Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cell Service: Some Interesting Options

In my first installment on this subject, I went through some of the things I am looking for in a replacement cell phone service.  I also noted a few technology issues and limitations that may be particularly interesting to cruisers (or anyone that wants to use their handset world-wide).  This time I want to take a brief look at some of the different low-cost carriers out there.

As you saw from the list of virtual operators that I linked to in the last post, there are a lot of them out there. Some of the more interesting ones have come up with some potentially fascinating concepts meant to reduce your monthly cost of of having a cell phone. Many of them start off by not subsidizing phone purchases. That means, if you need a new device, you will have to pay for the entire thing up front instead of getting "a really good price" in exchange for signing up for a long contract. Fortunately, some of them also allow you to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) if you have one that will work on their network, buy a used device that will work, and have some more economical new handsets.  Here are a few of the more interesting carriers I found that you may have never heard of.

Red Pocket

This seemed to be one of the more traditional sounding carriers.  They have a number of unlimited talk and text plans and the price seemed to vary based on how much high-speed internet you wanted to include.  The interesting thing about this provider is that they offer service on all 4 of the major carriers.  If you have an existing phone you would like to continue using, there is a fair chance they will be able to support it (please check with them before signing up if you are interested).  I didn't find their pricing to be overly compelling compared to my existing T-Mobile bill, but if you are on Verizon or AT&T you might find a plan with them that could save you a fair chunk of change each month.  They appear to be able to offer a bit better pricing because they act similar to a pre-paid service where you have to fill up and top off your account periodically instead of the tranditional monthly billing process.

Republic Wireless

An interesting low cost carrier with plans ranging from only $5 to $40 per month, the price points are definitely nice.  The theory behind Republic wireless is that WiFi is so ubiquitous in our lives these days, that there isn't likely to be much time where you are not connected to one.  Their service attempts to use WiFi whenever possible (even for voice calls) and only uses cell-based services when the WiFi is not available. Actually, their $5 plan is WiFi only, so the phone will only work when it is connected to WiFi.  The $10 plan offers voice only, with data support still coming from WiFi.  Their other two plans do offer mobile internet connectivity, with the price differentiator being how fast of data access you want.  All of their plans appear to be "unlimited everything" except for the restrictions on connectivity/speed noted above.

Since Republic tries to route your calls over WiFi when available, their phones have special software to switch between WiFi and cellular networks.  This means you cannot bring your own handset and they only offer a limited number of handsets on their service.  Their service is through Sprint (CDMA), but they can roam to Verizon so coverage is good within the U.S.  One user I know did note that the unlimited plans are not so unlimited if you are roaming onto Verizon's network a lot.


This company has decided to turn the usual cell phone plan on it's ear.  They have no "Unlimited" plans at all.  In fact, they really don't have any "plans" at all.  Instead, they divide service into various levels, or buckets if you will, and then charge you based on what bucket you land in at the end of each month.  Each service type is divided into these buckets: phone minutes, text/SMS messages, and data.  So, if you use very few minutes but a lot of data, then you get charged just a couple bucks for your minutes and a bit more for your data usage.  Their claim is that by doing it this way, most people save money versus those unlimited plans.

Traditionally, Ting has used the Sprint CDMA network for their service, but recently started rolling out a T-Mobile based GSM offering that is currently in a public beta program. The biggest downside to their approach seems to be that your bill may vary month-to-month so it may be hard to budget accurately for their service.  The other catch with this service is they require you to have a credit card on file.  Since, unlike most carriers, they bill you at the end of the service period (otherwise how could they know how much to bill you) this made sense to me.  Still not sure I like companies automatically billing my credit card, but at least there reason is a bit more valid than most.

I did choose one of these as our provider and have just completed my first month with them.  I will tell you about my experience in an upcoming post.  And if you are interested in giving the one I'm using a try, I may be able to save you a few dollars your first month with them too.


  1. Great research. I've worked for a cellular company for years and you've nailed a lot of the "growing pains" as radio frequencies have been sold and traded over time. Qualcomm is working on a new chip that is purported to support all of the world's LTE bands. Don't forget VOIP apps. I've installed Skype and Google Hangouts in the past as free alternatives if you have access to free wifi or a cheap data connection. Obviously wifi has a limited range, so many cruisers like Catchin’ Rays install a wifi extender. This is a fascinating and dynamic topic. I look forward to future posts.

    1. Hi Jacob,

      Yeah, the current cell phone landscape is strange to say the least. There are a number of applications that are useful when you have occasional WiFi access...should probably do a post on that. Skype, Google Hangouts Dialer, GrooveIp, and other VOIP solutions are getting better every day. Right now as I'm driving across the country I'm using a navigation application that allows you to download maps and use them offline...handy when you are in rural areas or if you want to reduce your cellular data usage.

      If I recall correctly, it was my write up on the installation of my WiFi extender that got Kevin going on getting his running. ;-)

  2. Make sure you read the fine print. We test ran Straight Talk thinking about switching from Verizon only to find out that they throttle the data after 3 gigs.

    SV Kintala

    1. Always good advice. Almost all carriers that have "unlimited" data actually throttle data to 3g speeds at some point. Seems that somewhere in the 2~4 GB range is where they like to do it. I know with recent FCC rulings some, I think including Verizon, just stopped offering "unlimited" plans.