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Last update: 26-Nov-2010. What’s new: Prepaid Android phones from Virgin Mobile, Cricket and MetroPCS, T-Mobile Web Day Pass, overpriced monthly prepaid smartphone plans from Verizon, $0.10/min calls on AT&T prepaid.
Prepaid mobile plans are a great way to save on voice and SMS but what about data? Using data on prepaid here in the U.S. will require making some compromises. Reasonably priced prepaid data options are scarce and what few deals there are are saddled with restrictions. That isn’t true in the rest of the world. In Italy prepaid users on WIND can get 1 GB of 3G data for € 9.00/month (about nine tenths of a US penny per megabyte). The best rate in the US for GSM/GPRS/Edge/EVDO data is AT&T’s $20 for 100 MB on prepaid, which is 22 times as much as the Italian price!
How can a frugal or cash strapped consumer on prepaid get a little of that web browsing, app using data excitement without wiping out the savings that brought them to prepaid in the first place? Here’s my assessment of all the current data options I could find on U.S. national carriers.
Boost Mobile (CDMA): Boost now offers CDMA service using Sprint’s native 2.5G and 3G network. Boost has $50/month unlimited and $0.10/minute pay as you go plans. The unlimited plan includes unlimited voice, SMS, MMS AND 1RTT or EVDO data. Pay per minute users can add unlimited data for $0.35/day
A Boost branded phone is required to activate the service, nothing else will work. Activation is free with a new phone or $10 for a used one.
Most of the Boost CDMA handsets are basic feature phones but at least they fully support installing Java applications over the air. Boost also offers the BlackBerry Curve 8330, which is available only on a special $60/month BlackBerry Unlimited plan. The plan includes BlackBerry Internet Services (BIS) which is the proprietary BlackBerry data service that is required for the famous BlackBerry push Email and PIN messaging to work
An interesting thing about Boost CDMA is that a Boost phone is only required for initial activation. Once the plan is activated you can call customer service and switch the plan to another Sprint phone. Not all CS reps seem to be willing to switch services to a non-Boost phone so it may take several tries. Not all Sprint phones can be used on Boost CDMA, however. Android and Palm WebOS phones are not allowed and neither are certain BlackBerry, Windoes Mobile and feature phones. There’s section on HowardForums dedicated to Boost CDMA. It has information on which Sprint phones work and tips for gettingSprint phones on Boost and is recommended reading you are interested in trying to use a Sprint phone on Boost CDMA.
Boost Mobile (iDEN): Unlimited data is also included in Boost’s $50 month unlimited iDEN voice and data plan. Data on the iDEN network flows at a glacially slow 19.2 Kbps. Handset selection is limited to iDEN phones, which except for the BlackBerries and the Motorola i1 Android phone have tiny screens and limited web capabilities out of the box. With some tweaking (instructions for: BlackBerry, Non-BlackBerry) Opera Mini, Gmail, and several IM apps can be installed and can make the Boost Web experience tolerable.
Using a BlackBerry on Boost iDEN (aka a “BoostBerry”) is an interesting hack. There are no BlackBerry BIS or BES servers available so some features like BlackBerry’s trademark push email and BlackBerry Maps won’t work. But BlackBerries are much more capable phones than any of the Boost handsets. They can multitask and run the latest versions of Java apps like Opera Mini, Gmail, Google Maps and multi-network IM program Nimbuzz. Prospective BoostBerry users should read the compilation of what works and what doesn’t at HowardForums.
AT&T: Adhoc data is automatically enabled on all AT&T prepaid accounts at the obscene rate of $0.01/KB ($10/MB). At that price I wouldn’t even think about surfing on AT&T without a data add-on. Data packages are available at $4.99/1 MB and $19.99/100 MB (0.20/MB). The packages expire after 30 days, but if you add another one before expiration, the unused data rolls over. So if you you use less than 100 MB in a month, which isn’t a lot, on the 30th day of your package’s duration you can add another $5 or $20 package to retain your balance.
To add a data package to your account you can either call 611 from the handset and wade through the voice response menus or use the AT&T’s Pay As You Go Online site. It’s also possible to set up automatic refills using the web site.
The $19.99 plan is overpriced at 0.20/MB but at least you can use any phone that supports ATT’s 850/1900 bands and isn’t locked to another operator. Even the iPhone should work if you manually change the settings as described here.
