The time has finally come: after spending the biggest part of a decade with Verizon Wireless, I'm moving to a GSM carrier. This isn't just because of the Nexus 4, though - I've been debating on making the move for months now. However, Big Red delayed the inevitable change when they turned on LTE in my area.
Still, I'm sick of being tied down to CDMA carrier, and the recent Nexus 4 announcement is the straw that broke the camel's back. I don't want to be locked into a contract any longer, and there's only one economical way to get away from that: buy the Nexus 4 and move to a GSM carrier.
But, having been on VZW for quite a long time, I've had to do some research on which carrier best suits my needs - both pre- and post-paid. While researching this, it occurred to me that many of you may be facing the same quandary. Instead of leaving you out in the cold, though, I decided to share my findings.
Of course, this isn't an all-inclusive guide to GSM carriers, but rather a look at national providers that bring the most bang for the buck. This should give you a good idea of where to start looking, if nothing else. You'll have to check the coverage maps to make sure moving carriers is even a feasible option for you in the first place, though.
With that, let's get to it.
Straight Talk Wireless
When starting to look for reasonable pre-paid carriers, Tracfone-owned company Straight Talk was one of the first to come to mind, thanks to its clever commercials (good job, Straight Talk marketing team - mission accomplished).
Without having actually tried the service, ST talks a good talk. For $45 a month plus the cost of a SIM card (a one-time fee of $15), you get unlimited talk and text, as well as "unlimited" data. The latter needs to be in quotes because it's not really unlimited - they throttle after an undisclosed amount of data. From what I gathered, this amount can actually fluctuate between markets, and ST is never clear about the level (which is actually the opposite of "straight talk." Go figure). They'll warn you when you're using too much data, and reserve the right to boot you off their network at any given moment. For what it's worth, though, I've read on several different sites that the limit is "around 2GB." Grains of salt for everyone!
That aside, ST seems to be pretty straightforward: buy a SIM and drop it in your AT&T or T-Mobile compatible phone, activate service, and... done. The coverage map is pretty impressive, too:
Of all the pre-paid carriers I've looked at, Straight Talk is one of the few that is an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) of both AT&T and T-Mobile, meaning that it has made agreements with both and can actively use each carrier's network (you choose the appropriate SIM during the checkout process). In theory, this means that ST should be able to provide better coverage than an MVNO that just partners with one carrier. Definitely something to consider.
If you take a look at Net 10's SIM card site, you'll notice that it looks eerily similar to the Straight Talk SIM site, but with a different color scheme. There's good reason for this - they're both owned by Tracfone. Also like ST, Net 10 is an MVNO of both AT&T and T-Mobile, so it shares that benefit with its sister provider. Net 10's SIM is equally priced to that of ST, so it'll set you back a one-time fee of $15.
However, the two are not alike in every way. For example, Net 10 costs $50 a month instead of ST's $45. I'm not entirely sure why there's a $5 difference in what appears to be the same basic plan from the same parent company, but it's there regardless.
Like ST, though, Net 10 also throttles your "unlimited" data after a certain amount of bandwidth is used. After a bit of research it looks like this limit is somewhere around 2-3GB. That is, of course, an estimated answer gathered from things I've read across the net and not at all definitive.
Simple Mobile is a T-Mobile MVNO, so wherever T-Mo has coverage, so will SM. The SIMs will save you a couple bucks over Straight Talk and Net 10, as they come in at $13 for either standard or micro variants. Unlike the previous two carriers, Simple Mobile has a few different plans to choose from, starting with a $25 unlimited talk and text only 15-day plan. Considering that's pretty much useless for smartphone users, we'll jump to the only one that is: $50 for unlimited talk, text, and 3G/4G (T-Mobile HSPA+) web. There's also a $60 plan with all the same features and the addition of unlimited international long distance.
Like the others, Simple Mobile isn't clear about its bandwidth policy. From what I've read, the company does throttle data after a certain amount has been consumed, which is said to be somewhere around 5GB. Again, though, all we have to go on is hearsay and shouldn't be taken as certainty.
Like Simple Talk, Solavei is a T-Mobile MVNO, but the similarities end there. In fact, the similarities to all pre-paid carriers end there. Solavei is a new take on mobile service, as it relies on a built-in social network to broaden its horizons. This video explains it better than I ever could, so I'll just let you watch it:
As you can see, this is a unique take on cell service. Unlike the previously mentioned networks, though, Solavei has a fairly steep activation fee of $49, plus a SIM card fee of $30. That makes your upfront cost $80, whereas it's $15 or less from the other companies we've looked at so far. Ouch.
Solavei's one and only plan is $50 a moth for unlimited talk, text, and data, which is throttled after 4GB.
Of course, you do have the potential of saving money each month by expanding your own personal network. It really just reminds me of a pyramding scheme, only with cell service. Take that however you will, but personally, I'm not sure I'm ready to make that leap.
A few others
While the first four are fairly unique in both coverage and service offered for the price, there are a slew of others that offer very similar service to one another. I actually consider most of these to a rip-off in comparison, but they may work for someone out there, so here they are.
Each and every one one of those are AT&T MVNOs, and offer very, very similar service and coverage (which is the same as AT&T's GoPhone, shown below). For $60 a month, you get unlimited talk and text, as well as 2GB of data from SkyView and Black Mobile (hey, at least these guys are clear on that). For the same price, Jolt offers the same features, but only allowing 1GB of data. Red Pocket's plan is the same as Jolt, but only costs $55 a month.
