Low-Cost/Free Cell Service - High Speed Mobile Data is the New Oil - The World is Awash In It

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kelvinator's picture
kelvinator
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 25 2008
Posts: 215
Low-Cost/Free Cell Service - High Speed Mobile Data is the New Oil - The World is Awash In It

As we know, in a low growth, no growth, negative growth world, one of the best ways you can grow/keep your savings is to actually save (not spend) as much money. Along those lines, in the course of doing research toward changing my cell phone plan, I’ve discovered what to me is some startling info on US mobile plan savings going on these days that I though others might find helpful.  Basically, high speed mobile network data seems to be rapidly becoming a low-priced commodity, kind of like all that oil that’s sloshing around the world right now and just can’t get the bid it used to. They’re starting to literally give mobile calling and data away, kind of like they give away all that free content on the internet.

Till now, I haven’t been a big cell phone person, since I work in a home office with a land line and a second $3/month Ooma line and just need intermittent cell calling when I’m out and about. I’ve used an AT&T Gophone “pay as you go” plan for my 100 – 150 minutes and miscellaneous texts per month that’s cost me about $10-$20 per month to use my iPhone the last few years. Now, I’ve decided that Waze mapping and those other fun smartphone apps are just too cool and useful not to have all the time, even if only used now and then, so I’ve been looking at how to add low cost, high speed data at low cost. Wow! My deep dive into cell phone forums online shows that, in some cases, they are literally giving cell phone use and high speed data away now, and that mobile plan prices are dropping like a stone.

The bottom line is, if you have a cell phone plan and haven’t really scoped out cell networks and plans for a year or five, the probability that you’re paying as much as 50-100% more than you need to for one of the top three networks (Verizon/AT&T/T-mobile) is pretty high – and over a year, that comes to a lot of money wasted. For example, my wife has been signed up through her therapy biz for an AT&T unlimited phone and texting plan with 2 GB data that now has been “lowered” to cost $55/month. I found that she can get the exact same network (AT&T – uncapped, unthrottled), and same unlimited talk/text – except with ½ gig more data – 2.5 GB data/month – for $30/month at Harbor Mobile, an AT&T affiliated reseller to business – she is about to switch over. She’s been paying over 80% more than she needs to and will save about $300/year after making the switch.

Cricket Mobile is also a separate, but in its case, a wholly owned AT&T subsidiary for consumers, not businesses, that also resells the AT&T network. At $35/month, they have about the same 2.5 GB plan as Harbor, but with the data speed throttled down to 5-8 gigabits per second. That’s probably fine for most people anyway.

And FreedomPop, which uses the Sprint network, lowliest of the big 4 – not my cup of tea, but I assume can work fine for users in cities where they have good coverage – does literally give away free mobile service. Apparently, you bring your own Sprint device (or pay one time cost of $29.95 for the Motorola Moto E LTE android, or of course, buy a more expensive model) and after that, you’ve get 200 minutes, 500 texts and 500 MB LTE service every month for free. For $10/month, you get unlimited talk/text and 500 MB, and so on up the scale.

Talk & text themselves are pretty much just imaginary categories of data. As I found when I was traveling in Europe, you really don’t need them in your plan, but can buy low cost chunks of prepaid high speed data and use software apps on your phone (like Google’s Hangouts, Skype, or WhatsApp) to handle talk and texting over the internet. They seem to have perfectly fine/identical to cell quality if you do it right – what do you think regular talk/text does on the network, anyway?

In the US, unlike Europe, the majors have been holding the line and trying to stop consumers from buying data only SIM cards for their smartphones so they can keep the pretext that talk and text are somehow different. That lets them break out fancy complex price structures and charge a premium for added minutes or data. It also helps them avoid the fact that high speed data is actually just becoming another low-priced commodity that the world’s awash in at the moment, like oil, and that may be in oversupply from here on out. But likely, the dam is breaking; I read that AT&T’s CEO said they plan to introduce data-only plans for smartphones in the next year or two…

At this point, I’ve settled on my strategy for moving out of my AT&T Gophone plan and getting a basic amount of data that suits my needs. I bought a Simple Mobile SIM card as a test. It’s a $20/month card for 1.5 GB data-only on the T-Mobile network. It’s sold as a “tablet, hotspot, and other device” SIM, but they were happy to help me set it up on my iPhone. In my tests, It showed great data speeds of 15-20 gbps, and I used Google Hangouts to make and receive normal quality calls and texts instantly forwarded through Google Voice. I measured a minute call as using about 1 MB, so that’s about 1500 minutes of calls if that’s all I used the data for. Since I only do a couple of hundred minutes phoning a month, that should leave plenty of data for the other stuff. And if I ever run short, or if carrier T-mobile steps in and eventually kills my smartphone use of this "tablet" plan, as one forum member thinks might happen, I can always switch to T-Mobile’s well-hidden (but findable) plan that gives you 200 minutes calling and 5GB LTE data for $30/month. I would ignore the phone number and calling minutes, and have essentially an “all you can eat” calling/texts/data service via data for $30/month.  Or the Harbor $30 plan, or...

This is just some of what's going on.  Much of my research came from directly talking to many of the companies involved, and participating in the mobile forums at http://www.howardforums.com/, where they try to suss out and keep up to speed on these things.  You can check out that site to track the latest if you're interested, too.

davefairtex's picture
davefairtex
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 3 2008
Posts: 5692
dirty little secret

Yes the dirty little secret of the phone world is that phone calls are nothing but relatively low bandwidth realtime packet data streams (usually) on top of an IP network.  A friend of mine at qualcomm told me that the CDMA streams were...14 kbps, can that even be right?  Whoa a bit of googling showed the latest CDMA variable rate speech codec had as a high point 8.5 kbps for the "high quality" stuff.

