Is there a catch to MVNOs?
February 19, 2013 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Are there any drawbacks to using an MVNO/prepaid cell carrier?

I'm changing jobs soon and will need to get my own phone and cell carrier. I live in Boston, MA and want to buy a Nexus 4. Looking at carrier option, it seems like someone like Straight Talk would be a good option, especially since I'd be bringing my own device.

My only concern is if the service quality of the service. With Straight Talk, for example, I'd be on AT&T's GSM network in Boston, I think. I have friends who have AT&T service and they say it's fine, but I wonder if as an MVNO customer I'd get second-tier access or service.

I'm essentially wondering if there's some kind of a catch here that pays for offering connectivity at lower pricing. I've read this previous thread and people are generally positive but I thought I'd check again specifically on service quality.

Do any mefites use these kinds of prepaid providers? If so, how good is your coverage and service access?
posted by Aizkolari to Technology (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've got Straight Talk - it's swell. The only real problem is that it can use either AT&T or T-Mobile signal, and when moving from one to the next, it will sometimes lose its authentication to the network proxy - put the phone into airplane mode, and then take off airplane mode - it will reconnect with full access.

I use HSPA+ data, and I have no complaints about bandwidth - it's faster than my cable modem sometimes.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:12 PM on February 19, 2013

Some MVNOs (well, prepaid plans in general) do not allow roaming, or do not allow data roaming. That's the only downside I can think of. Straight Talk seems to, although apparently not as extensively as AT&T contract plans do.

Be sure you get an AT&T SIM rather than a T-Mobile one, if you will mostly be on AT&Ts network. From what I understand, they are scarce at the moment (there was in fact a rumor that AT&T was dropping Straight Talk as a MVNO, but it seems that this was incorrect and they were just out of micro SIMs).
posted by kindall at 1:40 PM on February 19, 2013

I use a Nexus 4 with Straight Talk, and think it's a tremendous bargain. I've had no problems whatsoever - and there's no contract, so if there are problems, there's nothing preventing me from dropping them and going somewhere else. Before the Nexus 4, I used Virgin Mobile (a Sprint MVNO) for several years and found it to be an incredible bargain as well.

However, Slap*Happy's statement about Straight Talk's network is misleading. In the past, when you ordered or purchased a Straight Talk SIM, you chose which network you wanted to use, AT&T or T-Mobile's, and you'd get a SIM that would work on the network you chose. There's no evidence that Straight Talk SIMs roam across AT&T and T-Mobile, they use the network you chose when purchasing the SIM. There does appear to be a small degree of roaming ability, but it is very limited.

I use an AT&T Straight Talk SIM in my Nexus 4 and coverage and throughput have been surprisingly good, equal to the coverage and throughput direct AT&T subscribers I know receive. I have experienced the need to switch into airplane mode and back once or twice like Slap*Happy describes, but I've had to do that on every other carrier I've used - MVNO or not - as well. (FYI, Virgin Mobile's 3G data speeds, unlike Straight Talk's swift performance, were slower than their parent Sprint's data speeds - but still tolerable for the $25/month I was paying.)

Now, here's the catch: Straight Talk has discontinued the sale of all AT&T SIM cards, and it appears that they will stop offering the service to new customers shortly. They'll still activate ones still in stores or available online, but those are mostly gone. It looks like if you rush, you could get a full size AT&T Straight Talk SIM from Walmart and then cut it to fit in the Nexus 4, but once those are gone, it looks like it's over for new AT&T activations. (Existing customers are grandfathered in, but there's also the question of how long that will last - but, as above, since there's no contract, the worst case scenario is just to switch providers.)

Update: kindall, Straight Talk has taken all mention of the availability AT&T SIM cards, full size and micro, off of their multiple sites. It looks like that truly is over.
posted by eschatfische at 1:44 PM on February 19, 2013

Seconding kindall's comment about roaming, not just for data. I have Virgin Mobile, and I have no roaming whatsoever, which was super-fun to find out when I traveled to Canada and I basically had a brick without wi-fi access. It was not something I considered and is probably not a problem for most people, but you should definitely be aware of it.
posted by calistasm at 1:52 PM on February 19, 2013

I work for an MVNO where we operate on Sprint's network.
There is no difference between our coverage/network service and Sprints. So no 2nd rate/tier access or coverage.
The differences between MVNOs and their network providers are mostly in device selection as Sprint tends to keep the latest/greatest/iphone to themselves.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 1:54 PM on February 19, 2013

This is all great information. Thanks so much to everyone, especially eschatfische. Based on what I'm hearing so far, I think this makes a lot of sense. If anyone happens upon this thread that uses T-Mobile in Boston I'd love to know how fast your phone is.
posted by Aizkolari at 2:00 PM on February 19, 2013

My straighttalk at&t sim has worked fine for the last year or so. I've gotten coverage everywhere my friends using actual at&t had it.
Data speeds are acceptable, texts come through quickly, and I've not dropped a call.

However, when I was using the actual at&t prepaid plan, I noticed that certain areas (mostly in rural states) had zero coverage.
For instance, the entire state of Nebraska was dead to me using prepaid at&t.

