Update 2013.02.21 – I recently ported back to Straight Talk and have found that I can no longer seem to successfully make the forwarding call required to use GVoice for my voicemail. Lame! One less reason to pick them I guess. The carrier table should be updated accordingly. For those interested, I also signed up the the Republic Wireless $19/mo unlimited program today, and I’ll put up an article about this service once I’ve had the chance to kick the tires.
I recently read JR Raphael’s excellent article Android off-contract: My prepaid journey, 3 months later and thought to myself “self, we definitely need more prepaid customers. But the described setup only gets you 100 minutes a month!” Normal humans aren’t going to want to jump through hoops to work around 100 minute allotment limitations with the Tmo plan. T-mobile also has a $50 unlimited voice, text & data plan (their Monthly 4G Plan) which is great, and gets you 4G speed for the first 100 MB of data. But if you want more 4G than that, or if Tmobile doesn’t work at your house, you can do better with an MVNO.
An MVNO basically piggybacks on a major operator’s network and resells service to people like you and me. Why would you want to use what is effectively a middleman? Because you generally get a better deal for your money, often MUCH better than over a traditional carrier DESPITE the fact that a contract should induce lower costs for the consumer!
What you give up by using an MNVO? For one thing, direct support from the carrier – all MVNOs offer their own phone support If you are someone who is always calling your phone carrier to say hi, maybe this isn’t for you. Second, in some cases reception isn’t as good if you live in the sticks, as MVNO’s don’t always support all wireless bands or roaming options in order to save money. If you live and generally spend time near a major city though, you should be more than fine. Third, you actually have to pay for your phone, but once you do you OWN it. Imagine renting a land line phone like you did in the 50s. Why are you renting-to-own a cell phone in 2012? Is this worth the tradeoffs? Your wallet will have to decide, but I’ve been extremely happy with all the MVNOs Ive used and really only had to switch due to coverage on the parent carrier’s network.
I’ve used 3 different MVNO’s in the last year: Straight Talk’s SIM offering, Simple Mobile, and Virgin Mobile. Straight Talk SIM and Simple Mobile are SIM-based operators, which means you can remove the SIM from the phone and move it to another (unlocked) one whenever you like. Virgin Mobile sells branded phones and requires you use them with their service (like their parent company Sprint). Each company has its own pluses and minuses; read on to see what I thought of each!
Straight Talk SIM
I used Straight Talk earlier this summer. They normally sell phones locked into their service (you’ve probably seen them at Walmart, which also owns the company). However you can now buy a ($15) SIM card from their web site and use it in your own (unlocked) device! As far as I know Straight Talk is the only reasonable MNVO offering nationwide unlimited calling in AT&T’s network. You can also elect to use T-mobile’s network if you have better reception with them, but honestly if you’re going to use a Tmo-based MVNO you may as well use Simple Mobile and get unlimited 4G. Straight Talk SIM on AT&T has the distinction of being the only MVNO option I tried where you can use Google Voice for your voicemail, which may be the biggest thing in their favor. One irritating thing you’ll find is that even though the mobile data is unlimited, you’ll still get nastygram text messages after your go over 2GB of data per month. I have never been shut off and have used a lot more than 2GB but YMMV (your mileage may vary) and you must decide how much you are willing to put up with that sort of irritation.
Simple Mobile is a Tmobile-based MVNO with an interesting hook: UNLIMITED 4G data (plus unlimited voice and texts) for $50/month!. To be clear the 4G they are referring to is T-mobile’s HSPA+ which is technically 4G but slower than other 4G technologies, but unless you’re streaming full-quality music from your Google Music player (and know how to enable that since it’s not the default), HSPA+ is probably more than enough for your needs. Simple Mobile definitely had the fastest data services of the three services I’ve tried as Massachusetts has good HSPA+ coverage.
