What to do about my expensive family wireless plan?
November 20, 2013 2:45 AM   Subscribe

Please tell me what wireless plan to get for my family! We have four lines (mom and dad, two grown kids) on our family plan from Verizon for $188/mt. I think we can pay less but I'm really overwhelmed by all the options and possibilities.

My family has been using Verizon for our cell phones since 2001, adding lines as we needed them (we finally added my dad in 2009). My parents don't have a landline anymore, just their cells.

Our current bill is $188/mt for Verizon's 1400-minute "share everything" plan. We use about 2000 minutes and 1000 texts per month. That's for all four of us, not each line. The majority of our minutes are to each other or on nights or weekends- so we only seem to use about 300 of our actual money-costing 1400 minutes. We don't use any data- none of us have smartphones. We're month-to-month.

In 2001, Verizon was the only carrier with coverage in the rural area my parents live in (Herkimer County in New York state). I don't know if that's changed in the last decade or not. I also don't think my parents want smartphones, although they sometimes surprise me with their tech savvy/adeptness. I think they each like having a physical keypad. I would like a smartphone. I thought we all had grandfathered new-every-two upgrades for our phones, but it seems like we don't, and there is a $30 "upgrade" fee listed on every phone on Verizon's website, even the free with a new contract phones.

I am so freaking overwhelmed by the possibilities and options here and I have no idea what to do. None of us have ever had a smartphone before, so all the gradations of them are completely meaningless to me, including caring about 3g/4g/LTE. I don't even know what those things ARE really.

-Cheaper than $188/mt
-"Just works"ness for my parents. I don't want them to hate their phones. They both text and talk to their families a lot and enjoy that. I don't want them to hate it for the sake of money savings.
-A distant third: me getting a smartphone like my fellow kids. I'm willing to sacrifice this for one, two and pride.

-Should we just stick to Verizon and switch to the 700-minute option (saves $30) and upgrade everyone to iPhones?
-Is there an advantage to splitting my parents and sister onto one carrier and me onto another- like maybe one carrier is better for dumbphones and one for smartphones?
-Should we use an MVNO? Should it be PagePlus so we all keep the phones we have (my parents are comfortable with their clamshell phones)?
-Should I try to get my parents to use smartphones so they can use Republic or Ting?
-WHAT ARE THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS HERE??? What is the right choice??? /cries.

I am very open to "you should get this phone on this plan on this carrier." PLEASE HOPE ME.
posted by Snarl Furillo to Technology (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Your being in a rural area is really going to matter a ton here. There are probably cheaper carriers out there, but if none of them work in your area, that doesn't do you much good.

MVNOs are definitely cheaper, but they're simply piggybacking on one of the big three's networks--usually Sprint--and in my experience Sprint's network seriously leaves something to be desired. Muck about with this and you'll see what I mean. Verizon is still the only network that looks even remotely doable in your part of the country.

But given how you use your phones. . . I'm not sure there's much in the way of money savings to be had here. You're got four lines for under $50 each. That's pretty durn cheap. Prepaid plans can be cheaper, but only if you don't use your phones that much. With that level of use, a prepaid plan would cost you more than you're paying now. Like, over $300 if you did it wrong. Easily $200 otherwise. Prepaid plans are really only for people who have a cell phone for emergency purposes but basically stick to their landlines or who simply don't talk on the phone that much.

I think there might be another option, but it's a limited one, to be sure, and it may not even be worth it. There are such things as network extenders, essentially mini cell towers that you plug into your home LAN with a broadband connection. I'm running one myself. They've got about the same range as your standard wifi router, and they give you rock solid cell coverage in that limited range. So if you mostly use your phones at home and are okay with spotty coverage around town, you might be able to get away with switching to a cheaper network, like a Sprint MVNO. The main catch is that the things are like $200, so unless you're saving a ton of money on your monthly bill--which seems doubtful-- the savings you see probably wouldn't be worth it.

