Article: Giving Prepaid a Chance

by on September 9, 2017

Typically the words that come to mind when someone talks about prepaid phone service are cheap, lousy service, used for nefarious acts, or something similarly negative. There’s also the socioeconomic stereotypes that get thrown around. With all the price wars going on in the mobile world, I decided to give prepaid a try. I learned a few things in the past six months.

The last time I used any sort of prepaid service was the long-retired T-Mobile To Go back in college. My other family members were not in areas of reasonable coverage for any carriers, so an unlocked GSM phone and 10¢/minute or 10¢/text were a boon for someone who wanted something to supplement long-distance calling cards and the phone in my dorm room.

Since then, almost all prepaid services have shifted to offering plans and services like their postpaid counterparts, but with some different benefits and drawbacks. Additionally, all of the “big four” carriers except Verizon have purchased smaller carriers to serve as their prepaid brand and compete in different markets or even lower price points. AT&T has Cricket Wireless, T-Mobile has metroPCS, and Sprint has both Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. In the case of Sprint, Virgin Mobile is unique in that the company is shifting towards being iPhone-only. In addition, all carriers offer some sort of in-house prepaid service under their brand (AT&T used to be marketed as GoPhone, but is simply “AT&T Prepaid” now). Last, but not least, numerous other companies will buy service wholesale and resell it under their brand, so you are never directly doing business with the company that is running the network. Some of these include Tracfone, Total Wireless, H2O, Consumer Cellular, Simple Mobile, Straight Talk, and Ting. These are known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs). Some have debated if carrier-owned prepaid services count as MVNOs, but for the sake of this article, I’m treating them like they don’t.

Most prepaid services only offer native coverage, which means that your phone won’t do any sort of roaming and work only on whatever carrier’s network you’re using. Using AT&T as an example, there are some holes in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana that AT&T doesn’t operate towers. If you’re using a service like Straight Talk, your phone will not work in those areas, but someone on AT&T’s traditional postpaid service will. Other than that, coverage and service should be identical, so if you have a good T-Mobile signal, you’re going to have a good metroPCS or Simple Mobile signal on the same type of phone.

Finally, most prepaid services have lower-grade customer service. I can’t really fault this, as this probably lowers operating costs quite a bit. Plus, customers either fall under the category of not needing it or not caring because it’s based on price.

Project Fi

You may have heard of Project Fi, a service offered by Google. Charging only for what you actually use, it combines Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Wi-Fi coverage to offer a unique mix of coverage. Unfortunately, to take advantage of this, it requires a Google-branded Android phone (either the Nexus series or the Pixels). Throwing the SIM from this into an iPhone yields T-Mobile service only.

Dipping a Toe in the Water

I started looking at switching to prepaid to save some money, as I don’t use much data, minutes, or text messages every month. Through Walmart or T-Mobile, T-Mobile offered a $30/month plan that included 5GB of data, 100 minutes, and unlimited texts, which was a bit cheaper than me being part of an AT&T family plan (I could move the remaining lines to a smaller data bucket). However, visiting Walmart offered nothing, and T-Mobile eventually phased it out anyway.

Around that time, I started hearing about some of the changes that were taking place with Cricket Wireless’s service and did a bit of investigating. It was tad cheaper than AT&T Prepaid, offered some great deals if you brought multiple lines with their Group Save feature (each additional line gets a $10 more discount than the one before it, up to 5 lines on an account), there were some referral deals, and the laundry list of taxes and fees were covered in the monthly plan cost. I decided to give it a try, and at worst I could rejoin our AT&T account.

Compared with AT&T, Cricket does have a few downsides. The first is that all customers are throttled to 8Mbps on LTE and 4Mbps on HSPA+ (aka “4G” on most iPhones). While this isn’t bad, and fine for streaming video on a phone, a lot of people who are obsessed with running speed tests treat this as a negative. I have yet to find a situation where this isn’t sufficient for anything I do on my phone. Additionally, Personal Hotspot is disabled on all plans, and available as a $10 option on the 8GB plan. Since I rarely use this and have a cellular-capable iPad, I didn’t see it as an issue. Their service also only officially supports phones, so you won’t be able to bring every cellular-capable device and add it to your account like you could with AT&T. Finally, buying a phone almost always means you’ll pay for it outright, so an iPhone 7 is going to be $650 instead of convenient payments for x months. Since I was bringing my paid-full-price, unlocked iPhone SE, it was no big deal.

