Cellular Maddness

by Colin Berkshire

For the past several years AT&T and Verizon have been like UPS and FedEx: copying each other’s pricing structures to the penny. (“Not oligopolistic says the US Supreme Court.”).

But this year things are very different. The major  carriers have broken ranks and seem to be actually competing. So who is the best deal these days?

First the easy answer: There is no circumstance that I could find where Verizon was competitive on price. They cost more–sometimes about twice as much–as the other major carriers. Verizon has decided that their customers are either stupidly loyal or that by having higher prices people will infer that their network is superior. Reports from actual users indicates that sometimes Verizon is better, but often it is not. It’s hit or miss with them.

Sprint has always sold on price, and this continues. But I have yet to hear from any Sprint customers who will extoll the virtues of their network. Perhaps somebody gets great service from Sprint. They just aren’t anybody that I know of.

This leaves AT&T and TMobile. And, they are a most interesting story.

TMobile has a super-duper killer-good program. Tablets cost $10 or $20 a month including data. Cell phones cost $50 for the first phone, $30 for the second, and $10 for the next three. These are rockin’ great prices making the choice of TMobile over AT&T or Verizon a no-brainer decision. Plus, TMobile has no overages and you can use your phone across the world with no international data charges.

Our company started aggressively switching over to TMobile. I like their attitude. I like their pricing. I like that our folks can get off an airplane in 150+ countries and be in touch with email and messages at no cost.

But the sad, miserable truth is that the TMobile network just is terrible. You can have 5-bars of signal in a major city and have no data service. A classic case in point is Federal Way Washington, the city where Weyerhaeuser’s headquarters is located. In this case a group of us tool out our TMobile phones and entered a URL. We then say the phones on the table and waited. Three minutes later we all got a page refresh at the same time and then it went dead again. This pattern repeated. It was as if their router would stay up for 15 seconds and then would reboot for the next three minutes.

So this leaves AT&T. They are most intriguing. Their pricing for multiple phones is genuinely spot-on. They have become reasonably priced (for domestic use.) Their plan works basically like this:

$100 a month gets you 10 GB of data. I know you don’t need 10GB and they know you don’t need 10GB. But they sell you 10GB. Then, you pay just $15 per phone and $10 per tablet to connect to this. Those connection charges are right in there with TMobile and others. It’s nice to see AT&T compete.

I’m told by my contacts that is many cities AT&T is actually better than Verizon. Its been a couple of years since we compared and back then Verizon was a lot better. But AT&T has been busy, perhaps.

Finally, there is one interesting “Sleeper” option out there. A prepaid service sold by WalMart called StraightTalk can work with AT&T. Now, when you go to the stores you get one that is just TMobile resold. (Don’t do it!) But on the web you can specify the AT&T version of this. The pricing is the same: $45 a month. You get the AT&T network and you get 4G LTE up to 3 GB of data (with reduced speeds over 3GB.) This is an intriguing option that I have asked we investigate. A staffer here has ordered up a Straight Talk AT&T sim and we’ll have some reports from it shortly.

Oh, back to Verizon: Verizon offers some prepaid plans such as their AllSet. In the Verizon tradition of being nasty and evil (that’s an opinion) their prepaid plans cannot use Verizon LTE. Yes, really, Verizon has crippled the prepaid plans by limiting them to the rather sucky Verizon 3G network. Why must cell phones make things so complicated? Are they sadists?