In short: no, I think you're probably doing about as well as you're likely to given your location.
posted by valkyryn at 3:06 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

on preview: valkyryn explains MVNOs well so I'll omit that portion and makes the most important point that you probably should go with whatever service gives you best coverage. Once you figure out which service works well in your area, you can decide whether customer service and roaming warrants you staying with the big 4 over the MVNOs that use that network.

I have friends who go so far as using Republic Wireless or the $30 Walmart T-mobile plan and using VOIP over the data connection, which increase the amount of time you spend fiddling with your phone rather than actually using it.

Here's a recent Lifehacker article describing 5 pre-paid providers outside of the big 4 (Verizon, ATT, Sprint, T-mobile).

Since your parents no longer have land-lines, I would prioritize reliable service/signal. One issue that exists for many MVNOs is that they may not have roaming agreements, and the big 4 manage such extensive coverage because they borrow towers. Since Verizon provides the only reliable service in your parents' area, you may be better off getting them pageplus service which would also give them some data as well. Since you can only get 3g data on Pageplus currently, you can pick up an old used or refurbished 3g smartphone or feature phone.

If you get reasonable TMobile coverage where you and your sibling live, 2 lines with data would be < $100, and you can pick up any GSM phone used/new/refurbished.
posted by palionex at 3:22 AM on November 20, 2013

Things to consider: if any of you get smartphones, your whole plan will have to upgrade, so it may make sense to split off. If you get a smartphone, your usage will change. If you stay with dumb phones but switch carriers, you'll have to buy new dumb phones if your new carrier isn't CDMA (which they won't be if they're Sprint, T-Mobile or ATT).
posted by zanni at 5:08 AM on November 20, 2013

I just finished a 2-year contract with sprint in a metropolitan area of around 2 million people; it sucked, so I'd probably stay away from them in a rural area.

Most contract plans have moved to unlimited minutes and texts, then some per-line fee which depends on if it's a smartphone or not. If you're happy with Verizon's coverage where you are, I'd consider sticking with them and either visiting a store or calling their sales people and saying "I want phones 1, 2, 3 and 4, unlimited shared minutes and texts, and 1 gb of data for the smartphone. How much is that?"
posted by kavasa at 5:42 AM on November 20, 2013

Best answer: Look into T-Mobile coverage in your area--see if you can find someone with a T-Mobile phone they'll allow you to use for a day, then take it out to your parents' house and see how it does. Coverage seems to vary throughout Herkimer county, so this will be totally dependent on where they are. It's worth noting that (most if not all) T-Mobile phones have the ability to make phone calls over WiFi, so even not great coverage in their area might be acceptable to you. (That's a thing you'd have to decide for yourself--I'd be ok with it, but if your parents are elderly, it might not be ideal.)

T-Mobile's standard plan is $70 a month for one line, and $10 for each additional line. They're unlimited use for phone, texts, and data. (Data is super-fast for the first 500mb, and then slower but still totally usable after that.) Phones can be had either through T-Mobile or picked up cheaply on eBay, especially if you're willing to buy used/refurbed.
posted by MeghanC at 6:15 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a cabin on the border of Herkimer and Hamilton counties. I think the northern part of Herkimer. I have Verizon. The only place I get good service is when I happen to be in Old Forge. My neighbors (in Hamilton) who are year round residents have AT&T. They get service when I do not. My point is that in an area that is as rural as it is in upstate NY, I would try to find a plan with the carrier that works first.

What I would do is call (or log into the VZ website) and ask them how you can save money. You can get that cost down materially. I have 3 smart phones and two 'dumb' ones and pay about the same amount. I think the first line, yours with the data, would be about $80 plus taxes and fees and each additional line without data (yes voice and text) would be $10/mo plus fees. If we say conservatively $100 for your shiny new smartphone and $15 for 4 basic phones, that is $160 by my calculation.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:21 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If any of you have a small business (or really, just set up an EIN as a sole prop, which is free), then look into small business plans. They can be cheaper and have much better customer service. Here's Verizon's small business plan.