The process to change was very easy. I completed a referral, so that the person who mentioned it to me and I would each get $25 if I kept service for two months. After that, I did everything online, and only needed my phone number, AT&T account number, and account PIN to bring my number over. If you’re starting from scratch and bringing your number, you can skip those requirements. Once everything was verified, a SIM card was shipped to me and I just had to pop it in my phone, open the activation link in my order email, and my number was moved from the AT&T account to Cricket. Porting your number can take a few hours, but mine was ready to go almost instantaneously. I was now a Cricket customer.

In the weeks that followed, I was trying to find fault with the service, not to have something to complain about, but just to see if moving all of our lines over to save $60/month would have any noticeable downsides. Everywhere I usually went, my service seemed about the same (and I have a friend with the same phone on AT&T postpaid, so we sort of keep an eye on things bar-for-bar if we’re together). Cricket didn’t have Voice-over-LTE enabled at the time, so my phone would drop back to 4G for calls (it is enabled for iPhones now), and Wi-Fi calling is still a function that is offered on AT&T postpaid, but not Cricket. Other than those differences, my phone worked and acted exactly the same as it had for years.

…And the Rest of the Family

On our AT&T account, there are three other family members—two don’t use much data and live in an area that only gets good service with AT&T and Verizon, while the other uses lots of data and can go on any carrier. Due to the shared nature of AT&T’s data plans, they tend to balance each other out, but it usually ends up a fight, especially in the days of overage charges. For the two who live in a rural area, having a phone that works is more important than every bell and whistle on a plan. The third is looking for the most bang for his buck in terms of data. I proposed we switch the remaining lines because it would save money overall and nobody would necessarily have a worse experience.

I moved the heavy data user over first—since we were under a time crunch and his phone had seen better days, he was interested in trying an inexpensive Android phone and bought one of the starter kits at Target for about $80. Porting his number took about two hours, just because nothing was done ahead of time in the process. From what it seems, if you order a SIM from Cricket or AT&T, the port goes a lot faster.

To move the two over, I ordered a SIM, as I did with my line, and then found that I could only order one at a time (you also can’t order another if the port is pending, so I would have had to move one line over, then order another SIM, which was not going to work). For the other, I picked up a SIM kit at Best Buy on the way up for the visit. Moving both of these over also was painless and worked as expected. Since I joined, all the low-priced, Group Save-eligible plans got another GB of data, bringing the total to 4GB. Instead of us sharing 15GB of data for about $165 (the phones were all paid off), the breakdown was as follows:

  • Line 1: 4GB $40
  • Line 2: 8GB $50 – $10 discount
  • Line 3: 4GB $40 – $20 discount
  • Line 4: 4GB $40 – $30 discount
  • Total: $110

As Cricket’s Group Save discount will allow you to apply it up to five lines, I picked up an extra 4GB line mostly for messing with extra devices and such and it added $0 to the cost ($40 – $40 discount). If we were to add any more lines, there’d be no more discounts applied, so people have often found that splitting large families across two accounts works better.

Evaluation

After six months for me, and four for the others, everything has worked as expected and we have found that some new benefits have been added, such as Voice-over-LTE for newer iPhones (unofficially) and some limited roaming. The tradeoffs weren’t a big deal for us, as I’m the only one who typically replaces my iPhone before it’s run into the ground, also provide support for everyone else, and everyone has plenty of data.

AT&T has moved to pushing bundles to save money for their postpaid customers. Since this account spans across a few people and we all have different other services, not to mention DirecTV Now doesn’t play with bundling, we’re still saving more setting up our communications piecemeal. We might have been able to save even more had we gone with one of the many other MVNOs, but full support for iPhones and ease of use were key. In our case, if AT&T does something new, Cricket usually gets it shortly after AT&T customers, but before someone on an MVNO like H2O or Consumer Cellular.

The idea of buying a phone at full price is scary to some, but with the money we’re saving every year, you could budget a phone replacement in every year whether you actually use it or not. Furthermore, now that Apple sells unlocked, SIM-free iPhones that you can install your own SIM card, I won’t be at a disadvantage if I wanted to get a new one when it launches.

Overall, I’ve been pretty happy with the change, and recommend that anyone who is looking to save some money to investigate going with a prepaid service. Although my experience with Cricket was positive, I recommend looking at a prepaid service that runs on a strong carrier in your area. You might find something that offers a better value or features that will work better than what the “big four” typically offer.

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