Prepaid Adventures, starring T-Mobile · October 19, 2012

While it’s true that this site is for the most part an iOS development blog, I branch out from time to time when I feel like writing about a particular topic. Today’s topic is cell phone service providers. I have to imagine that most of the readers of this blog own a cell phone (hopefully an iPhone), so hopefully I’ll stay somewhat relevant.

I’ve been a Verizon Wireless customer for the past three years, mostly because my wife had a 20% discount there. The coverage was great. However, I was never really satisfied with their prices. You’ll never really get any sort of a “deal” from service companies. For example, with Verizon, you can pay $5/month for 250 text messages (which you’re guaranteed to exceed, to the sound of $0.25 a pop), or $20/month for unlimited. There’s no middle ground, where the average customer would actually land. For smartphones, Verizon’s “shared data” plans start (for two lines) at $130/month. That’s with 1GB of data. What. The. $@#%? So even though I had an iPhone, it was pretty unlikely that my wife would ever want one, due to the added expense on the monthly bill.

Being generally disgruntled, I kept my eye open for better deals. Recently, there’s been a lot more noise about prepaid cell phone service, especially from T-Mobile. In particular, they have a killer “web-only” plan: $30/month for unlimited text/data and 100 voice minutes. Since I hardly use my phone for voice (irony, eh?), this seemed perfect. I even convinced my wife to go for it, even though she was worried about going over the voice allotment. At $0.10/minute, an extra two hours is only $12, and still cheaper than the basic “unlimited everything” plan T-Mobile offers, which starts at $50/month.

$30/month (for any device!) seems too good to be true, especially after being used to paying $30/month just for data. There are a few caveats, however. The first is that you can’t buy an iPhone (the discerning customer’s smartphone of choice) from T-Mobile, you have to either buy one unlocked at full price or scrounge a used one on the cheap. Fortunately, there’s a glut of iPhone 4′s floating around at the moment, since people who bought a subsidized iPhone 4 at launch now have the option to upgrade to a 5. I bought two unlocked, used ones for less than $400.

The second problem isn’t quite as easy to solve. While T-Mobile does offer 3G service, it does so on the 1700 MHz frequency. The GSM iPhone only supports 3G at 1900 MHz (which is what AT&T uses). This means that an unlocked iPhone will only get data at EDGE speeds (aka the data speed of the original iPhone). Nowadays when LTE is starting to become a viable option, EDGE seems positively glacial.

There are two mitigating factors, however. The first is that for the average customer, a faster data connection isn’t super important (to a point, of course). When you consider your regular daily routine, how often do you really use your phone for data? My main use case is for GPS and mapping, and that’s basically it. Fortunately, with iOS 6, Apple’s new Maps application uses vectors instead of bitmap tiles to display map data, which drastically reduces the data requirement. This means that for my primary use case, a slower data connection isn’t as much of a concern. Your milage may vary, of course.

The second point to consider with the slower data connection is that T-Mobile has recently started upgrading their network to offer 3G/4G service on the 1900 MHz band (basically because AT&T was forced to pay $4 billion and give up wireless spectrum after the failed merger). This means your iPhone will start getting much, much faster speeds in the near future, especially if you live in a larger city. There’s an unofficial map of 1900 MHz coverage at airportal.de (I haven’t yet verified the one reported sighting in Columbus). But I feel relatively confident that Columbus will be getting that new coverage. I’m putting down a vote of confidence in T-Mob’s future.

If you’re fed up with paying a crapload for cell phone service, now could be the right time to try something new. And hey, if you decide it’s not for you, don’t worry. It’s a no-contract service, so you can quit and go back to 2-year contract slavery whenever you want.

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