I can tell you that Tmobile does not have reliable service in your parents area. In other areas, my Tmobile phone would roam onto AT&T or Verizon networks, but driving along the Thruway in between Albany and Syracuse recently I had zero service. Tmobile does not work well in NYS outside of NYC.

Also check if your college has an alumni/student FAN discount. When I was on Verizon I think my alma mater got me a 15% discount and on AT&T I had a 17% discount. I just showed the clerk my ID when signing up for the plan.
posted by melissasaurus at 6:22 AM on November 20, 2013

Best answer: We are on a similar plan - a parent with their own line on each side and smartphones for myself and my husband on a Verizon share everything plan (with only 700 minutes). We are paying $212 a month. I think you have a pretty good deal.

You didn't mention data at all. If you get a smartphone (iPhone, Droid), you will have to pay more to use the data. I believe it's $30/month/line for 2GB. So upgrading to iPhones isn't your best bet if you want to save money on your plan. But with smartphones you might use fewer minutes and be able to downgrade your share plan to offset the additional costs.
posted by tealcake at 6:53 AM on November 20, 2013

Maybe a stretch, but if you (or someone on the plan) work for a bigger employer, you may qualify for a discount. My mom gets something around an 18 or 20 percent discount through Starbucks. A lot of public universities also provide a discount along that line. You can check your eligibility here with an email address.
posted by czytm at 7:12 AM on November 20, 2013

Best answer: What valkryn said: there's a baseline cost for service in the US (even with MVNOs) and shared usage plans with lots of lines are one of the few places where you can get the numbers to work for you better than a set of individual plans.

In rural areas, coverage dictates the carrier more than price: that's the "just works" part.
posted by holgate at 10:45 AM on November 20, 2013

Best answer: $188/month for four people sounds pretty good to me, actually.
posted by radioamy at 11:28 AM on November 20, 2013

Best answer: $188/month for four people is absolutely absurd.

PagePlus is a Verizon MVNO, so you're generally going to get the same coverage as Verizon. (Switch one person to test).

1200 minutes, 3,000 texts and 500 MB of data is $30 per month on Page Plus. That saves you $70 per month, or almost $1,000 per year. You can keep your phones.

Anyone on that plan can get a 3G Smartphone (but not an LTE phone). You could use a Verizon iPhone 4S, but not an iPhone 5 or above on Page Plus. There are also a number of Android phones that work on PP. You've got to jump through some hoops to get an iPhone 4S working, but it will work.

Howard Forums has more info.
posted by cnc at 3:18 PM on November 20, 2013

Best answer: Ordinarily I would totally recommend T-mobile but it sounds like with Verizon offering way better coverage in your county, PagePlus might be your best bet, since they use the Verizon network.

I will say though, I am on T-mobile and my area has spotty T-mo coverage, and no coverage at all at my house, but I love love LOVE the native wifi calling that T-mo phones have. I have crystal-clear calls (and perfect texts, they go over wifi too) at home without having to install a network extender! If you and your folks have wifi at home, and if you're not needing too much service when you're out and about (the highway that connects me to the civilized world has coverage and only the last 2 miles of backroads to my house don't, so it's not a huge issue for me) it might be worth looking into T-mobile. It looks like they have a 4 lines, unlimited everything plan for $100.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:23 PM on November 20, 2013

Response by poster: Wow, I guess I had a really skewed idea of what a good or bad price for a phone plan was! I was hoping the future was here and the Mohawk Valley was blanketed in wireless coverage and I could move us all to Republic and we would save a million dollars (I...actually feel really guilty for all the times I told my mom we were paying too much. I'M SORRY, MOM.).

I think we will end up staying with Verizon or trying PagePlus.

Thank you especially to y'all who have been on the ground in upstate recently and let me know how coverage was going for you and thank you valkyryn for that network coverage map, which was sobering and then hysterically funny.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:51 PM on November 22, 2013

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