I have not been to these areas since switching to straighttalk, but if you regularly travel to rural areas/smaller markets, you might want to do a little digging around.
posted by madajb at 2:02 PM on February 19, 2013

Nthing Sprint works best. I have seen no difference between my MVNO and previous Sprint coverage.

I have Ting. They are a Sprint MVNO, run by Tucows. The catch with other Sprint MVNO's is that they don't support LTE service (which is just now being rolled out in some metro areas and is the way of the future for data). Ting has somehow negotiated with Sprint to get access to LTE. They're the only ones.

The quality of their customer service is actually a significant step up compared to Sprint. You never hold and they've gleefully helped me troubleshoot Android problems that were just geekery. That is part of the package. Costs are down too. They only bill for actual usage, so you don't need to guess at a plan. If your phone can tether, there's no additional charge to do so, except for the data used. We were paying $200 a month with t-mobile. Now it's down to ~$80 a month with the same usage, and will be less when we combine our phone plans (my husband initially got a deal that gave him service credit -- he'll be moving to my account shortly).
posted by sweltering at 3:07 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing to note with many (all?) MVNO's is that you can't send to SMS shortcodes. You know those "text 'help' to ##### to donate $10 to hurricane victims" things? Since you aren't getting billed, the carrier just has to block them all. As far as I know, this doesn't restrict you from receiving, but it did catch us for a loop when we couldn't sign up for a few SMS alert services.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 3:13 PM on February 19, 2013

You can send txts to free SMS shortcodes on Straight Talk with an AT&T SIM. I just sent a txt to Google SMS (46645) and got the appropriate responses from Google, no problem. The ones that charge you won't work, for obvious reasons, but the free ones work just fine.
posted by eschatfische at 3:44 PM on February 19, 2013

Hmm. That's interesting. I can send to Google, but can't, for example, send to Redbox (also free) - I get a reply back saying that it was blocked. I had assumed everything was blocked, but it seems like there's some sort of filter in play.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 5:46 PM on February 19, 2013

Does it ownership of your phone number matter to you? You cannot usually port your number from a prepaid plan to a contractual plan. I had a number from a contract plan, ported it to a prepaid plan and was unable to port it back to the same company that originally assigned it to me. They also said they could not port the number from a different prepaid line we wanted to add to our plan at a later time.
posted by soelo at 6:52 PM on February 19, 2013

Seconding Ting, which someone recommended in one of these threads a long time ago.

Love them, and aside from the initial phone purchase (which can be avoided if you have one of their supported Bring Your Own Devices from Sprint) my costs are way down and service is way better. I had AT&T previously and moved from two text-and-voice-only plans to smartphones with text/voice/data and my bill is half as much as it used to be.
posted by miratime at 7:06 PM on February 19, 2013

However, when I was using the actual at&t prepaid plan, I noticed that certain areas (mostly in rural states) had zero coverage.
For instance, the entire state of Nebraska was dead to me using prepaid at&t.

Conversely, as a heads up, if Straight Talk on AT&T is dead, you may want to know that there is no T-Mobile service in large chunks of Vermont. T-Mobile phones work (no contract monthly plans for sure, not sure about pre-paid--these are different things on T-Mobile), but they're using AT&T's network. Burlington and (I think) I-89 have T-Mobile service, but you end up on AT&T pretty quickly.

In other words, if you're apt to go to a more rural area and considering an option with limited/no ability to roam using another network, you'll want to check those places individually.
posted by hoyland at 8:10 PM on February 19, 2013

Also, OpenSignal can be quite useful for looking at coverage.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 6:23 AM on February 20, 2013

I've ported a number from a contract plan to another contract carrier to a prepaid plan to Google voice to another prepaid plan... haven't actually tried to port it to another contract plan, but I think porting has gotten a lot more flexible over the past few years.

I have T-Mobile prepaid (through T-Mobile, not Straight Talk) in Western Mass and it works all right out here, even better in Boston, and roams pretty well in northern New England. I had Virgin Mobile for a while and it didn't roam at all and there was no coverage to speak of in northern New England (very low coverage in rural areas in general).
posted by mskyle at 7:51 AM on February 20, 2013

Almost none. Pretty much any well-established MVNO which isn't super niche will just save you money and have all the services from the parent network available. No MVNOs I know of have throttled data or second-tier access in any way compared to their parent network.

In the UK there's been an explosion in MVNOs in the last few years and you can make some very serious savings by switching.

As ever, do your research about reviews, the frequencies they use and the coverage in your area.
posted by turkeyphant at 5:54 AM on February 21, 2013

I'm on my first 30 days of Nexus4 + Straight Talk SIM. I have ATT. It's working great. I get 5 bars everywhere I've in NE and Central Pennsylvania. Data has been great too. HSPA+ also every where I've been.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 7:02 PM on March 3, 2013

I went with Straight Talk and things have been fine so far. Their customer service is not great and I had some issues porting over my number from Verizon Prepaid, so I ended up porting it to Google Voice and just forward calls to my random Straight Talk number.

Thanks for all the help!
posted by Aizkolari at 10:55 AM on March 20, 2013

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