In researching mobile phone options, a surprising anomaly came to our attention - prepaid mobile phone plans were significantly less expensive than those offered by larger carriers. Keep in mind that we weren't just looking at talk time, rather, we were looking for the company that offered the best talk, text, and web pricing for various demographics. While the major carriers dominated the family plans portion of the market, one-off carriers offered some eye popping savings for those on individual plans.
About One-Off Carriers
The four most well known one-off carriers are Cricket, Boost Mobile, Tracfone, and Virgin Mobile. You may or may not recognize these names, but each offers some form of nationwide service on a prepaid basis that actually runs on one of the major carrier's networks. In other words, these companies sell service running on much of the same hardware as what you will find from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile.
The operative word in that last sentence is 'much'. The services offered by prepaid companies often are subservient to the services afforded their 'regular' customers. As an example, with Sprint's 4G network, prepaid services will likely continue to run on 3G for some time to come. Put simply, you may not get all of the latest enhancements offered by the big boys on a one-off company's service.
You can save a bundle of cash. For our comparison, we'll pick the least expensive deal that we could find on a plan from Virgin Mobile USA. Their least expensive plan was $25 per month and included 300 minutes of talk and unlimited text and data. Comparing similar plans, Virgin Mobile USA customers are saving a bundle over the major carriers:
In the comparisons above, we listed savings compared to similar plans. For example, Virgin Mobile USA offers 300 minutes whereas AT&T offers 450 and T-Mobile comes with 500. While these differences are important if you use your phone to talk quite a bit, our major concern was finding the least expensive service that still had talk, text, and web. Based on this research, a Virgin Mobile USA customer is paying between $419.88 and $779.76 per year less than someone on a similar plan through a major network.
For Whom is Prepaid Right?
As mentioned at the outset, major carriers continue to rule in the family plan segment. In addition, prepaid phone carriers typically offer less-than-best bells and whistles, so iPhone and Droid loyalists will need to go elsewhere. The net result is that prepaid phone service is best suited to those that meet the following criteria:
- Individual Plan
- Minimal Talk Time
- Unlimited Text
- Unlimited Data
- Willing to Give Up a Few Bells & Whistles
- Want to Save Money
To be frank, we were shocked that an unlimited data plan with any voice minutes would be available for $25 per month, let alone one with nationwide coverage on a 3G network. What this shows is that if you take the time to look carefully, you can sometimes find a pricing anomaly that you can take advantage of. In this case, savings of up to $779.76 was found. Not bad for 30 minutes of shopping.
NOTE: We've road tested the Kyocera Loft phone (the least expensive option offered) with the Virgin Mobile USA plan discussed in this post. The phone works well, connects with gmail and Facebook easily, and the service is satisfactory (not much coverage in rural areas off the interstate).