I’ve been experimenting with no contract cell phone plans recently. About a year ago, my contract with Sprint ran out, and while my overall experience with Sprint had been positive, my 3 year old cell phone was starting to glitch on me, and I was feeling a little restricted by their $30 (about $36 including taxes and fees) 200 minute per month plan. I wanted a new phone and I wanted a plan that didn’t charge me per text, and wouldn’t charge me through the nose if I spent more than 200 minutes on the phone during the weekdays of a month. I also didn’t want to spend more on my cell phone service than I was already spending. Unfortunately, my only options with Sprint were to either stick with the plan I already had, or upgrade to a much more expensive plan. Neither of those options were particularly appealing to me.
I chose to try Cricket wireless first. Once, a workmate of mine had started using them, and she had spoken very highly of their cheap unlimited plans. I knew they used a CDMA network, and I also knew that they could flash your current phone’s firmware to their network so long as it was a CDMA phone. I assumed I could simply ask them to flash my current phone at the store and start using their cell phone plan. If things worked out, I’d buy a new phone later. Unfortunately, that wasn’t how things turned out. When I went to the store, I was informed that, while they did offer to flash a phone’s firmware, they charged money for the service (about $40 for my Sprint Sanyo), and had to send the phone away to do it, meaning I wouldn’t get the phone back for about a week. In an attempt to make that rather shocking revelation sting less, the store clerk told me that if I bought a new phone there, I’d get the first month of service free, which overall could result in paying less for the first month than if I had my phone flashed to Cricket. Plus, I’d be able to leave the store with a working phone, instead of having to wait a week to get my old glitchy phone back. None of their phones were subsidized, so I was not happy with that alternative. Nevertheless, I thought it was the best option available to me at the time. I purchased the cheapest phone they had, and left the store with a working Cricket phone, and my soon to be non-working Sprint phone. Transferring my Sprint number to Cricket was more complicated than I’d expected, but it worked out in the end.
I hated the Cricket phone. The phone itself was a candy bar style Samsung SCH-r211, which was completely functional, yet completely repulsive. The phone itself was ugly, all the sounds it made were from low end midi files that sounded terrible, and even after I figured out how to lock the keypad, it would magically unlock itself in my pocket, and start randomly clicking through menu options. Maybe I had gotten attached to my old flip style Sanyo, but I disliked the r211 quite a bit. That fact wasn’t helped by Cricket’s spotty coverage. Just in my apartment, Cricket’s signal topped out a little over half strength and goes to almost nothing in a matter of feet (the bad receptions spots tending to be any place I might be inclined to sit down). On top of that, sometimes there would be a delay between when a person called me and when my phone actually started ringing (around a 2-3 ring delay). All these things annoyed me quite a bit. It seemed to me that the only benefit I was experiencing by going to Cricket was the unlimited talk and text plan for the same price as my old Sprint plan. However, that one benefit wasn’t worth the problems I was experiencing, since I actually don’t use my phone enough to justify that sort of plan. I wanted the capability to talk and text more without paying through the nose, but I didn’t want to exchange network reliability for that benefit. So after a few months, I decided to try something else.
Next, I decided to try a pre-paid cell phone service called Straight Talk. The company is owned by TracFone, and runs on the Verizon network. For the same $30 as the Sprint (200min) and Cricket (unlimited) plans, Straight Talk sort of split the difference by offering a $30 plan with 1000 minutes and texts, plus 30mb of data. Also, I think the only additional charge on that $30 is basic sales tax (which means this plan is effectively around $3 less expensive per month). And much like with Cricket, I needed to buy the phone separately, though this phone was less expensive than the Samsung r211.
