activation kit (they’re only 5 bucks at Amazon, and they have bonus minutes that are added to your account, which lowers your buy-in price).
This was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made, phone-wise, and here’s why. On Sprint, my Everything Data plan, before tax, was $79.99 for 450 minutes/unlimited txt/unlimited data. After taxes/fees the total, for my ONE LINE, came out to $90/month. That’s no joke. The one “benefit” of this was the subsidized handset price, that you now get, once every 22 months.
On T-Mobile I have the $50/month unlimited everything (voice/txt/data) and w/taxes it comes to $56/month. It’s still unlimited data, though they do slow your data back down to EDGE (2G) speeds, after you hit a usage limit (which varies, based on your plan). Despite this, it is still a savings of almost $40 per month, over my previous Sprint plan, and well worth it!
But I Hate T-Mobile
Now, you may be saying “well I use AT&T because they have the BEST network, blah blah blah”. Ok, so you use AT&T. Good for you! Guess what? You’re getting ripped off even more than Sprint customers are. At least Sprint customers don’t have to worry about data overage fees, but AT&T users do, unless you are lucky enough to still have an Unlimited* data plan, which AT&T is DESPERATELY trying to get you out of. Rest assured that most customers, who use their annual upgrade subsidy, are no longer on an Unlimited data plan. As a result, you have to pay overage fees to the tune of $25 per 2 Gigabytes (2GB) of data you use, over your initial data limit (which come in 300MB, 3GB or 6GB allotments).
Fear not, I’ve got a solution for you! Ever hear of Red Pocket Mobile? No? They are an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that uses the AT&T network. Their most expensive plan has Unlimited voice/text/mms/and 2GB of HSPA+ data (where AT&T has it available) for only $59.99 a month. Know what else? They don’t charge taxes on that either, unless you live in California, where they are located.
A comparable plan on AT&T which includes unlimited minutes/txt and 300 Megabytes of data, is $99.99/month before taxes and fees. That is a $40 difference (minimum!) each month and you are getting less for your money! On top of that, Red Pocket doesn’t charge overage fees if you use more than 2GB of data. Your data simply stops at 2GB, until you start again the next month! So you get the benefit of the vast AT&T network, but without the headaches and high bills associated with AT&T’s service. You’ll be Winning! like Charlie Sheen.
Lets talk Numbers
Taking these prices into consideration, 24 months (2 years) on the AT&T plan at $99.99/month (for unlimited minutes/txt/300MB of data) is almost $2400 dollars before taxes and fees. By comparison, the same plan (with 2GB of data instead of 300MB) on Red Pocket Mobile (which uses AT&Ts HSPA+ network) is just $1440 over 24 months! That’s more than $1000 (after accounting for AT&T taxes and fees) that you could have put back into your pocket, and bought 2 or 3 off-contract smartphones in that 24 month period, and you would be getting the same or better service, and more bang for your buck!
What Choices Do I Have?
Well, it depends on who you have for your primary carrier. GSM providers like AT&T and T-Mobile, here in the US, have the best choices for pre-paid service. If you like AT&T network and coverage, you have Red Pocket Mobile (the best choice) or AT&T GoPhone (not nearly as good as Red Pocket). The best thing about Red Pocket is that AT&T devices will still work on Red Pocket. There is no need to unlock the SIM because you are still using the AT&T network.
If you prefer Carly and the T-Mobile network, then T-Mobile has their own pre-paid plan called “Monthly 4G” where you can get a great deal on devices like the Lumia 710 for $199, straight up. Plans start at $30/mo for 100 minutes and unlimited txt/data.
There is also another pre-paid provider that uses the T-Mobile network, called “Simple Mobile”. They also have plans, very similar in price to T-Mobile, but I honestly did not see any advantage in choosing them over T-Mobile’s Monthly 4G plan.
If you like Big Red (Verizon), then you can check out their pre-paid service. You can pay a flat rate for your phone, but the selections are very limited.
