Smart Shopping: Whose smartphone plans are cheapest?

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| February 5, 2010

Prepaid and PostPaid, Voice and Data

Boost Mobile's launch of their first-ever smartphone, the BlackBerry Curve 8330, and its $60/month unlimited, prepaid voice & data plan, got me to thinking about the true cost  of owning and maintaining various smartphones on the various US carriers. With the help of Billshrink's handy-dandy charts and infographics, I did a little research and came up with the following. Note that I stuck to national carriers - there are too many regional carriers out there for me to have included in this piece.

In general, what you'd expect is what you'll get: Sprint (and Boost) and T-Mobile are cheaper than AT&T and Verizon when it comes to talking, texting, and Web/Emailing from a smartphone. Now that's with respect to monthly voice and data fees, only - the price of buying your phone varies widely depending on which model you get, where you get it (carrier or third party store), what promotions are in effect when you buy your phone and so on. And, of course, network coverage and performance is a huge factor in many people's decision-making process - that's something I'm leaving out of this little research project, focusing instead on price and price alone.



The absolute cheapest way to run a smartphone on a US carrier is to pick up a super-cheap device on your own and run it on T-Mobile using their "Even More Plus" plans. Even More Plus plans are contract free and run $20/month cheaper than their "Even More" counterparts, but don't offer subsidized prices on new devices. So if you can bring your own smartphone to T-Mobile, an Even More Plus plan will net you the absolute best deal possible - low monthly rates and no contractual commitments.

If, on the other hand, you're in the market for a new device to go with your frugal plan, Sprint and T-Mobile offer the cheapest options depending on how many monthly voice minutes you need. Scratch that - Boost is the absolute cheapest, but your only option with them is paying $250 for a last-generation BlackBerry that costs somewhere between "nothing" and "very little" on the other carriers. 

Here's a breakdown of single line monthly smartphone voice/data plan costs from cheapest to most expensive:

450 Minutes + Unlimited Messaging/Data

  • T-Mobile Even More Plus: $59.99 (500 Minutes, No Contract, Bring Your Own Device)
  • Sprint: $69.99 (Two-Year Contract)
  • T-Mobile: $79.99 (Two-Year Contract)
  • AT&T & Verizon: $89.99 (Two-Year Contract)
900 Minutes + Unlimited Messaging/Data
  • T-Mobile Even More Plus: $69.99 (1,000 Minutes, No Contract, Bring Your Own Device)
  • Sprint & T-Mobile: $89.99 (Two-Year Contract)
  • AT&T & Verizon: $109.99 (Two-Year Contract)
Unlimited Voice/Messaging/Data
  • Boost Mobile: $60 (Requires $249.99 BlackBerry Curve 8330)
  • T-Mobile Even More Plus: $69.99 (No Contract, Bring Your Own Device)
  • Sprint & T-Mobile: $99.99 (Two-Year Contract)
  • AT&T & Verizon: $119.99 (Two-Year Contract)
(NOTE: BlackBerry data is for "personal" BlackBerry plan in all cases listed above. BlackBerry Enterprise data costs extra, where available.)


The upshot is that over the course of a two-year contract, you can save up to $480 by going with Sprint or T-Mobile instead of AT&T or Verizon … or a whopping $960 by choosing a T-Mo Even More Plus Unlimited plan instead of AT&T or VZW's unlimited plans. Yes, you'll have to provide your own smartphone to use Even More Plus, but you should be able cover the cost with that $960 you'll be saving. And then some.
Heck, if you don't mind a Curve 8330, you could save $1,440 over two years by choosing Boost instead of AT&T or Verizon. Subtract that mandatory $250 to buy the device, and you've still got well over a grand lining your pockets after those 24 months.
Now bear in mind a few things as you're perusing those options:
  • Android fans can cross AT&T right off their shopping lists, at least for now, unless they're bringing their own devices. AT&T doesn't currently offer any Android phones.
  • Want webOS in the US? You're limited to Sprint or Verizon at the present moment. Palm does not currently offer any GSM webOS phones through US carriers.
  • T-Mobile's Even More Plus plans are super cheap, but you'll have to find a smartphone that supports T-Mo's AWS band if you want 3G data. Google's Nexus One and Nokia's N900 do, but most others don't, so you'll be limited to EDGE-only speeds.
  • All sorts of other plans are available: Single line, family, and with various combinations of voice minutes, messaging bundles, and other options. Check out the carriers' websites for details.
  • Prices listed above do not include activation and other fees or taxes.

To Sum It Up

Americans aren't used to the whole contract-free, bring your own device way of buying cell phone service, which has long been more popular in Europe. But when you look at the numbers, it's pretty clear you can save a bundle over time if you're able to wiggle yourself into T-Mobile or Boost's prepaid smartphone options. Even if you're not, Sprint and T-Mo offer considerable savings over AT&T and Verizon at all levels of voice-plus-unlimited data rate plans. 
The catches are threefold: First, all carriers always equal when it comes to coverage and network performance in various parts of the country. Second, all phones aren't available on all carriers - iPhone being the obvious example. And, lastly, we here in the states have a particular fondness for the word "Free," even if it's followed by "with two-year service activation." Paying a few hundred bucks up front for a used or older model smartphone can net you big savings in the long run if you pair it with T-Mobile's new Even More Plus service. But we all know how easy it is to ignore long-term savings in favor of instant gratification, and how easy it is to convince yourself that it's worth a few hundred bucks extra to get that iPhone on AT&T or Pre Plus on Verizon ... especially when the costs are spread out over two years.