Overall, I liked the phone itself, but wasn’t particularly happy with the service. The phone was the LG 220c, and I don’t really have any complaints about it. It’s a solid flip style phone that seems customizable enough. The first thing I did when I got it was use some of my 30mb trying to get my Final Fantasy ring tones on the phone. I’d never experimented with custom ringtones before, and I was eager to try it, since I was paying for those 30mb anyway. Thus far, I don’t really see why people spend money on custom ringtones, but they’re fun if they’re free. The problem was the service itself. Simply activating the phone took a full 24 hours for no apparent reason. I’d read enough horror stories online about transferring phone numbers that I didn’t think it was worth trying. Every time I try to place an outgoing call, the phone tells me how much time I have left to talk before actually placing the call. And again, there seems to be a delay between when a person calls me, and when my phone actually starts ringing (though this time it’s only a 1 ring delay). Initially, I was also disappointed with the reliability of the Verizon network’s signal strength in my apartment, but in retrospect, there’s a good chance I was simply being oversensitive to it. It was undeniably stronger overall than the signal I was getting from cricket, but it had similar variations. Truth be told, I think it had simply been so long since I’d bothered to look at the signal I was getting with my Sprint phone, that I’d forgotten that the signal strength had varied with that phone too. I wasn’t satisfied yet, and I was very unhappy with the amount of money I had already spent on this experiment. I was on the verge of deciding that “you get what you pay for” applied rather negatively to all of these “budge conscious” alternatives.
Last, I tried an AT&T GoPhone. At this point, I was seriously thinking about just signing up with AT&T, but before I did I needed to make sure AT&T would be a good option for me, and that I couldn’t simply live with one of their pre-paid plans. The AT&T pre-paid rate plans are more complicated than all the other plans I’d tried, but their $1 per day plan allowed for unlimited calling to any AT&T wireless number. Given that the few people I spend much time talking too on the phone use AT&T for their cell phones, I figured that I wouldn’t be spending much more than $30 per month, even if I talked on the phone every day (which I don’t). I figured that even in a worst case scenario, I wouldn’t be spending more than 50 texts and 50 non-AT&T minutes a month, and at 10 cents/min and 20 cents/text, I’d still be around $45 per month (which would be less than the 2-year contract plan, because I’m not paying 20% in taxes and fees). Also, because this was AT&T, I had no doubts about being able to transfer my original phone number to them. I decided to purchase the Samsung a167 because the $50 package already came with $30 of talk time (effectively making the phone itself just $20, or so I rationalized), and because I’d seen good reviews of the phone.
The phone itself was great. It’s also another flip style phone, but unlike my original Sanyo or the LG 220c, there’s a good lip around it making it extremely easy to open with one hand. It’s also not so small or skinny that it feels awkward to hold. And to be completely honest, I also love the color. I know that’s superficial, but it’s true.
The problem is that the AT&T signal strength in my apartment sucks. By which I mean it’s almost non-existent. None of the data/internet features work, and every call I make stutters and sounds heavily compressed. I’m lucky to get a single bar during a call regardless of where I am in my apartment. Put simply, this was the most disappointing part of this entire experiment. I’d been lead to believe that AT&T had a good network here in San Antonio, but apparently I’m living in a near dead zone for them. I still transferred my original phone number to the GoPhone because I didn’t want to lose it when I canceled my service with Cricket, but going from Cricket to AT&T was actually a step down for me, believe it or not. On the plus side, AT&T has comparatively wonderful customer service. The entire process of transferring my Cricket number to AT&T (which included a call to customer service) took a matter of minutes, while the mere activation of Straight Talk (a completely automated process) took 24 hours.
Overall, though, I was greatly disappointed, and was unwilling to waist any more money on this experiment. I was also unwilling to go back to Sprint, and spend at least $45 per month (about $54 including taxes and fees) just to get talk & text access similar to what I had with all of these other cheaper options. I decided to settle…at least for now.
I told the people most likely to call me to do so at the Straight Talk number. The biggest reason I wasn’t satisfied with Straight Talk was because I didn’t trust their customer service, and I worried that if something went wrong, I’d be left high and dry with no real good way of dealing with it. I still worry about that, but my AT&T GoPhone is going to remain active for a few more months anyway, and while the signal sucks, it’s good enough to use as a backup phone if Straight Talk craps out on me.
As much as I doubt it, I still hope that AT&T will fix the weak signal around my apartment. I brought it up with customer service when I called to transfer my number, but I don’t know how seriously they’re likely to take it. If this gets fixed within the next 3 months, I can just start using the GoPhone exclusively. If it doesn’t get fixed within 3 months, I hope Straight Talk demonstrates more reliability during that time than it did during activation. Either way, I am not going to spend any more money on unsubsidized phones for a while. I don’t regret this experiment, but it was a lot more expensive, and a lot less fruitful than I expected it to be from the start.