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 on switching.
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. The reality is, postpaid contract service and subsidized phone purchasing in North America is an anomaly as most of the rest of the world actually operates on prepaid service (including Europe) and paying full-price for their phones. By making this switch, it opens up a sort of freedom for you as a user, because you no longer have to deal with contracts, overages, and abusive situations with your provider. 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.
I would be lying to you if I told you there isn’t at least a modestly higher risk of losing service and a phone number going through an MVNO than one of the big four MNO carriers, but there’s risk with everything. If you take heed to the advice provided here, that risk will be minimized and you may find your dependence low enough one day that you cease to value a mobile device in your life at all, which will be an even greater savings!
There are other disadvantages to MVNOs as well, such as losing the ability to roam off-network in spotty coverage areas with most providers, so you may lose a bit of a coverage footprint (especially with the two smallest providers Sprint and T-Mobile). That said, major Interstate coverage is usually pretty solid as is most reasonably significant populated ares with most all these major carriers, so you’re likely not going to notice this shortcoming outside of traveling to the sticks or just being in a bad coverage area for that specific network. This network restriction also doesn’t impact your ability to dial 911 if needed on other networks either, so safety shouldn’t be a factor in this decision as every GSM or CDMA phone in this country has the exact same reception footprint for their respective network communications standard – no matter the provider – to be able to dial 911. (More on this later.)
What you lose in roaming freedom by making the switch to an MVNO, you may actually gain in other freedoms with the right alternate provider as well. Everyone has horror stories about calling customer support with their cellular provider… tales of abuse abound. This is what happens when you subject yourself to contracts and become indentured to your provider so you can “afford” to buy that $700 smartphone that they sold you for only $250. I’m not saying you can’t and won’t find lousy customer service in the MVNO field either (and trust me, there’s some doozies that you’ll want to stay away from), but there’s some absolute gems out there like Airvoice, P’tel and Ting that are like a breath of fresh air when you call. They’re knowledgeable, polite, and the call centers aren’t outsourced overseas.
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 (more on this later), 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. If you have occasion to text the days away with heavy usage, look into getting a cheap Android 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 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 Google Voice (the perfect SMS text protocol friendly replacement), Kik, or XMS 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 data connection 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.
As for that data usage, keep in mind that the faster your connection, the faster you’ll likely burn through your data. 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 really eats up your data usage is large photos and streaming media, 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.
Handsets are relevant to the discussion of MVNOs, as the right handset can help you potentially save that much more money if you can’t/don’t want to take along your existing phone, but we’ll save the deeper subject of hardware for later. For now, I will just point out from a handset perspective that Apple iPhones are drastically unfrugal from a data usage 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 granular flexibility to stem needless network data usage with it.
Ideally, Blackberries are the most frugal as I’d never seen our old phones use more than 2-5MB a month under normal data usage with frequent e-mails and BBM, but good luck using Blackberries on an MVNO as MVNOs typically don’t provide BIS service, and they’re pretty worthless without it. The next best alternative is the humble and end of life Nokia Symbian S60 platform, all the conservation of the Blackberry (and similar form factor) without the BIS dependence. Better to go with it or just bite the bullet and go Android if you want a fat media client or a phone still receiving updates and application support.
Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s introduce some of the most cost effective wireless providers available!
Airvoice Wireless – airvoicewireless.com
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 Platinumtel, 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 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.
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. No data tethering restrictions. Free number porting. Automatic balance refill options. Cheapest PAYG data option available.
Cons: AT&T GSM network only! No roaming off network. AT&T GSM network coverage. Short airtime credit, forcing a minimum budget of $10/month without going over to the more expensive per minute PAYG options. Online or Western Union purchasing of airtime only. No call forwarding on “unlimited” talk plans. Data packages on unlimited talk and text plans are provided 50% at a time, requiring a call to support to activate the other half.
Pure TalkUSA – puretalkusa.com
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.
Pros: BYOD support. AT&T GSM native coverage. Auto-renewal for plans. Rollover for flex plans. $5/line family plans with shared usage. Allows limited call forwarding, even on “unlimited” calling plans.
Cons: AT&T GSM network only! No roaming off network. Credit card auto-renewal for plans only through the website, and no disclosed grace period for account activation after payment failure.
Ting – ting.com
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. Monthly plans for a single handset can vary from as little as $9/month to as much as $81+/month with the ability to have overages billed per min/MB/etc., but that $81 will still provide you with 2100 minutes, 4800 SMS messages, and 2GB of data. Handsets can be expensive for buy-in, but they also have BYOD support now for most Sprint phones.
