The mobile-phone industry is in a state of flux. Where once you had little choice but to buy a subsidized phone from a major carrier and pay two years' worth of whatever monthly fees it chose to levy, now you have options aplenty.
After that, you have several choices. Three of the Big Four carriers -- AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless --have started offering off-contract plans alongside their two-year contracts, while the fourth, T-Mobile, has doffed the contract system completely.
But wait -- there's more. You are no longer stuck with one of the Big Four -- you can take your current post-contract phone to another carrier offering better rates. You can also get both a new phone and a different plan from one of a growing number of smaller outfits promising to go easier on your wallet.
For this story, we look at 16 of those smaller carriers -- also known as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs. These services provide voice, messaging and data for your smartphone -- usually at lower monthly costs and with less hassle.
(Note that although there are perhaps a dozen more similar "Off Broadway" carriers, we chose a cross-section of both new and established companies as representative of the industry as a whole.)
Most of them do this by leasing Big Four bandwidth and tweaking the typical monthly-plan formulas. (A few, like Boost Mobile, are actually owned by a larger carrier.) Some leverage other tech, like Wi-Fi and voice-over-IP, to offer lower rates. Some do both. And most let you bring over an existing phone, great if you're looking to extend the life of handset that's already bought and paid for.
Bring your own phone -- or use theirs?
Suppose, for instance, you have an iPhone 4S that just reached the end of a two-year contract with AT&T. It's a common misconception that you need to stay with the same carrier and pay the same monthly rate -- even if you don't feel the need to upgrade to a new phone. AT&T and T-Mobile phones, both of which run on GSM networks, can be unlocked and taken to any other carrier that piggybacks on one of those same networks.
So instead of continuing to pay AT&T, say, $80 per month to use your iPhone 4S, you could take it to Giv Mobile or Straight Talk and pay a lower rate -- no contract required.
This Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) option gets a bit more complicated with CDMA phones from Sprint and Verizon. Although several MVNOs piggyback on Sprint's network, not all welcome outside phones. And the one carrier that leverages only Verizon's network -- Page Plus Cellular -- doesn't officially support phones purchased from Verizon proper.
Indeed, you'll often enjoy more and better options if you're willing to buy a new phone. Many of the no-contract carriers sell handsets directly -- and even if you pay more upfront, the lower monthly rates make the math work in your favor relative to the higher rates charged by a Big Four carrier (or the two years you'd be locked into a contract).
You get what you pay for
Sounds great, right? Here come the get-what-you-pay-for caveats: MVNOs don't always deliver the same features and coverage as their Big Four brothers, despite operating on the very same networks. Virgin Mobile, for example, lacks the roaming coverage afforded by Sprint, and Straight Talk iPhone users don't get visual voicemail.
How the Big Four hope to woo you back
Now that consumers have so many options, the major carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless -- are offering their own no-contract plans to try to keep their users happy. AT&T, for example, recently introduced a family-friendly four-user plan that works out to $40 per user per month, with 10GB of data to share between them.
Check out what their latest strategies are in How the Big Four hope to woo you back.
Then there's data. All the "starting at" prices listed in the carrier descriptions that follow include at least some data in their plans. However, as is the norm these days, virtually all the carriers will cap your throughput at a certain point, giving you X-amount of 4G speed and then dropping you back to a slower rate of throughput (with some still claiming "unlimited" data). In other cases your plan may include only, say, 500MB of data, period, after which you'll pay per-megabyte overage charges.
If you're wondering how much data you really need, a 2013 Nielsen study revealed that the average U.S. smartphone user consumes 733MB per month. So even if you're slightly above average, a 1GB data plan might be more than sufficient. It might be worth monitoring your usage for a month or two to find out. (If you find you're getting close to your maximum, or that you're paying for more than you need, you can always change your plan -- and most MVNOs make that relatively simple.)
While you're reading the fine print, you'll want to see whether your plan includes things like picture messaging (MMS), visual voicemail, mobile hotspot (a rarity among MVNOs), number porting and short-code messaging. This last is used to deliver everything from Amber Alerts to boarding passes to Starbucks deals, but a few carriers (including Republic Wireless and UppWireless) don't support it. Figure out what's important to you, and what you can do without.
Interested in seeing what the little guys have to offer? What follows is a descriptive list of 16 MVNOs that may offer you a better deal.
Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $55/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts/data
In business since: 2000
Boost is one of the oldest and largest no-contract carriers, a Sprint-owned service renowned for its "shrinking" service plans: You start out paying $55 per month, then your rate drops $5 every six months. Once you hit the 18-month mark, the plan "bottoms out" at $40 -- a pretty solid deal for 4G service, but too bad it takes 1.5 years to get there.
With the exception of the iPhone 5s and phablet-sized Boost Max -- arguably its flagship models -- Boost sells mostly mid-range phones. Although you can bring your own device, the service currently supports only a smattering of Sprint phones, all of them old and/or low-end models. Given that other Sprint-owned MVNOs (notably Virgin Mobile) offer a broader and better selection of phones and lower monthly rates out of the gate, Boost seems like it could use one.
Piggybacks on: AT&T
Starts at: $12.50/month for 0 voice minutes/100 texts/10MB data
In business since: 1995
Popular with the AARP crowd, Consumer Cellular takes a decidedly senior-friendly approach to phones and service plans. Phone choices are limited (but include desirable models like the iPhone 5s and Motorola Moto G), and plan options are available to suit nearly any budget. The company also offers free SIM cards (in all sizes) for use with any AT&T-compatible unlocked phone.