AT&T recently reduced the price of voice minutes from $0.25 to $0.10. Without a text bundle, texts are a steep $0.20/each.
For the Apple iPad, At&T offers two pre-paid data-only packages: 14.95/month for 250 MB or $25/month for 2 GB. The SIM must be activated in an iPad. There’s reportedly a hack to activate the iPad SIM with a PC browser using a modified user agent to impersonate an iPad. Once activated it’s currently possible to use the micro-SIM with an adapter in other devices. The iPad SIMs are data only, there is no option to use voice or text.
Verizon: has what at could potentially be a pretty good deal for data. Unlimited data is available for $1/day, which is only charged on days when you actually use data. The catch is that Verizon will not allow any smartphones, BlackBerries or even feature phones that have a touch screen or any phone that requires what Verizon calls an “Nationwide” plan to be activated on the basic prepaid plans that include dollar a day data.
You can tell if a specific phone is allowed by looking at it’s description on verizonwireless.com. Any phone that says “Nationwide Plan Required” or “HTML Web Browsing Capable” is verboten. The phones that actually can be activated have pretty basic browsers. The newer Samsungs with the Netfront browser are probably the best of the lot. The phones Verizon allows on prepaid also lack Java so no Opera Mini, Gmail or Google maps either. If you are into flashing firmware there are a several older Verizon Motorola phones that can be flashed with Bell or Telus Canada firmware which has Java. It’s not the best Java implementation (no task switching and limited support for recent Java apps) but it can run older versions of Opera Mini, Google Maps and Gmail. Detailed instructions are available for flashing the E815 and K1M/L7C The V3C can also be flashed to Bell firmware. Tethering is also possible with these phones.
More advanced phones including smartphones can only be activated activataed on Verizon’s overpriced Prepaid monthly plans whicg start at $64.99 for 450 minutes and unlimited text. Add another $30/month for unlimited data and you are looking at $94.99/month!
Page Plus: has data on all their plans but it’s not cheap. A megabyte will run you $0.60 on the unlimited and Talk n Text 1200 plans after the included 20 (unlimited) or 50 (Talk n Text 1200) MB monthly allotment is used up. Data is $1.20 / MB on the pay as you go “Standard” plan. Page plus will activate Verizon and Alltel postpaid phones except for BlackBerrys, which are not allowed. Phones sold for or last active on Verizon’s prepaid service are not allowed. Most non-Page Plus phones will require some tweaking to get the data settings right before the browser will work. Windows Mobile and Palm phones usually work out of the box with Page Plus’s data features. Another option is QNC data, a very slow (14.4 Kbps) data standard that can be enabled on most CDMA Motorolas and some older Windows Mobile phones. Although it’s slow, QNC does have the advantage of being completely free to use.
Straight Talk: América Móvil’s $45/ month unlimited plan comes with unlimited data. Straight Talk’s $30/month All You Need plan, which offers 1000 minutes and 1000 SMS, also includes 30 MB of data. With either plan only StraightTalk’s phones can be used. One quirk of the $30 plan is that if you use up your minutes, texts or data that feature stops working until you add another $30 top up. There’s no roll over either, adding $30 dollars resets your balance to 1000 minutes, 1000 texts and 30 MB of data.
Straight Talk offers CDMA phones which use Verizon’s native network and GSM phones running on AT&T or T-Mobile . Straight Talk phones do not officially support the installation third party apps. However, users at Howard Forums have discovered that one of the Straight Talk GSM phones, the LG 630G, is able to install apps from 3rd party sites using the browser. Opera Mini 3, 4.2 and 5.1, Google Maps and the Gmail app have all been reported to work.
Straight Talk recently started to offer a couple of Symbian smartphones, the Nokia E71 and the Nokia 6790 for $199.99 each.
T-Mobile: Finally! T-Mobile’s U.S. prepaid service has data in the form of the Web Day Pass which provides 24 hours of unlimited data for $1.49. Officially only the first $30 MB get full 3G+ speeds. Speed is supposed to be throttled to 60 kbits/second after 30 MB but when I tried the service shortly after launch, I used over 200 MB in a day with no apparent capping. The Day Pass can only be activated by visiting wap.myvoicestream.com with the phone’s browser.