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 most Sprint handsets with clean ESNs. Good deal for multi-handset accounts. Unofficially supports iPhone 4/4S. Postpaid, if you like that sort of thing.
Cons: Mostly expensive handsets if purchased from them directly. BYOD does not include other CDMA carrier handsets and any current “flagship” smartphones. Roaming out of country is EXPENSIVE outside of US territories and Canada. Not a good deal for individual users.
Consumer Cellular – consumercellular.com
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. Some of that (the pricing, anyway) has changed since AT&T dropped their package prices to MVNOs during Summer 2013 combined with their more recently swelled, million-plus, Matlock-loving AARP membership roles. The bottom line is, they have since gotten quite a bit more competitive with their pricing, especially on the data front. As to the customer service quality? Given the old people and AARP connection, they’ve got to keep their support levels up to keep their users happy and avoid user base backlash. They’ve also been around since 1995, and are a big enough fish now that they themselves are an AT&T wholesale reseller to other MVNOs. This makes them a good candidate for this list, no matter how much I don’t want to give any company who sneers at prepaid and gives Ron Maestri acting work to be a poor-man’s Patty Duke my approval. 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.
Pros: Off-network GSM roaming support. Reasonably good customer support reviews. Shared service buckets between lines like Ting. Data tethering is not expressly forbidden. BYOD GSM phone support. Reasonably good voice, text and data package rates. One of the biggest MVNO companies in the US outside of America Movil. Package overage notifications. Postpaid, if you like that sort of thing. Free SIM cards. AARP discounts.
Cons: Manually adjustable package selections with insane overage rates if you don’t adjust accordingly. $10/handset monthly fee. Not a good deal for individual users. All the ugly policies that usually accompany postpaid cellular service.
Virgin Mobile – virginmobileusa.com
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.
Pros: Cheap used device market. Cheap unlimited prepaid data. Reasonable prices for limited data use abroad, or for the data hungry. Reasonably decent handset selection.
Cons: Sprint customer service. Sprint network coverage only. Only a good provider for data plans.
Before getting into the absolute turkeys, there’s still a few MVNOs worth at least an honorable mention to consider 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 below if you’re willing to take the chance. I won’t suggest them personally for various reasons and will encourage you to try and make one of the above providers work if at all possible, but they still deserve some awareness if that simply can’t or won’t happen.
- Kajeet for the cheap Sprint text fiends.
- RedPocket for international direct dial calling with plans on either the AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon CDMA (no LTE) networks.
- H2O Wireless for AT&T MVNO customers who want more data and minutes but don’t care much about customer support.
- Selectel Wireless is not the only Verizon MVNO available on the market, but it’s the only other one that currently fits the guide’s requirements for inclusion under both the customer support quality and business age headers. They can activate most Verizon CDMA and LTE handsets.
- EcoMobile for light use Sprint MVNO customers who use too little for Ting or RedPocket to make financial sense.
- Liberty Wireless for T-Mobile folks looking for a cheap plan with unlimited texting.
The Brands to Ignore
There’s 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 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. They also over-promise with their packages on StraightTalk, especially with data. If you’re looking to waste money and 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. 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.
T-Mobile has their own prepaid division, but it’s not the most competitively priced. There’s also the occasional thread that pops up over at HoFo from time to time talking about vanishing credit. I’ve never met any of these people personally and take the news with a grain of salt, but it seems to happen enough to warrant mentioning as an intellectual curiosity. Beyond that, with the exception of the 100 minute/5GB package for the data fiends, there’s not much ground to bother mentioning them in the first place 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, Android phone, Google Voice and a SIP app amongst 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. 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. 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.
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).
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. Also be aware that if you become disconnected, the dispatcher has no way to call you back.
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 – 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 horribly expensive doing collect or credit card based calls, you can buy a 120 minute PIN card for $15 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 – even when that’s what Republic and its ilk are selling). 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 December 2013, however, these are the best deals going from reputable companies with established business.
I 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 P’tel, it’s not for everybody as coverage maps and usage needs change for different people and regions. What service might work for me might not work for you, and it’s best to have coverage everywhere your phone may be. 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.
- Internet Service Providers (what you do and don’t need)
- Networking Equipment (laying the foundation)
- Cell Phone Providers (MVNOs are your friend!)
- Cell Phones (hardware and software)
- Home Telephone Providers (VoIP to the rescue!)
- Home Telephone Equipment (hardware and software)
- Home Entertainment (replace the cable box)
- Closing & Miscellaneous Resources