Consumer Cellular's voice plans start at $10 monthly (a keep-your-service-active charge that includes no voice minutes); since data options start at $2.50, the minimum price for a data-only plan is $12 monthly. And although there's no mention of data speeds anywhere on the company's site, a rep confirmed that 4G-capable phones will get 4G service.
Consequently, this could be an attractive option for users who spend most of their time connected to Wi-Fi, or simply don't make a lot of calls.
Piggybacks on: AT&T
Starts at: $50/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 2.5GB data
In business since: 1999
One of the older players in the low-cost carrier game, Cricket Wireless is in the final stages of merging with one of the newest: Aio Wireless. That will help keep Cricket competitive in at least one area: BYOD, which Aio offers but Cricket currently does not. Hopefully, Aio will also bring its broader selection of phones to Cricket's anemic mix, which consists of a smattering of Android and low-end (non-smart) phone models. Plus, Cricket's plans start at $50 monthly, while Aio has a $35 cost-of-entry plan. Sounds like just the right infusion of new blood this older carrier needs.
Piggybacks on: Clearwire, Sprint
Starts at: $0/month for 200 voice minutes/500 texts/500MB data
In business since: 2011
FreedomPop's claim to fame: Free service. Whether you bring your own phone or buy a refurbished HTC EVO 4G or Samsung Galaxy SII ($109 and $159, respectively), you'll get a monthly stipend of sorts: 200 voice minutes, 500 text messages and 500MB of data. If you hit those caps, extra data runs 2.5 cents per megabyte and a penny per voice minute or text message -- competitive rates all around. There are also monthly and annual plans for users who want unlimited calling and messaging, though data remains capped at 500MB.
But FreedomPop's website borders on user-hostile, providing no information about phones, plans or coverage unless you first enter a ZIP code and email address. Even then, it's extremely difficult to browse the available options. And where I live in metro Detroit, there's no coverage, meaning FreedomPop has yet to expand beyond Sprint's Clearwire WiMax network -- at least for phone service. It's available in only about 18 major metropolises.
Thus, for the moment, FreedomPop's promise of free service is mired under the weight of vague options and services, and limited availability.
Piggybacks on: T-Mobile
Starts at: $40/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 250MB data
In business since: 2013
Hate the idea of paying $40 to $50 per month to a greedy, faceless corporation? You might feel a little better knowing some of that money is going to a good cause. Giv Mobile donates 8% of your plan payment to one of your choice of charities, including the American Red Cross, Alzheimer's Association and United Way.
Giv's phone selection leaves much to be desired (they're mostly outdated Android models), but for $5 you can buy a mini/micro SIM for use with any unlocked GSM phone. From there you choose either the $40 or $50 Everything plan, both of which offer unlimited calls and messaging but just 250MB or 2GB of high-speed data, respectively. Other carriers give you a bit more bang for the buck, but only Giv gives back.
Piggybacks on: AT&T
Starts at: $30/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 500MB data
In business since: 2005
Although H2O Wireless sells the unlocked iPhone 5 (at full price) and a smattering of lower-end Android handsets, the company caters primarily to the BYOD crowd, offering service for any unlocked GSM iPhone or Android phone.
The $30 plan is good for 500MB of data, plus unlimited calls and messaging; it includes free international texting (100 outgoing, unlimited incoming) and a $5 international calling credit. At the $40 level you get 1GB of data and $20 toward international calls, making this an attractive choice for overseas travelers and users with overseas friends and family.
Piggybacks on: Multiple
Starts at: $40/month for unlimited voice minutes/texts, 500MB data
In business since: 1996
A subsidiary of pay-as-you-go giant TracFone Wireless, Net10 sells high-end phones like the iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4 and lower-end models like the Motorola Defy XT -- all at retail prices. But the bigger appeal is for owners of post-contract phones from the Big Four: Net10 supports both GSM and CDMA handsets, meaning it's not just AT&T and T-Mobile expats who can get in on the action, but also the Sprint and Verizon crowds.
Net10's GSM cards cost $6.99, while a CDMA access code will run you $14.99. After that, you can get an "unlimited" no-contract plan for $40 monthly, with high-speed data throttling back after you hit the 500MB mark. You can raise that cap to 2.5GB with the $50 plan, and Net10 will make it $45 if you sign up for autopay. That puts the service on par with the likes of Straight Talk, another TracFone company offering very similar rates.
Page Plus Cellular
Piggybacks on: Verizon Wireless
Starts at: $12/month for 250 voice minutes/250 texts/10MB data
In business since: 1993
Owners of post-contract Verizon handsets have few third-party options. Technically, Page Plus Cellular is not one of them, even though the carrier taps Verizon's renowned CDMA network. Although some phones not purchased from Page Plus may work, according to the website, "we do not support them and their functionality may be limited." Translation: Look elsewhere, BYOD seekers.
Equally disappointing, the company sells only a few smartphones, all of them lower-end Android models. But if you have modest mobile needs, Page Plus offers some attractive no-contract service plans, including one for just $12 monthly. There's no cheaper way to run a smartphone on Verizon's network.
Piggybacks on: Sprint
Starts at: $25/month for unlimited voice minutes/text, 5GB data
In business since: 2011
Calls routed over cell towers cost money. Calls routed over Wi-Fi networks cost almost nothing. Republic sells smartphones that tap Wi-Fi whenever possible, switching to towers only when necessary.