Even without purchasing a Day Pass, T-Mobile prepaid customers get a small walled garden of sites called T-Zones that is completely free. Officially that only includes ABC News which is linked off of the T-Mobile prepaid home page (wap.voicestream.com). But there a few other sites that also work including Yahoo and the wml version of BBC News (news.bbc.co.uk/mobile/bbc_news/index.wml). The free T-Zones sites should work on just about any T-Mobile or unlocked GSM phone, including the iPhone. The only exception is Android devices, which are explicitly blocked. Set the APN to wap.voicestream.com on non T-Mobile branded handsets.
Unlimited SMS/MMS is a $15/month add-on on T-Mobile prepaid. Without the add-on incoming texts are five cents and outgoing SMS cost 10 cents each.
Metro PCS offers unlimited talk, text and web for $40/month. The operator’s roaming agreements give users no extra cost text almost everywhere in the country. Voice service is available in most major cities. Data service is limited to a dozen or so metropolitan areas. Available smartphones are a $249 BlackBerry Curve 8350 and the LG Optimus M Android device in MetroPCS’s handset lineup. The BlackBerry requires a $60 BlackBerry plan and the Android phone requires a $50 plan. Many non-MetroPCS CDMA handsets, if professionally flashed with MetroPCS firmware, can also be activated on the service. MetroPCS can be a good option if you spend most of your time in the areas where there is data coverage.
Cricket charges $45/month for unlimited talk, text and web on feature phones. Thanks to a roaming agreement with Sprint, extensive nationwide talk, text roaming and data roaming (map) is available at no extra cost. Cricket has a $299.99 Blackerry Curve 8530, which requires a $60/month Berry plan and two Android phones, the $149.99 Huawei Ascend and the $249.99 Sanyo Zio. Both require a $55/month Android plan. Phone prices are often substantially disconted for online purchases from Cricket’s web site. Cricket also accepts non-Cricket phones, if flashed.
Virgin Mobile: Has three Beyond Talk packages that induce unlimited data and messaging. The packages vary only by the number of included voice minutes; 300 for $25/month, 1200 for $40/month and unlimited for $60/month. Virgin recently started offer the $249 Samsung Intercept Android phone which can be used on any Beyond Talk plan at no additional cost. Virgin also has a $199.99 Virgin branded BlackBerry Curve. There’s an extra $10 a month fee to use the BlackBerry on Virgin but it includes includes full BlackBerry Internet Services with Push email and PIN messaging.
Virgin doesn’t allow activation of non-Virgin Mobile phones. Except for the BlackBerry and Android phones, the Virgin handsets are rather basic feature phones. Most Virgin phones do support Java, but Virgin blocks downloading anything from 3rd party sites and locks the phones down to the extent that side-loading is virtually impossible. An exception is the LG Rumor Touch where HowardForums users have found a hack for installing apps using a USB cable
STi Mobile: is a Sprint CDMA MVNO that advertises “unlimited” data for 19 cents a day. This is another deal that is nowhere as good as it sounds. The 19 cents is on top of a 9 cent a day access fee. Both fees are charged every day whether you use the phone or data or not. Only STi branded phones are allowed, all of which are really old basic models. The Java implementation on these phones is MIDP 1.0 which can’t run Gmail or current versions of Opera Mini or Google Maps. None of the STI phones support EVDO but the real show stopper with STi is the “fair use” data cap of a mere $12 MB week. If you exceed that STi will cut off your data without warning. They will restore it once if you ask, but exceed 12 MB again and they will ban your account from using data permanently. Pretty draconian especially considering that STi doesn’t provide any way to check to your data usage.
Recommendations: As I said at the outset, there really aren’t a lot of great deals out there for prepaid users who want to surf the web and use data aware applications on a modern, reasonably powerful phone. That’s especially true for someone who doesn’t talk enough to justify an unlimited voice plan. the situation does seem to be getting better. Boost CDMA is probably your best bet if you can swap out the Boost Feature phone for a Windows Mobile or legacy Palm OS smartphone or can use the BlackBerry unlimited plan. If you must have GSM and/or want to be able to use any phone your most affordable options are to use AT&T or T-Mobile for voice and WiFi for data.