Past those small differences, I couldn't really find any good reason to choose one over the other. Or, really, to choose any of these over the aforementioned four. Maybe you can.
I wasn't going to include this one on the list, but after looking into a bit more more, I thought it might appeal to someone out there. It probably goes without saying that this runs on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, so let's just skip into the plan details.
For $30 a month, T-Mo will give you 100 minutes of talk time, along with unlimited text and data (throttled after 5GB). For those who don't do much actual talking on the phone, this plan's a no-brainer. It's only thirty dollars!
If you need more talk time, though, the plans change pretty drastically. $50 a month will get you unlimited talk, text, and data, but the throttling starts after a meager 100MB. Boo! For $10 more a month, you can bump bump the throttle cap up to 2GB, which is a much better deal. But if that's still not enough un-throttled data for you, $70 gives you unlimited everything with 5GB of HSPA+ bandwidth before the slowdown. The only issue there, though, is that after fees and taxes, you're approaching post-paid pricing. Speaking of...
AT&T vs. T-Mobile
For whatever reason, you may not want to jump on with a pre-paid carrier. There's nothing wrong with that, because being on a post-paid carrier does offer some benefits, like family plans for example.
When it comes to post-paid GSM carriers here in the U.S., there's no doubt that AT&T is the top dog. It offers an expansive HSPA+ network, an up and coming LTE network (not that it matters if you're getting the Nexus 4, though), and coverage basically everywhere you could possibly want to go. The downside? It's pricey. Far more than any of the other providers we've mentioned thus far.
Where most pre-paid providers offer one or two different plans to choose from, you have a plethora of decisions to make with a post-paid carrier like AT&T. Do you want an individual plan, or a family plan? If the latter, do you want to share a data bucket? Are you going to need more than 2 or 4GB of data? How many voice minutes will you use? These are all questions that you'll have to answer if making the jump to Big Blue. It can be overwhelming, especially when you consider the price between "traditional" plans and shared data.
Honestly, I could probably do an entire post covering nothing but the difference between the Big Four's plans and how they compare to each other. Ergo, it's really hard to sum up which plans are the best buy, since it really depends on your situation, how many people you'll be sharing a plan with, and so many other variables. I will say this, though: if you know someone who already has an existing Family Play with AT&T, you may want to see about jumping onboard with them. For roughly $40 a month (granted they're on a "traditional" plan), you can get service with 3GB of data. Of course, you'll have to share minutes, so it's up to you and the plan owner to decide if that's a feasible option.
And then there's T-Mobile, the exclusive launch partner for the Nexus 4... though I'm not sure why anyone would actually pay $200 and sign a two-year contract for the phone when you can get it for $300-$350 directly from the Play Store without a contract. That's probably why you're reading this post, after all.
Much like with AT&T, T-Mobile offers a wide variety of options when it comes to mobile plans. You'll have to ask yourself the same questions all over again when comparing prices.
When it comes to individual plans, T-Mo definitely crushes AT&T on price. You can get unlimited talk and text, plus 2GB of "high-speed" data (after which it will be throttled) for $70 on T-Mo. The closest similar plan on AT&T will set you back $100 (though it includes 3GB of data). To add insult to injury, if you go over your data cap with AT&T, you'll get hit with a fee. On T-Mo, however, you just have to deal with slower data speeds one your 2GB limit has been reached. Inconvenient, sure - but it saves you money in the long run.
Then there are family plans, which are an entirely different (overly complicated) beast. On T-Mo, you can get unlimited talk, text, and shared data for $160, and each additional line will set you back $30. With AT&T, unlimited talk and text is $120, with each additional line costing $50. Oh, and you have to fork over more money for data on each line, too.
A little scenario, for comparison purposes: let's say you have two lines on a family plan. With T-Mobile, you'll pay $190 a month (plus taxes and fees, of course). On AT&T, you'll shell out $170 just for voice and text, then tack on $30 per line for data. That brings your bill up to $230 - a full $40 more than T-Mobile.
On the other hand, though, AT&T also offers a Mobile Shared Plan, so let's see how that compares. Again, with two lines. All shared plans include unlimited data and text, but you have to choose how much data you'll use every month between the lines. The more data you get, the cheaper each phone becomes (see the chart below). So, if you have two lines and select a 6GB data package, it'll cost you $90 for data, then $35 for each smartphone, for a total of $160. That's basically the same as the above mentioned plan (unlimited voice and text, plus roughly 3GB of data per line), but saves $70 a month and actually competes with what T-Mobile can offer.
AT&T's Mobile Share Plan pricing
Honestly, we could do these comparisons all day long, but at the end of it all, only one thing matters: coverage. There's no point in paying anything if the coverage isn't what you need. Truth be told, when it comes down to it, AT&T's network is much, much larger than that of T-Mobile. However, if T-Mo has service in your area, it's worth looking into - it may just save you some funds every month.
Switching cell providers can be an overwhelming and daunting task. There are so many options out there - some of which you may not even have known existed before this post. Still, after taking the time to weigh all the choices, you'll find that there may be more economical plans available compared to your current plan (I did, anyway). Hopefully this write-up shines a little light on subject and helps you make the decision on which provider is best for you.
I want to give a special shoutout to LionAR10 at the XDA forums, because this would've been much more difficult to write without this incredibly helpful thread.