Pre-paid smartphone plans that do not suck, part 1

Credit: Image credit: Flickr/Robert S. Donovan

Forgoing a contract does not always mean wonky phones and throttled data. Far from it, in fact.

I wrote last week about Verizon's transition of their 3G networks into a pre-paid smorgasbord, and how I thought that was a neat and affordable option. Boy, was I wrong. You told me in the comments, on Google+, on Twitter, and, in one case, when it was time for an evening beer. I have been on one cellular contract or another since 2004, and I have had blinders on to what's right off the well-beaten path.

[T-Mobile readies shared data plans for business; no early termination fees and Mobile data growth accelerating worldwide, led by smartphone users]

Today, I intend to correct my dilettantish ways and point out a few ways you might do something seemingly remarkable: pay a company a reasonable sum every month for good access to their data pipes, along with their voice network and basically-free-to-them text messages, without committing to a two-year agreement. And do that with a phone that isn't something that wouldn't sell from last year's bargain bin. We're talking iPhones, Nexus devices, top-of-the-line gear that you buy yourself.

This week, I'm focusing on two nation-wide, third-party services. Next week, I'll dig into the carriers' own pay-as-you-go smartphone offerings.

Straight Talk: Unlocked GSM phones, $45/month unlimited talk/text/data

Straight Talk's explanation of its business model

Straight Talk is perhaps the most interesting plan I had never heard of. Immediately after writing about Verizon’s $60/month 3G plan, I heard from a savvy friend, Dan DeFelippi, about how he’s enjoying very nice data speeds, for $45 per month, with no data cap, no contract, and country-wide roaming, on a best-in-class Nexus 4.

Straight Talk is a brand of Tracfone, sold only online or through Walmart. Generally speaking, you can bring any unlocked GSM phone (that is, any phone ready for T-Mobile or AT&T in the U.S.) to Straight Talk, or bring an iPhone built for AT&T's network. "Unlocked" means, at this time, a phone you bought for the full price, not subsidized and under contract, or which a carrier has unlocked for you. Unlocking phones yourself, using third-party tools, is currently something close to illegal. You can buy unlocked and GSM-ready phones through Google, Apple, Amazon's marketplace, and other new and used sources.

If Sprint or Verizon rule the skies where you live, or you have a CDMA (Sprint or Verizon) phone you want to bring to Straight Talk, you'll want to browse Straight Talk's site and enter your ZIP code to see if coverage is provided where you live. And everybody looking into Straight Talk should read the FAQ on Howard Forums-Updated-8-16-2012), and

What kind of speeds does Straight Talk pull off? Let’s give Dan the blockquote floor:

I've run three speed tests at two different locations at different times using speedtest.net's app (on a T-Mobile 4G SIM card):

  • 14030kbps (download) / 2174kbps (upload), 828ms ping
  • 7488 / 1793kbps, 98ms ping
  • 3732 / 1038kbps, 93ms ping (done just now from Capital Factory)

So, much like any data plan, speeds and ping (responsiveness) times vary depending on your signal strength. But if you happen to live and roam where AT&T and T-Mobile are quite strong, Straight Talk could be a quiet little money-saver. Just ask the people who told me their Straight Talk stories on Google+.

Ting: A clever, Sprint-centered option

Ting's pricing calculator in action

Contrary to Straight Talk, I had heard of Ting before, as Ting has purchased more than a few readings from Leo Laporte on This Week in Google. The pitch is based on simplicity: pay for what you actually use, adjust your allowances on the fly as you use more or less, and share your data (tether or "hotspot"), because you pay for it.

The main catch is that Ting is centered around the Sprint data network, which is not the most widespread of the big four carriers, at least in terms of faster 4G/LTE capacity. You can roam on voice calls through MetroPCS and Verizon, but for data, you're reliant on Sprint. And you can't just bring any old Sprint-capable phone to Ting, as they make a few modifications to them. A bring-your-own-device plan was announced in August, and Ting now supports bringing a Galaxy Nexus S to their plans, and that's a humble start. On the flip side, really nice, new phones like the Samsung Galaxy S3 are available for non-subsidized purchase.

You can see exactly how much you'd save over a two-year period with Ting's cost calculator, and see what your coverage looks like. If Ting's phones and service work for you, though, it could be a slick and easy way to jump into the pre-paid market.

Read more of Kevin Purdy's Mobilize! blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinpurdy. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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