Friday, August 22, 2014

Deals for Data Hungry Cellular Consumers

Now that the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile has fallen through, the underdog cellular companies are jockeying for better position in the marketplace.

It used to be that voice minutes were the pivot but now unlimited talk time is not that unusual.  The battlefield shifted to texting, in which major players would force consumers to buy bulk messages to avoid being niggled with incremental costs for individual texts.  Now the concentration is on data.

T-Mobile pushed unlimited data earlier in 2014, but this claim had caveats.  T-Mobile included 500 mb of unlimited data at 4G LTE speed, but afterwards the speed dropped down to 2G level, which was OK for slowly opening e-mails but not really adequate for Web 2.0.  Thus consumers faced adding on data packages along with base $50 for talk and text.  There are three added tiers for T-Mobile data, an extra $10 for 3GB, +$20 for 5GB and +$30 for “unlimited” data.  Add on taxes and fees, consumers could expect to pay around $71, $83 and $95 respectively for their tiered talk/text and data plans. That does not represent a lot of savings for individuals  from the so called Un-Carrier.

That being said, T-Mobile’s "data strong" drive does have a few laudable features.  These plans include mobile hotspot capabilities, which some carriers have charged extra for the privilege.  T-Mobile’s first added tier includes 3 GB of data rather than the 2.5 GB which many carriers consider “unlimited” data.  T-Mobile claims to not charge data for consumers who listen to streaming radio from services like I-Heart Radio and Pandora (and offers a deal for Rhapsody).

If one considers choosing the Magenta carrier, make sure that you have good coverage both at your home base as well as places where you anticipate hanging out.  This is especially true for data coverage.  Having a sizable 4G data plan is little consolation when one can only get 128 kbs or no wireless data coverage in remote locales.

Sprint is rolling out what it terms “disruptive pricing”along with the prospect of unlimited 4G LTE data to grow its market share.  Sprint killed the “Framily” plan but replaced it with a temporary “New Day for Data” deal which data hungry cellular customers should like.  Through September 30, 2014, Sprint will allow four lines with unlimited talk/text and 20 GB of data (plus an extra 2 GB per line until the end of 2014) for $100 a month.  Plus Sprint will pay up to $350 in termination fees.  That sounds great, but the devil is in the details.

Of course, Sprint springs a $36 per line activation charge.  It guarantees the $100 a month through the end of 2015, when it then assesses a $15 per line access fee. So in 15 months, this family plan jumps to $160 a month before taxes (or approximately $190 after taxes and fees).  Individuals can take advantage of Sprints so called disruptive pricing with a $60 come-on rate (which jumps up $15 after December 2015).  The “Framily” plan supposedly met its demise because it was too complicated for customers to comprehend.  With all of the caveats and changing fees and services, Sprint’s disruptive pricing may similarly confuse consumers.

A year ago, a Sprint family which had 1500 shared voice minutes, unlimited texting and data had a base price of $60 per line along with a $10 smart phone fee (not counting workplace discounts).  So after the introductory rate expires, the only effective difference in the plans seems to be  that  the mobile hotspot is now complimentary, but eventually consumers will pay an extra $5 a month for the plan.  Although Sprint does not force customers into  the iron clad two year contract anymore, their EasyPay option installment plan has a similar effect and has consumers paying close to full freight on their handsets, albeit in 24 monthly increments.

So if you are a seriously heavy data user and need mobile data outside of major cities, Sprint may have a deal for you--but beware as the good times only last for so long.  And good luck keeping the terms straight.

Data driven consumers may also wish to consider a Mobile Virtual Network Operator on the Sprint network called FreedomPop.  This cellular service cuts costs by marketing pre-owned handsets and devices, eschewing advertising in lieu of social media marketing and sending voice calls through LTE VOIP, which may somewhat effect sound quality.

FreedomPop now offers LTE Phones (Samsung Galaxy 4, Galaxy SIII and Victory) with unlimited talk/text and data for $19.99, but their idea of unlimited is 1 GB at 4G LTE and then governed down to 3G speeds for the remainder.  FreedomPop also has a deal for "unlimited" data on tablets. FreedomPop is selling the iPad Mini and the Galaxy 3 tab which are refurbished 7" tablets with 4G LTE which also participate in the $19.99 unlimited talk/text and governed data but with mobile hotspot enabled. The MVNO does allow customers to Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) but their whitelist is limited to certain models and all of the devices must be compatable with Sprint’s CDMA network and not come from other MVNOs like (Sprint owned) Virgin Mobile USA and Boost Mobile.

Many of the self-selected digerati may scoff at Sprint, T-Mobile and a MVNO claiming that their data speed sucks.  Fine, then pay a premium for Verizon Wireless and have a paltry bucket of data.  AT and T also is parsimonious about doling out data and extra use really is costly.

 All consumers need to make the right choice for them.  Speed and coverage can be important factors in choosing cell providers.  But the bottom line also drives decision-making for thrifty techies.

If one does not mind buying a remanufactured device or bringing your own unlocked device from Sprint and does not need torrents of high speed data, FreedomPop should be the Thrifty Techie’s choice.   For a cell phone user who uses a lot of data in a metropolitan area, T-Mobile would be a wise choice.  T-Mobile does have a little known monthly plan which has only 100 voice minutes but unlimited texting and 5 GB of data for $30 and has mobile hotspot capabilities.  In response to Sprint's disruptive pricing, existing T-Mobile customers and those they refer can receive one year of unlimited internet.   Techies who are major data consumers should get in with Sprint’s special while they can.

It seems that there are no easy answer for data hungry cellular consumers but only trade offs.

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