So yeah.  Not a high bandwidth stream.

And the fact that the phone company charges voice calls per minute and yet gives you unlimited download ability... seems more than a little silly to me.

They will end up being disintermediated, just because its so easy to do.

apismellifera's picture
apismellifera
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 8 2010
Posts: 61
An oddball,, alternative choice

I've been with a little alternative cell company called Republic Wireless for years now.  Love 'em. They realized that most of the time, people are within range of a wfii network, so they sell customized Android phones that will place calls over wifi whenever possible.  If you're talking on the wifi network and walk out of range, the phone transparently switches to true cell service, (primarily on Sprint, but there is now supposedly a second national carrier able to handle their cellular calls now.)

You can pick from several plans based on your likely usage patterns, and if you're always near wifi, cost per month is crazy low, like $5.  But if you're going on a trip, you can change your plan to a higher rate plan, then back to low, multiple times a month.  Best of all, if you sign up for a data plan and don't use what you pay for (most people don't) you get a CASH credit towards your next bill.  Not minutes.  Average cost works out to be around $13/mo. I think. 

You buy a phone outright, too, which costs around $300, depending.  I love the complete transparency of pricing, and their goal of disrupting the big boys. I like their wiki-based and largely volunteer support, too-- people love to help other users of the service. Consumer Reports said they had the highest satisfaction of any cell provider, too.  Lots to like, but definitely a bit quirky.  Check 'em out.  Two co-workers of mine switched a year or two ago, and are pleased with the decision.  All this is from memory, so please don't take my word for every detail. 

kelvinator's picture
kelvinator
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 25 2008
Posts: 215
yeah, the disintermediation is already under way

Wow!  I didn't know they had the codec data rates down to that tiny of a number, Dave.  Pretty remarkable!

In my last life as a programmer/software designer, at one point I did computer game work directly supported by engineers from the Dutch company Phillips at the beginning of the '90's.  They were developing new CD-based multimedia delivery systems we weremaking software for;  they were key collaborators in developing the implementation of both the first mp3 audio compression standard and the mpeg video compression standard at that time - kind of the birth of "multimedia".  I worked intermittently with a razor sharp guy from their main development center in Eindhoven - quite nice fellow - who gave us a primer on how they packed all that info into such a miniscule data stream.

It was jaw-droppingly brilliant - specifically designed around what does and does not make a difference to the way humans hear and see things - rather than just trying to recreate the best copy possible of an audio waveform or visual field.  Getting a movie out of the 44.1 khz data rate (2 channels x 44.1K samples x 16 bits/sample = 176 kbytes/sec) rolling off an audio CD is boring stuff these days, but then it was like magic in a bottle - very hard to believe it was doable when you compared that old CD audio standard and rate that "MPEG-1" was built directly on top of to the actual data rate that would be needed to deliver a movie's original, uncompressed image and sound streams at an acceptable resolution and quality.  

And it actually took them quite awhile to get it right, as we knew from the endless versions updates, audio/visual glitches and crashes we had to work through.  It's the kind of thing that makes you love science & engineering, (and love and hate programming ;-))

apismellifera, one cool thing about setting up your phone to work on a "data only" plan (which again, is hardly offered yet in the US, aside from the one I'm going to try to sneak in on, but I expect will soon be offered more widely), is that your phone is already configured to use WiFi data whenever possible, and only use cell data when necessary.  So, WiFi calling, texting and data at no cost is already part of the deal automatically.  I think my brother uses a similar set up to yours, for a similar price with Tracfone, cause he was able to get it with the Verizon network in his area, which he prefers.  Both plans sound like great deals.

apismellifera's picture
apismellifera
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 8 2010
Posts: 61
Another option

A third colleague just ditched his wireless plan and bought a mobile hotspot that lives mainly in his family van.  He uses Google Hangouts for all calls now, saving considerable money.  This is a less integrated solution than what I described above, but he's a big fan of all things Google and owned his phone outright, so it made sense for him and saved him a ton of money.  

kelvinator's picture
kelvinator
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 25 2008
Posts: 215
Data Dam Breaking? Sprint, T-Mobile & Verizon Offer Data Only

Since I posted the original note for the discussion a couple of weeks ago, it looks like the wireless data wars continue to heat up, with this notice a couple of days ago that now all four major carriers may be offering lower-cost data-only plans (which let you do call/text/data, as I described elsewhere).   The link below itemizes pricing, though they may not include total cost for all plans/carriers.  

Also, on the forums I looked at, it's reported that, at least until recently, AT&T monitors its data plans to keep smartphones from using them - not sure if that's still true.  This story indicates, though, that now T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint all have lower-cost data only plans that you can legitimately buy for your smartphone. Assuming this report's accurate, when I switch my plan in a month or so when I've used up my AT&T credits, I'll now get the 2GB $20/month T-Mobile plan, since it's a better deal than the $1.5GB deal for t-mobile via Simple Mobile I found earlier.

http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2016/04/02/t-mobile-ironically-lau...

Boomer41's picture
Boomer41
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 30 2008
Posts: 137
European Phone Plans Cheaper and Better

The US cell phone industry is still overcharging for phone and data service. The best I can do here is to own my own iPhone and have a 'pay as you go' plan at T-Mobile which sets me back $40/month per phone. That plan includes unlimited calls and texts and 18GB of 3G data

Whereas in France I slip a different SIM card into my phone and for only 20 euros/month ($23) I have unlimited calls, unlimited SMS texts and, wait for it... 50 GB of data at 4G speed.  http://mobile.free.fr/

The low cost suppliers in France have completely transformed the mobile phone market. Where only a few years ago the Big Three  - Orange, Bouygues and SFR had a cosy little cartel, nowadays they are scrambling for market share against newcomers Free and Budget.

I love it when The Market really works.

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