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Considering a Low Cost Cell Plan?

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Lately, a lot of low-cost cell phone plans have become available. If you’re considering a switch, there are a few things you should consider.

Unlimited?

Is the plan actually unlimited? Or, just kinda unlimited?

These days, unlimited talk and text usually lead the way. Basically, you can talk as much as you want, and text an equivalent amount, without adding fees onto your monthly bill.

With the smart phone mentality these days, what is likely going to be your biggest concern will be the data plan. This is where all cell plans are not alike. Make sure they specify the speed of the data network. I recently asked a representative of Hello Mobile what their actual data speed is. Their response is not an answer. At least not to the question I asked.

On the Unlimited plan your Data will never be turned off, but some customers may experience reduced speeds during periods of high congestion.

Hello Mobile Facebook Page

What do the speeds mean? Data speeds are measured in megabits per second. The difference can be significant. We’re going to focus on the four major carriers, as most of the low cost carriers use these networks.

Average
Download
Speed
Average
Upload
Speed
Average
App Download
Time (Min:Sec)
Verizon53.3 Mbps17.5 Mbps0:28
AT&T37.1 Mbps12.9 Mbps0:35
T-Mobile36.3 Mbps16.4 Mbps0:50
Sprint32.5 Mbps4 Mbps0:57

The chart is based on a recent test study by tomsguide.com.

What does this show us? If you’re going with a low cost carrier, make sure that they specify which of these networks they use in your area. Then check how strong that network is in your area. For instance, if you’re already on Verizon and you’re switching to their own low cost alternative, Visible, your service should be just about the same. Though you should also be aware that the carrier will serve their primary customers first. (In the case above, Verizon customers get priority over Visible customers.)

You may also want to check to make sure the carrier allows you to use your device as a hot spot, if needed. Some do not.

If your device is on WiFi most of the time, you likely don’t care about carrier network speeds. Though it will probably come in handy eventually.

You can also check your current speeds utilizing a tool such as speedtest.net, which has apps available for smart phone usage.

Plan vs Prepaid

It used to be that people who couldn’t “qualify” for a cell phone plan would go the prepaid route. In the age of automatic payments, that has fallen by the wayside. Now one is pretty much the same as the other. You sign up. The carrier deducts the monthly fee from your account. You use your phone.

The only ones that know the difference are you and your cell plan provider.

Coverage

Make sure you know what works best in your area. According to the tomsguide.com survey cited above, there can be significant differences geographically.

  • New York: Verizon (Runner-up: Straight Talk)
  • Philadelphia: Sprint (Runner-up: AT&T)
  • Houston: Verizon (Runner-up: T-Mobile)
  • Dallas: T-Mobile (Runner-up: Verizon)
  • San Francisco: AT&T (Runner-up: Verizon)
  • Seattle: Verizon (Runner-up: T-Mobile)
  • Los Angeles: Verizon (Runner-up: T-Mobile)
  • Chicago: Verizon (Runner-up: AT&T/Sprint)

Can You Take Your Phone?

Most low cost carriers have a tool available on their website to let you know if your current phone is compatible with their service. All you’ll need is your device’s International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. This can be easily accessed in your device settings menu.

Beyond that, the new carrier will have to send you a new subscriber identification module (SIM), usually at no cost. If you’re uncomfortable installing the SIM card yourself, you can always go to the carrier’s local location or a smart phone repair shop.

As always, back up all data on your phone in case something goes wrong in the switching process. While it is unlikely, it remains a possibility.

Upfront or Startup Fees

There is a competitive environment out there right now. If you’re savvy, you can likely negotiate around these kind of things.

The fees are usually for fairly simple things, like getting the SIM card that allows you to use their service.

  • Verizon charges $20 for this, though their wholly-owned alternative, Visible, does not.
  • AT&T charges $34.99, but their Cricket division only charges $9.99.

Do with this information what you will. But I’d be all about negotiating the upfront/startup fees to zero.

Recommendations

As always, when switching to a new service that impacts your daily life, try to get a recommendation from a trusted source. You can always try online reviews as well.

Here is what the major carriers currently advertise for their unlimited plans. These are the base, single-line fees. They’ll be happy to add on to your plan for you. Especially with the advent of their 5G networks, they’ll charge a premium to access those.

CarrierMonthly Fee
Verizon$75
AT&T$70
T-Mobile$70
Sprint$80

And, here is a listing (in no particular order) of some of the latest low cost carriers, along with the primary network they use, and the current advertised monthly “unlimited” fee. (including talk, text, and unlimited data)

CarrierNetworkMonthly Fee
Metro by T-MobileT-Mobile$50
VisibleVerizon$40
Straight TalkVerizon$55
Hello MobileT-Mobile$25
Virgin Mobile USASprint$60
Cricket WirelessAT&T$60
Boost MobileSprint$50
Ting Mobile*Sprint$70
Republic Wireless*T-Mobile$40

*Not truly an unlimited plan.

For all plans and carriers, they will also site a “cap” on data limits/speeds. If you’re not sure how much data you regularly use, your current carrier website or app should be able to provide that information for you.


In the interest of full disclosure, I recently switched to Verizon’s Visible carrier. My current download speed measures at 112.0 Mbps, with an upload of 53.4 Mbps.


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