If you are a fan of the (not) Now Network (Sprint) then you have either Virgin Mobile, or Boost Mobile, to choose from for pre-paid service. Both are owned by Sprint, however you can’t take a Sprint branded phone and put it on Boost or Virgin. That’s a no-no. You will have to buy a Virgin Mobile or Boost Mobile branded phone, but you can find them on eBay for much less than buying them in the store.
The Bottom Line
Playing the smartphone game is often expensive and unfair. You will lock in to a new contract, to get that Lumia 900 (or any other smartphone) for $99, $49, or even free, just to find out 3 months later, that the device has a short life span and won’t be upgraded to the next big software update.
To add insult to injury, you have to pay an Early Termination Fee (or ETF) to break your contract early. All of the major post-paid carriers have a $350 ETF, that will decrease by $10 each month, until you get to a $150 balance (where it will remain) until you fulfill your contract.
Now let’s think about this for a moment, ok? That buy in price, for that new phone, sounded really good right? Does it still sound good, after knowing the ETF is hanging over you? Well that’s how they get you. They lure you in with a low price on a great device, and will then pull the rug out from under you. In the meantime, you’re left holding a device that is, sometimes, dead-on-arrival and your only way out is to pay several hundred dollars in fees.
Things could be different for you though, and here’s why: Go Pre-Paid! You aren’t locked in to a contract, you can use a wider variety of devices, plus you will save hundreds of dollars a year, by moving to a pre-paid provider.
The biggest barrier for people to get into pre-paid, is the device cost. There are ways around this though. You don’t have to buy the phone that comes with the pre-paid package. Sure, it’s convenient because it’s all bundled together in the box, BUT you can find that same device on eBay or Craigslist for less, sometimes, still new-in-box! As an example, I was in the T-Mobile store last week, and I saw the Lumia 710 (at that time) for $299 with a pre-paid plan. When I arrived home, I looked up T-Mobile branded Lumia 710 devices on eBay, and found them for less than $200, many of which were still new.
The point that I’m trying to make, is that with the money you could save with the right pre-paid cell plan, you could outright buy a new device every year, if you wanted to, plus you would still have money left over. Seriously consider pre-paid as an option, when your contract is up. I guarantee that you will not regret it.
Any Phone on Any Cell Network?
No, you can not, is the short answer.
There are technological differences between GSM cell providers (AT&T/T-Mobile) and CDMA cell providers (Sprint/Verizon). For instance, you can’t put a Sprint phone on Verizon or visa versa. You can, however, put an unlocked AT&T phone on T-Mobile or visa versa, and they will still work. Also, if you decide to go the eBay/Craigslist route, to buy your device, you need to make sure that the Sprint or Verizon phone has a “clean” ESN. This will allow the phone to be activated on that respective network. Many people sell Sprint or Verizon phones with a bad ESN, so make sure you get a good one.
Also, be sure to check Amazon for deals on “pre-paid activation kits”, especially for T-Mobile and Red Pocket mobile, because you can find them for much less than you would pay at a retail store, or on the company website.
How to get started
Here are links to the pre-paid providers I mentioned:
To get started using Red Pocket, T-Mobile, Simple Mobile or GoPhone, all you will need is an unlocked GSM compatible phone and a “pre-paid activation kit”. You can buy these kits (and the phones as well) at Amazon.com and activate them through the respective provider company website.
Pre-Paid phones on Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile or Verizon pre-paid are little more tricky. You can still find phones for those providers, on eBay, but you need to make sure that they have a “Clean” or “Clear” ESN and can be activated on their respective network.
Check out their websites for more info on the various pre-paid plans that they offer, and start saving money (and regain your mobile freedom) today!
*Disclaimer* when considering a pre-paid provider, make sure to research who has the best coverage in your area. For example, if AT&T has poor coverage, but Sprint has great coverage, then take that into consideration when choosing.
If you are in an area where AT&T or T-Mobile has better coverage than Verizon or Sprint, then I would heavily recommend moving to a pre-paid provider like Red Pocket or T-Mobile Monthly 4G.