Even though I know you can get cheap, basic cell service for under $10, I do find value in having a smartphone with mobile data, for business reasons and mobile hotspot use if nothing else. My current contract is coming to an end, so I’ve been looking for the best current value in smartphone plans.
I kept hearing about a T-Mobile $30 a month prepaid plan that with a little “hacking”, you could turn into an unlimited minutes, text, and data plan for $30 a month with no contracts! Too good to be true? After many hours of research and tinkering around, I finally have it all set up and have been using it for a little over a week. Here’s a summary of what I discovered (ended up being a bit long):
The Plan – T-Mobile $30 Monthly4G with Unlimited Data
As mentioned, this cheap plan is run by T-Mobile, which probably has the smallest nationwide network footprint of the major providers but may be just fine in your area. I hear it’s actually not bad in New York City and other metro areas. The good news is that with prepaid you can try it out for a month and switch out if it doesn’t suit you. Look under their Monthly4G plan section and scroll down until you see this option:
This specific plan is only available for new activations at either Wal-mart or online at T-Mobile.com. Geeks will be quick to point out that T-Mobile 4G is HSPA+, not the super-fast 4G LTE that Verizon and some AT&T towers offer. If you have no idea what that means, just consider it “3.5G”. I get 5 Mbps down from HSPA+ in my area, vs. 1.5 Mbps from my current 3G connection, vs. 10-15 Mbps from my house’s cable modem. That’s plenty fast for me, and 5 gigs of 4G data is pretty generous and would cost quite a lot more with AT&T or Verizon. If you exceed that, you still get data but at slower speeds.
Now, there are two sticking points. First, since this is contract-free prepaid, you don’t get any discounted premium phones for signing a 2-year contract. Second, 100 minutes isn’t very much, and there are no free nights-and-weekends or mobile-to-mobile either.
The Phone – BYO, or Google Nexus 4
You can bring over any unlocked GSM phone or off-contract locked T-Mobile phone onto this $30 plan. All you need is a 99 cent SIM or Micro SIM card from T-Mobile to get started. However, many people think the best value right now is the new Google Nexus 4 smartphone. It has almost all the modern amenities (large and crisp screen, newest Android OS, fast processor) and comes unlocked and contract-free for only $299 – cheaper than most used phones! Indeed, the primary knock on the phone is that it doesn’t support LTE, which you can’t get with T-Mobile currently anyway. It’s been going in and out of stock, but I expect supply and demand to equalize soon. I was able to pick one up earlier this month and it shipped in a week despite being given a “2-3 week” timeframe.
The Trick – Free Phone Calls Over Data
To put it simplify, Voice over IP (VoIP) is a way to make phone calls over the internet. It’s what powers Vonage, the Ooma box in my house, and Google Voice (see Obihai box for free home phone service). Data usage rates vary, but use a rough estimate of 1.2 MB per minute for VoIP calls. So 1,000 minutes would only use up 1.2 GB of data.
Google Voice (GV) is free and the simplest way to set this up. If possible, port your desired phone number to Google Voice for a one-time $20 fee. If you don’t care, just sign up and pick a new, free phone number. You then use your Google Voice number only, and when someone calls it will forward the call to your home phone and/or cell phone. If set up properly, when you call out, people will see your GV number on their caller ID. This also makes it very easy to switch cellular providers in future as you won’t need to port numbers anymore.
I put “hacking” in quotes because setting this up is actually not very difficult, although it can be easy to get tripped up on little things. The simplest way to go is to install the GrooVeIP app (lite version free, $4.99 for full). Just log in with your Google Voice info, and you’re basically good to go. The full version even integrates into your native dialer interface so it feels very natural. There are other options like SIPdroid (free) for those that want to customize things like codecs. Here are the most useful forum threads with detailed instructions that I used to get myself up and running. You can do this with the iPhone too, but I haven’t researched that very deeply.
The faster your data speeds, the better the voice quality. People have varying experiences, but in regards to voice quality it is acceptable overall, but not as quite as good as normal voice service as there is a slight delay and at times a light echo heard by the other caller. The best solution I found after lots of experimenting was using GrooVeIP and their adaptive echo-cancellation feature (needs a fast phone, but the Nexus 4 is fast). You can always fall back to your 100 minutes of call time if needed (10 cents per minute overage).
The Bottom Line
I bought the Google Nexus 4 knowing that I could use it with a variety of GSM prepaid providers (or likely sell it close to cost if I didn’t want it). My brief experience using this T-Mobile $30 plan has led me to the conclusion that I wouldn’t use this plan for business – it’s just not worth talking with clients occasionally on a fuzzy connection for even a $50/month savings. The exception is if you are okay with the 100 minutes given + $0.10/minute for overage. BUT, if this is a personal line where you’re just talking about where to meet up for beers, then why not? The savings over the average 2-year contract could be over $1,000 per line. I paid a $30 flat for a month of service, as opposed to an $80 bill with another $5 of government fees and taxes tacked on.
My next experiment is to buy a Straight Talk SIM card to try out their $45 Unlimited talk, text, and data plan for a month and see how that works. Straight Talk uses AT&T towers, and I won’t have to use VoIP to get unlimited minutes. (See my Straight Talk iPhone post.)