I hope that the lack of decent data options for U.S. prepaid users is a temporary thing. Two of the biggest buzz words in mobile in the U.S. are prepaid and data. They are also the fastest growing areas in terms of subscriber growth. As the number of U.S. prepaid users increases consumer demand and market forces will eventually drive more of the operators to offer affordable data plans on prepaid. This has already happened with T-Mobile and Sprint’s Boost CDMA and Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk plans. I’m hoping we will see some good prepaid options for GSM from T-Mobile before too long.
Here’s a table summarizing all the plans mentioned above.
|Plan||Monthly Minimum Price (sales tax of 0-10.75% of total cost additional)||Network||SIM Cost or Activation Fee
|T-Mobile prepaid||$3.33||T-Mobile (GSM)||0||Any T-Mobile or unlocked GSM||$0.10-$0.33/min||$0.05 to receive, $0.10 to send each
Unlimited – $15/month
|Unlimited (throttled after 30 MB) – $1.49/day|
|Boost Mobile Unlimited||$50/month (BlackBerry $60)||Sprint (CDMA or iDEN)||0 ($10 for used phones)||Most Sprint||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited|
|Boost Mobile Pay As You Go||$3.33/month||Sprint (CDMA or iDEN)||0 ($10 for used phones)||Most Sprint||$0.10/min||$0.10/each||Unlimited – $0.35/day|
|Verzion Prepaid||$15/month||Verizon||0||Verizon Prepaid feature phones only||* $0.25/min
* $0.10/min, free Nights, Weekends and to Verizon phones – $0.99/day (charged only on days used)
*$0.05/min, free Nights, Weekends and to Verizon phones – $1.99/day (charged only on days used).
*Unlimited – $3.99/day (only charged on days used)
$0.10 on $0.99/day plan,
$0.05 on $1.99/day plan,
$0.01 on $3.99/day plan,
250 + unlimited to Verizon phones – $10/month
unlimited – $20/month
|unlimited – $1/day|
|PagePlus Prepaid||$2.50/month||Verizon (CDMA)||0||Any CDMA except BlackBerry and Verzion prepaid||$0.04-0.10/min||$0.08/ea,
$2000 – 10.95/month,
unlimited – $19.95/month
|PagePus Unlimited Talk n Text||$44.95/month||Verizon (CDMA)||0||Any CDMA except BlackBerry and Verzion prepaid||unlimited||unlimited||20 MB (overage $0.60/MB)|
|AT&T Go Phone||$8.33 + $0 – $1.50 911 fee||AT&T (GSM)||$20||Any At&T or unlocked GSM e||$0.10/min||$0.20 each,
200 – $4.99,
1000 – $9.99,
unlimited – $19.99
|ad-hoc – $0.01/KB,
1 MB – $4.99,
200 MB – $19.99
|AT&T GoPhone Unlimited||$60+ $0 – $1.50 911 fee||AT&T (GSM)||$20||Any At&T or unlocked GSM phone||unlimited||unlimited||ad-hoc – $0.01/KB,
1 MB – $4.99,
200 MB – $19.99
|AT&T iPad Plan||14.95||AT&T (GSM)||0||iPad only (workaround exists)||voice not available||text not available||250 MB – 14.95
2 GB – $25
|Straight Talk All You Need||$30||Verizon (CDMA), AT&T, T-Mobile (GSM)||0||Straight Talk only||1000 (overage not available)||1000 (overage not available)||30 MB (overage not available)|
|Straight Talk Unlimited||$45||Verizon (CDMA), AT&T, T-Mobile (GSM)||0||Straight Talk only||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited|
|MetroPCS||$40 (Android $50, BlackBerry $60)||MetroPCS (CDMA)||0||MetroPCS and some other flashed CDMA||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited|
|Cricket||$45 (Android $55, BlackBerry $60)||Cricket & Sprint (CDMA)||$15||Cricket and most other flashed CDMA||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited|
|Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk||$25 (BlackBerry $35)||Sprint (CDMA)||0||Virgin Mobile Only||300||unlimited||unlimited|
|STi Mobile||$2.70||Sprint (CDMA)||$4.95||Sti Only||$0.089/min||$0.05/each||$0.19/day, $0.29/day data + MMS (12 MB/week cap)|
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