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MVNO Cell Phone Plans

I’ve done way too much research on cell phone plans (which are almost as confusing as airline ticket pricing); here are my current thoughts on MVNOs.

What Are MVNOs?

MVNO is an abbreviation for Mobile Virtual Network Operator; in other words, it’s a cell phone company that doesn’t own its own physical network; instead, it pays for (or “rents”) minutes and megabytes on another company’s network; that company owns the real network.  Some MVNOs are quite large; for example, TracFone has over 15 million customers.

Most MVNO plans that I’ve seen are pre-paid; you have to buy the minutes before you can use them.  Pre-paid plans are also offered by the major carriers.

One big advantage of pre-paid plans is that there are no overage fees.  Of course, there are no overage fees on unlimited plans, pre-paid or post-paid.  But it’s a nice feature for normal plans: a typical post-paid plan has a set number of minutes, and if you go over those minutes, you are charged a ridiculous amount, such as $0.35/minute.  With pre-paid plans, you’re paying for service for a fixed amount of time and for a maximum amount of usage (minutes/texts/megabytes).  If you exceed that usage before the time expires, you can simply add another card, at the same price as before.

All the MVNO plans I’ve seen are no-contract plans.  That means if you become unhappy or just want a change, you can leave right away without paying any obnoxious penalty.  On the flip side, that means there are no big handset subsidies, so for example a new Samsung Galaxy SIII will be over $500.  However, if you like to keep your phones or buy used (which I do), the cheaper monthly bills make pre-paid a much better deal.

Finally, MVNO’s often provide plans that the major carriers simply refuse to offer, such as lower rates or more flexible plans.

Disadvantages can include worse coverage (since voice and data roaming is often not included) and limited handset selection (often you have to buy the phone from the MVNO, or certain models such as iPhones are blocked).

My Experience

I am currently on Ting, using a Ting-refurbished LG Marquee.  I used to be on Net10 (my wife is still on Net10).  In the more distant past, I was on T-Mobile and Sprint.

My Net10 experiences were good.  I had to call customer support when I started, and although it took a while, there were able get my phone working with one call — and they gave free service for the trouble.  Net10 is a TracFone brand, and I believe they use both AT&T and T-Mobile.  However, the Net10 website is confusing and not well designed.

My wife is still happy with Net10, and actually likes having a limited number of minutes (it gives her an excuse to get off the phone!).  However, I missed the Centro smart phones I had on T-Mobile and Sprint, so I recently made the switch to Ting.

I bought a Ting refurbished LG Marquee Android phone ($87) plus an extended battery ($13 on Amazon), and like the result.  The Marquee is fast enough, has a high resolution screen (800×480, essential for web browsing), and a SD card slot (great since it use it as a MP3 player), but isn’t too big.  With standard battery, the phone is slim, but I still love the extended battery, since it gives the Marquee great battery life.  Currently, WiFi tethering is disabled, but there is a hack to re-enable it (Ting allows tethering, but the phone was originally for Boost).

I had to call Ting since my phone didn’t want to activate at first, and found support to be top notch, better than any of my past experiences.

What I like about Ting is that I get all the features I want (smart phone, voice, data, tethering, no contract, no overages) at a price I like.  I’m using VoIP when I’m in WiFi range.  I’ve tried both Skype and GrooveIP; I’m using Skype because a lot of the time my WiFi signal is via wireless (e.g. Clear), and Skype seems to work much better over wireless (3G or 4G) than the SIP protocols used by Google Voice.

Since I love my Blackberry Playbook, sometime in the future I might consider getting a Blackberry BB10 phone and switching to SimpleMobile (since Ting does not plan on supporting Blackberry).

Notable MVNO Plans

Here are the current plans I think are the most interesting.  You should always do your own research (including non-MVNOs), and remember that plans frequently change; for example, T-Mobile is rumored to be launching a cheaper pre-paid option.  As always, don’t forget to check out the coverage and phone selection.

  • Want a bit of everything, but your usage is variable or low?  Try Ting, a Sprint MVNO.  Ting offers a wide range of Android phones, including very affordable refurbished models, plus Ting’s BYOD is in beta (BYOD means Bring Your Own Device; of course, there are some limitations).  Ting has a unique, flexible post-paid approach: you pay $6 monthly per device, plus your usage as it fits into their “buckets”, plus taxes.  For example, if one month you talk for 450 minutes, and the next month you talk for 750 minutes, you’ll pay $9 for voice the first month (101->500 minute bucket) and $18 the second (501->1000 minute bucket).  Tethering is included, since your paying per megabyte (and the smallest data bucket is $3 for 1->100MBytes).
  • Want to talk and text a lot on the cheap?  SimpleMobile, a TracFone brand currently using T-Mobile, is offering a $25/month BYOD (they provide a SIM card) unlimited talk and text plan.
  • Want an unlimited BlackBerry plan?  SimpleMobile offers a $50/month BYOD (they provide a SIM card; the BB needs to work on T-Mobile) plan with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and unlimited 4G data.
  • Don’t talk a lot, but like to text and surf the internet?  Virgin Mobile has a $35 plan with unlimited text and data, but limited talk time.  (T-Mobile has a similar pre-paid plan available on-line only).
  • Like Verizon’s network, but not their prices?  Check out PagePlus Cellular.
  • Want great pay as you go rates?  PTel recently switched carriers (from Sprint to T-Mobile), and dropped their pay as you go rates to $0.05/minute.
  • Like mobile broadband and you’re in Sprint’s WiMax coverage?  Virgin Mobile offers 2G of 3G data and unlimited 4G WiMax data for $35/month.

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