Hey... up until recently I've been a loyal Sprint customer. Ten years worth of arguing with my friends who passed through Analog, TDMA, and finally GSM. I had better coverage, better data speeds, and frankly, a whole raft of why CDMA beat out GSM in technical merit. But what I did have in common with all my friends was a contract. The revolving 2 year door was a giant chain around our necks. When in 2008 I got laid off from my job at a hedge fund, I tried to get Sprint to let me out of my expensive data card contract and just keep my phone. They didn't.
Since then I've become rabidly anti-contract as cell service becomes more and more a commodity. But few people really understand what it means .. or even how .. to commoditize their cell service. We've become so used to the 2 year contract setup and postpaid system (as well as stigmatized that prepaid is for losers and deadbeats) that I've had to walk out on wireless store clerks who still argued data speeds, coverage, and their lineup of phones. The phone is becoming a PC, we want hardware features (dual core, screen size, amoled) and not software .. we bring what our phone does with us, just like our laptops and desktops. So why would we treat it any different from commodity hardware in other parts of the market? Insanity.
What is a commodity market, why is it good for me, and how do I participate?
A commodity market, simply put, is a range of products that are interchangeable with each other. Using one product does not provide a substantive difference from another. In the case of cell service, we all want three things: minutes, texts, and data. There are some differences in the products in this space, but they're negligible. Sure, one guy may have more coverage than another .. but the networks are built out enough where unless you live in some kind of hole, you can choose. Phone calls all sound (roughly) the same, text messages are all the same, and data rates are all very similar (1.5-5Mb/s is 'good enough', though some providers have some seriously high speed stuff .. with the data caps, I'm just going to download the giant BlueRay Rip on my home connection so it doesn't matter.) For most of us, all providers do the same thing. And this is good, that means we as consumer can choose based almost solely on price. Whoever has the best price will get the monthly fee, and whomever sticks it to their customer gets left with lots of people jumping ship. Overall, prices go down. But it only works if you take on the mentality of dealing with a commodity ...
Rules for Participation
- Define your minimum needs. I need unlimited minutes and at least 2GB of data a month. You have tons of tools to figure out your average usage, so work it out.
- A cell provider SHOULD NEVER be a commitment. Contracts are like HIV, once you get it they're not going away unless you have Magic Johnson amounts of cash.
- Names, branding, and customer service are to be ignored. I don't care if this month I'm using Retard Cellular, if they've got the best deal for my minimum needs I'm using it!
- Reevaluate the market regularly. I need to make sure I'm not blindly paying into my provider, I need to reward the best priced provider with my money!
That last line is really important and it's part of what makes our shiny new GSM phones absolutely brilliant. If you want you can jump between providers EVERY MONTH. We can do everything that is GSM and it makes no substantive difference. With the inclusion of the AWS bands usually only found on stuff labelled "T-Mobile" (or i9020T) this frees us from the horrors of vendor lock-in and truly makes commoditization of cell service possible.
Question: What about non-GSM providers like Sprint and Verizon?
Good question! Screw them. Both Sprint and Verizon have the ultimate in vendor lock-in, they have every phone they'll ever activate in their databases custom made for them. It's a dying model. GSM/LTE style SIM based technologies are the way forward. It's a worldwide standard and you'll be likely to see mega-band radios (5 or more!) as we progress into the future.
Question: So besides sticking it to the man, what do I gain from going to a commoditized model?
Cost savings. That's what this all comes down to. Saving your money and being smarter about how you spend it. Sprint sure loves their $10 you-have-a-cool-phone fee. F that. Screw extra fees, screw overage costs, screw desperately holding on to that grandfathered plan that you get $5 off on. Right now you'll pay pretty much $60 a month for unlimited talk and text with 2GB of data. My guess is that there's going to be a race to the bottom of costs as this model takes off (and it is, AT&T lost a pile of postpaid - that means contract - users and gain a ton more prepaid customers in Q4 2011).
Ok, so you're sold. What do you need?
1 - A GSM Galaxy Nexus Pentaband phone.
This phone allows you to use any GSM provider and get the maximum data rates from them. But you already know how awesome this phone is, you own it already!
2 - A stack of unactivated SIM cards.