Now the downsides. First, if you’re porting your number, you’ll have to call and talk to a human being rather than being able to do this from the web-site. This personally drives me nuts but some people dont mind human interaction occasionally 🙂 As with Straight Talk, if you want to try the services out and later decide to port your number, you’ll have to buy a brand new SIM and restart service on that SIM to do so, which is irritating. Also as noted in the previous section, there is no Google Voice voicemail love here, but at least when I was enrolled there were no irritating bandwidth warning texts. Another formerly-negative is that their website only used to support Firefox and IE (no Chrome, seriously?!) but that appears to have been remedied very recently.
I’ve always liked Virgin Mobile. a Sprint-based MVNO, their advertising is young, urban and very stylish. Unfortunately their phones were historically complete and utter junk running some archaic operating system from 1990. Fortunately nowadays they sell full Android phones, which is important because their network is CDMA based – no promiscuous SIM-card swapping at will, and they only allow Virgin branded phones on their network. They have some nice high end phones (including the Samsung Reverb, $250) and a pretty decent middle-of-the-road model in the HTC One V which I really have grown to love. The best part about the One V is that you buy for $150 at WalMart (or $160 at their website), and for the features you get (Android 4.0, slim profile, a very nice 3.7″ screen, all the usual Google goodies minus Voice) makes it a pretty compelling phone. But if you wanted, you can even buy a Virgin-branded iPhone (at a shocking $550 for the iPhone 4 8GB)!
How do I decide who to pick?
A lot of how you decide will probably come down to what carrier works best at the places you go. In one place I’ve lived there was no T-mobile or Verizon service at all indoors, which means only AT&T and Sprint-based carriers were available. The nice thing is with no contracts, if you decide to move, you can switch to whatever MVNO works best at your new place.
I tried to summarize as well as I could in this table:
[table caption=”MVNO Comparison”]
Name[attr style=”width:20px”],Network,Cost,Bring Your Own Phone?,Unlimited Talk/Text/Data?,Web-Based # Porting?,Google Voice for voicemail?,4G data?
Simple Mobile, T-Mobile, $50/mo, Y, Y, N, N, Y
Straight Talk SIM, AT&T, $45+tax/mo, Y, Y, Y, N, N
Virgin Mobile USA, Sprint, $55+tax/mo (1200 mins for $45+tax), N, Y, Y, N, Y (certain phones)
So, why use an MVNO with these caveats?
Honestly, because the more people use MVNOs, the better the terms the MVNOs will be able to negotiate with the carrier. There is also something very liberating about knowing your phone and numbers are yours and only yours, and you can get a new provider or phone whenever you like! Smash your phone? Go get a new one and put in your old SIM (or do a swap from the website for Virgin Mobile). Moving? Pick a new MVNO that works where you’re moving.
Another reason is this: honestly, do you LIKE the contract carrier you have today? Have they ever done anything nice for you? Every 2 years you get a $200 discount on some bloatware-laden phone, and this is worth sticking around for?
Where do I get a compatible phone?
If you pick Straight Talk or Simple Mobile, any unlocked phone will work. As Mr Raphael points out, the Google Galaxy Nexus is a great phone, has a giant, beautiful screen, front and rear-facing cameras, Android 4.1 and no bloatware, works on AT&T and T-mobile networks including T-mo HSPA+ and costs $350. While it’s a high price, the amount of money you save over an unlimited plan from a traditional carrier ($89/mo for T-mobile, $85 for 1GB of data on AT&T!) means that the phone will pay for itself in the first year or so.
For Virgin Mobile, as I said in that section I really cannot recommend the HTC One V enough. Aside from a lack of front-facing camera (which generally I found take frustingly bad pictures even in high end phones) and no 4G, it really is an amazing device for the $150-$160 it costs to own outright.
About the Author
I am not affiliated with any cell phone carrier (though I am employed by Google and definitely love all things Android, this work is also unaffiliated with my employer). I’m just someone who loves to try out new things, including cell phone companies, as frequently as I can :-). The images used are not mine and I make no claim of ownership about them. The text of this article is license-able under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike (CC BY-SA).