Help me compare carriers of low-cost phone plans?
September 19, 2014 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm wasting a ton of money on my current cell phone/home internet plan. To tighten up, I could pay the cancellation fee to AT&T, and for almost a third the monthly cost, give up the home network and switch to something like ConsumerCellular or (from a comparison website) T-Mobile's Simple Starter plan (600 minutes, 500 messages, 2GB; data pass available for unexpected overage; I can keep my iPhone 4). Roaming is not a big issue.

My question is not necessarily which plan makes most sense financially, but which are the better, more reliable carriers; which have relatively customer-friendly customer service operations? What's your experience been? Thanks for any thoughts.
posted by mmiddle to Shopping (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Where do you live?
posted by k8t at 7:33 AM on September 19, 2014

Best answer: From what I've read, both recently on MeFi, and elsewhere, T-Mobile can be one of the cheapest (I'm excited to switch to a $30/month plan with unlimited data (throttled after 5 GB), unlimited texts and 100 minutes) but coverage is lacking in rural areas.

Sensorly is an effort to crowdsource cell reception and performance data. Since performance is almost exclusively a function of location, that might be your best bet. That and talking to friends, family and coworkers in the area. (Be prepared to filter heavily though. No one really loves their cell tel co.)
posted by Brian Puccio at 7:40 AM on September 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can you clarify if you are deciding to go without home internet entirely? Or just unbundle?

Coverage-wise most discount carriers are just buying time on one of the big four carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or [rarely]Verizon) and so I would look into who has the best coverage in your area of those companies and buy service on an MVNO based on that. What works best locally is what's really important and general anecdotes about coverage nationally aren't of much use.

I am currently on Republic Wireless which is very inexpensive and run by a company that seems quite responsive, but doesn't make sense if you don't have a home network or if you need on-the-phone customer service (they don't have that). They use the Sprint network. For what it's worth they are perfect for me and my wife and I are super happy with the service.

The different low cost MVNO carriers are each built to hit a certain market segment so I would look at their pages and try to see if they're a good fit for you. Besides T-Mobile and Republic there are Ting, Straight Talk, ConsumerCellular, etc.
posted by selfnoise at 7:43 AM on September 19, 2014

Response by poster: Where do you live?

downtown Nashville
posted by mmiddle at 7:46 AM on September 19, 2014

Response by poster: thanks, Brian Puccio, for flagging that inquiry last week! I should have found it.
posted by mmiddle at 7:50 AM on September 19, 2014

Best answer: I switched from AT&T to T-Mobile and I'm reasonably happy with the switch BUT: 1) rural coverage is horrible, for internet at least. I usually don't have an internet connection at all when I leave urban areas, 2) you can't get fast internet speeds with an iPhone 4. When I switched I had a 4S, and they told me it would work, but I'd need a 5 or 5S to get LTE speeds. So I got a new phone. But even with the new phone, my monthly cost was lower than AT&T, and when I pay it off, the plan will be a lot cheaper.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:59 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sprint has a (mostly) unthrottled unlimited data plus iPhone lease for $70/month (you get a new iPhone once every two years), and $60/month if you buy an Android set. This is probably where you want to go if you want to stream.

I'm currently on Straight Talk, but that's now capped at 3gb, and it's $50/month, so I'll be switching in a month or two when iPhone 6 supplies are less constrained.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:05 AM on September 19, 2014

I just had to use Ting as as stop-gap for a few days between plans. Their pricing is really good. If Sprint is good in your area (it is not in mine), check them out.
posted by getawaysticks at 8:07 AM on September 19, 2014

Best answer: Since you mentioned paying the AT&T cancellation fee, I want to note that T-Mobile will pay these fees for you, which makes it an even better deal.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:14 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

To clarify: are you meaning to use your mobile device as a replacement for both mobile and home Internet service? Because if you mean the latter, you may quickly discover that 2GB per month is very limiting. I'm on T-Mobile's "actually unlimited" (was $20, now $30, per month as an add-on to a voice line) and regularly top 5GB just from listening to audio and browsing the Internet on the bus to and from work.

If you want just a mobile plan, you might look at Cricket Wireless. They are an AT&T reseller (now owned by AT&T, I believe) so any AT&T-purchased device will work exactly as it did when your bill said "AT&T" at the top.
posted by fireoyster at 9:38 AM on September 19, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for these comments! I am ready to give up my home Internet; I spend my downtime at home on Kindle or with paper - plus am on the Internet all day at work. I feel much better equipped to make this choice now.
posted by mmiddle at 11:40 AM on September 19, 2014

Best answer: I've been really happy with switching from AT&T to T-Mobile. I've never had any problems with my coverage (in a major city) and in particular, the 4g and LTE are both really fast and reliable. On their coverage map, my house was literally on the line between "very strong" and "good" coverage and I've noticed no difference. And their coverage, looking at the map, has noticeably improved in the last year. (Looking now, I'm now between "very strong" and "excellent.") I have the 2g data plan (I have access to wifi most of the time) and I like that when you exceed the limit, you are just slowed down to 3G (I think) speeds, rather than charged huge fees, or bumped up to the next plan or cut off. I don't spend much time in rural areas, but haven't had problems when I was far from the city. The map shows pretty good coverage.

I believe they still offer to pay your cancellation fees when you switch to them, and there's no contract. I think they really are the best deal for most people.
posted by catatethebird at 11:47 AM on September 19, 2014

As it looks like you just want low-cost GSM (i.e. AT&T or T-mobile) smartphone service for your iPhone 4.

I have had very good experience with StraightTalk's Bring Your Own Phone plan at a prepaid $45/mo (unlimited data and voice). (I had it first on an iPhone 4 and now on a new iPhone 5S when the 4 met an untimely demise.)

I'm in the process of adding Cricket Wireless, but only 500MB data is throttled after it is used up, and is only $40/mo with an additional $5/mo off if a credit card is on-file. So it may not be a good option for you; the 3GB plan is $50 with $5 mo credit, so it would be something of a wash compared to StraightTalk. (I'm going over for a use-case of a family member with very limited data needs.)

And you don't have the additional taxes and fees on the monthly bill which is very nice!
posted by scooterdog at 1:06 PM on September 19, 2014

Response by poster: Footnote: AT&T is not making this easy, or even tolerable. At the store, they told me I had to start by putting in an unlock request online first, in order to cancel my contract. When I did that, I got an email saying I could not unlock because I am under contract. The website says I have to phone them to cancel, and even if I use the 611 line (regular line is not even getting a busy signal), I have been on hold for half an hour now (three times their estimate). T-Mobile rep told me that there is a new reg prohibiting unlocking prior to end of contract. So I will have to buy a new phone - IF I am ever able to cancel my contract. Loathing AT&T -
posted by mmiddle at 9:19 AM on September 20, 2014

Response by poster: ...aaand when someone finally answered the menu choice specifically for cancelling, she said she had to transfer me to the Cancelling Dept. Maybe they penalize any rep who processes a cancellation.
posted by mmiddle at 9:29 AM on September 20, 2014

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