This past Monday, in light of Verizon's quickly approaching Share Everything plans (they start on the 28th of this month, next Thursday, for those keeping track), I mentioned a few alternatives that I am now willing to explore. Knowing my grandfathered unlimited data plan will be taken from me once I upgrade (or if my mother decides dissolve the account), I have nothing left to lose, nothing worth holding on to at Big Red. So I'm no longer afraid to explore my options, and one of those is prepaid.
With more expensive phones, deeper subsidies and 4G LTE networks being built at lightning pace, postpaid carrier pricing is on a steady ride, particularly the price of data. Because of this, prepaid service providers, also known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), are on a rise in the States, especially those that allow users to bring their own unlocked devices or offer high-end devices.
By leasing a wireless network – as opposed to owning and maintaining one – and not offering subsidized phones or contracts, prepaid carriers are often able to offer service at over half the price of their parent network provider. Straight Talk, for instance, utilizes either T-Mobile's or AT&T's 3G and "4G" (HSPA+) networks and allows you to bring your own device, so long as it's compatible with one of the two networks. For only $45 per month, they offer "unlimited" calling, text messaging and data, whereas a comparable plan would cost a subscriber upwards of $90 on AT&T. For those keeping score, that's $39.99 per month for 450 minutes, plus free mobile to mobile minutes included with the $20 unlimited messaging feature and $30 per month for 3GB of data.
And when it comes to prepaid, options aren't exactly scarce. Among the most popular MVNOs are: Straight Talk, Simple Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Cricket Wireless and Boost Mobile. But there have been new virtual operators popping up left and right over the last year. Just to name a few, Ting and Voyager Mobile aim to offer something different. Ting offers more customizable plans and refunds any minutes, texts or data that you don't use. Voyager, on the other hand, strives to simplify mobile by only offering two plans: a $19 unlimited talk and text plan and a $39 unlimited talk, text and data plan.
But there's a problem with all of these MVNOs that is largely overlooked, one that is omitted in all the marketing and, instead, located in the fine print.
So what is this "problem", exactly? Misuse – or poor use – of the term "unlimited".
As I explained above, for $45 per month with Straight Talk, you get unlimited minutes, text messages and data. But "unlimited" is conditional and actually everything but … unlimited. If you dig through Straight Talk's terms and conditions (because everyone reads them in their entirety before agreeing, right?), you will quickly learn that there's a catch to how you can use Straight Talk.
There's always a catch. Reading straight from Straight Talk's terms and conditions page, there are some strictly prohibited uses of the Unlimited Mobile Web Access plan. The excerpt reads:
"Examples of prohibited uses include, without limitation, the following: (i) continuous mobile to mobile or mobile to landline voice calls; (ii) automated text or picture messaging to another mobile device or e-mail address; (iii) uploading, downloading or streaming of audio or video programming or games; (iv) server devices or host computer applications, including, but not limited to, Web camera posts or broadcasts, automatic data feeds, automated machine-to-machine connections or peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing; or (v) as a substitute or backup for private lines or dedicated data connections. This means, by way of example only, that checking email, surfing the Internet, downloading legally acquired songs, and/or visiting corporate intranets is permitted, but downloading movies using P2P file sharing services and/or redirecting television signals for viewing on laptops is prohibited. A person engaged in prohibited uses may have his/her service terminated without notice or a refund."
A following excerpt, which details the actions Straight Talk will take if you misuse its service, paints a potentially daunting picture:
"Straight Talk reserves the right to limit or reduce data throughput speeds or the amount of data transferred, and to deny or terminate Service, without notice, to anyone Straight Talk believes is using the Straight Talk Unlimited Talk, Text and Mobile Web Access Plan in any manner prohibited above or whose usage, in Straight Talk’s sole discretion, adversely impacts the Carrier’s network or customer service levels. Straight Talk will presume you are engaging in a prohibited use in violation of these Terms and Conditions if in Straight Talk’s sole opinion, you are placing an abnormally high number of calls, or repeatedly placing calls of unusually long duration, or if your talk, text or Mobile Web usage is harmful or disruptive to the Carrier’s network or services. If we determine, at our sole discretion, that you are using an unlimited service in violation of the Straight Talk Terms and Conditions of Service, or in any other manner that we deem to be unreasonable or excessive, then we may terminate individual calls, terminate or reduce the speed of data connection throughput, Mobile Web Access or terminate your service, decline to renew your service, or offer you a different service plan with no unlimited usage component. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Straight Talk reserves the right to deny service, deactivate or cancel existing service, terminate data connections and/or reduce data throughput speeds, to anyone for any reason at any time, in Straight Talk’s sole discretion."
In other words, much like Verizon and AT&T have been doing for several months now, if your usage is noticeably higher than the average users' on the network, Straight Talk reserves the right to throttle your speeds. Not only that, if they have an inkling that you are improperly using your data, they reserve the right to completely stop serving you, immediately, without prior notice. And Straight Talk isn't the only provider whose terms and conditions reveal less-than-desirable … terms (not that we expected any better, of course), they're just one in the growing crowd.
Virgin Mobile offers similar, affordable plans through Sprint's 3G and WiMAX networks. For $35 per month, you can get 300 minutes with unlimited text and data. (Sign up for auto-billing and you can cut that rate by $5 per month.) But $20 more each month will remove the calling limits and put you on an unlimited everything plan. However, as you should already know, unlimited in this case is everything but unlimited. As are with most unlimited plans, your minutes, text and data usages are subject to Virgin's Fair Use Policy. Most shouldn't worry about minutes or text messages, as those limits are likely higher than most will ever need in a billing period. But you will only enjoy 2.5GB of data on Virgin before your speeds are throttled.
And that's the down side to the prepaid market. There are no legitimate options for data-heavy users (not that there are many postpaid offers for data-centric customers still in existence either).
No matter how you look at it, I am a data-centric user. I don't text message a lot (when I do, I use Google Voice) and I rarely place or receive calls. But I definitely know how to chew through data. Although I have cut back and started connecting to Wi-Fi more often, I have been known to use 10GB between my various lines in a given month, and a lot of that can be attributed to streaming music through Spotify. Either way, I have 5GB of data on my AT&T line to play with. But I have a feeling I'm going to run into quite a few problems with jumping on the prepaid train, especially when it comes to data usage.
And the more I look into it, while it seems like the best offer (between coverage, compatible devices and price), the less appealing Straight Talk is. I have spent the better part of my afternoon browsing through various forums, reading horror stories from Straight Talk customers and about how their data was cut off before ever reaching 2GB. (The consensus is if you stay below 2GB in a month or 100MB per day, you should be in the clear. But, apparently, that isn't always the case. Straight Talk has the final say, regardless.)
I'm not overly thrilled about what these prepaid carriers have to offer, and I'm feeling more and more like there are no legitimate offers out there that I will me 100 percent happy or content with. But you get what you pay for, and the price of prepaid is almost too good to pass up, if only for a trial run … or two. And the thought of no contracts is one we all can get excited over. I have a lot of different options to weigh yet, but my best bet looks like it will be going prepaid and milking every Wi-Fi network I can get my paws on. It's just going to be a very bumpy ride.