If you're going to jump providers a lot, buy a pile of SIM cards off eBay. You'll usually be able to find SIM cards for a buck ($1). Buy 10 of each vendors' and have a variety.
3 - Optionally: Google Voice
This service has really matured over the last few years. It's free and works great with your Android phone. Port your number to GV if you want to keep it, or get a new one and tell all your friends you have a new number. (My God, you people who hold onto numbers like they're your own children need to understand that your number goes into someone's phonebook and is never seen again. No one memorizes numbers anymore, get over it and go through the new number process .. you'll see it's not hard. AND you'll be able to leave some people you don't want to have your number behind.) GV allows you to switch providers instantly without having to change you number with every SIM swap. Just set your new SIM's number up in GV and you're done. Also, GV's web based (and some windows clients) text messaging is really great for cube farmers like me who'll use it all day without having my phone's beeping pissing off the entire floor of cubes.
If you don't go the GV route, be prepared to port your number a lot. It can be done, but GV is so much easier.
So, the idea is simple. Review the plans offered by all of the providers. Choose their SIM, activate it, and pay for the month. At the end of the month, do the same thing again .. or stick with what you have if you want (most can be set up to do automatic payments) After 30-60 days (usually) an unused and zero value SIM card will be permanently deactivated. Shred it.
About the Providers
Service in the USA is really only provided by 2 major GSM carriers. You know them, they're AT&T and T-Mobile. Both have good coverage and both support HSPA+ (the fast data) in most metro places. HOWEVER, these two providers lease their towers to other companies called MVNO's (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). These guys give you the same coverage and service as AT&T and T-Mobile, but often at different price schemes. Below I've got a list of TEN (10) different operators you can buy service from! And they're not all the same price or features! This is where commoditization hits home. These 10 providers change prices and play against each other. Some are even the same company using different names but using different pricing and feature sets. The beauty of this arrangement is that YOU CAN CHOOSE. At any time (though it make sense monthly on your personal billing cycle) you can switch providers.
At the core it's still AT&T and T-Mobile. So let's look at the underlying networks:
AT&T: Signal at 850/1900, HSPA+ in metros (I haven't heard of much past 12Mb/s though) with great coverage nationwide, except for Nebraska and a big chunk of Maine. 850Mhz signal penetrates buildings better and repeater systems (like the one in my truck) will work with these bands. Data is overloaded in some places, most notably New York, but data rates may suffer in any major downtown .. you need to do your homework or try an AT&T SIM in the places you use it.
T-Mobile: Slightly less coverage, but quite built out in the last 10 years. 1700/2100 AWS band has a hard time with buildings sometimes and there's no install base of repeaters. Data is FAST where available, up to 42Mb/s. Less loaded than AT&T, but again, you need to test and see what works best for you.
Most of us in the US should be covered, but if you're not, it's not my problem. Try a contract on VZW if you can't get GSM coverage. I live in a city, and though I travel rurally frequently, metro functionality is my main requirement for coverage .. and both AT&T and T-Mobile work great.
Question: What about roaming?
There's no such thing on prepaid. Take a look at AT&T's coverage for postpaid contract and prepaid. There's a difference! Same goes for T-Mobile. Again, if you're in a position that you HAVE to roam on all these podunk little operators, then do what you must. But I do suggest you think critically on whether you really need coverage at that cabin in the mountains you go to once a year... is it worth the contract game for that one weekend a year?
REMEMBER: What works for one person may not be the right thing for another. Some people I know need only 250MB/mo .. they're on WiFi all the time. Me, I need about 1GB realistically, 2GB is my established minimum in case I need to do some tethering while on the road. Some people do just fine with the coverage of Simple Mobile (smallest national coverage) while others are better off with AT&T MVNOs. You need to make the decisions yourself. Just remember, you can change your mind at any time .. so if your test of Simple Mobile isn't working out, try an AT&T MVNO. If 2GB isn't enough, that $70 5GB plan on T-Mobile might do the trick. I always keep a few various sims in my laptop bag so if I'm on the road and I need more data or have poor coverage I can always pop in and activate a new one.
So, that's it. Free yourself from the carrier's contracts and postpaid bills and go prepaid. With a little bit of planning and effort you'll be riding the deals down in cost as the prepaid war heats up. It's just starting to boil ... and you're in a the perfect place to take advantage of it.