13
May
zact

Zact is a brand new Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) that might just change the way you think about cell phone providers. Its unique approach is built on software provided by parent company ItsOn, and enabled with a mix of Android hardware and proprietary services. The result is unlike anything else available at the moment. With a completely customizable selection of voice, text, and data features, a la cart app-based data, and unprecedented sharing and parental controls, Zact might just be the perfect phone service... at least for those who fit into some admittedly specialized situations. Zact service is scheduled to go live in June, but the company gave us a quick look at what makes it different from other cell phone providers. We came away more than a little impressed.

Service

Zact service is based on a contract-free (but not prepaid) system. You buy one or more compatible Android phones, select your service features, and use them. The interesting part is hidden in the service selection. Zact users can select how many minutes, how many SMS messages, and how much data they want to use, and they can be selected independently of one another. There are some phone companies that already do this, but here's the kicker: you can choose how much or how little of each you want to an insane degree, and you can change your usage level mid-month. If you know you'll be using more voice minutes this week due to a business trip, you can bump up your personal limit.

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You don't need anything more than your phone to do this, either - ItsOn's proprietary system lets you adjust minutes, texts, and data on the fly, via the app included on the Zact phone. No calling in to customer service, no logging in to a website, just adjust the slider and you're good to go. There are never, ever any overage fees - when you're approaching your set limit of usage, the app alerts you, and allows you to bump up on the fly. If you choose not to pay more, your minutes/messages/data stop, instead of charging overages. Even better, if you selected more voice, text or data than you actually used, Zact will automatically bump you down to the lowest available tier of service and credit your account with the difference. If you've only used half of what you've paid for, and your usage remains consistent over the next billing cycle, it's on the house. This is an amazingly customer-focused way of running a cell phone company.

plans

Speaking of charges: the way that Zact works makes for some incredibly cheap plans in the right circumstances. For someone who uses the mobile network sparsely, and sets their voice usage to 200 minutes a month, texts to 50, and data to 200MB, their monthly phone bill would be around $7. Frugal users can completely disable any of the three services. Even scaled up to the standard plans that most national carriers push to their customers, the service is impressively cheap, with the notable exception of data.

Data and Roaming

Customers can buy data in the standard way, as mentioned above. But they can also buy data packages on a per-app basis, something that's never really been done before. "All you can eat" add-ons are as cheap as $2.50 per app. So if you're a user whose only real mobile Internet use is Facebook and emailing, you can set those apps to use as much data as they need, and throw in another 100MB for general use. For the right kind of user, this has the potential to save even more money, though we emphasize that these per-app plans are completely optional. At launch packages for standard apps will be available. Video will get its own option at some point, though it's unlikely to be unlimited.

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Calling to international countries can be added in the same a la carte manner. If you've got family or business contacts in Spain, you won't need to buy a full worldwide or European package - just add minutes for Spain, and you're good to go. More than seventy countries, including Mexico, Canada, China, and most of Europe and South America, will be available at launch.

The MVNO will use Sprint's service as a backbone, like most of them seem to do these days. But unlike some other providers, Zact will have access to Sprint's LTE network as well. In addition, company representatives say that they've created a more aggressive roaming function. Roaming is free (like pretty much every US cell phone plan) but Zact phones will switch to Sprint's extended roaming network more readily than standard Sprint phones. So, if you're in an area that has "one bar" of Sprint signal (which, admittedly, is a pretty big swath of the US), Zact phones will switch to another available network, while regular Sprint phones might stay on the non-roaming network until there is no other alternative.

Because we knew someone would want to know, we asked Zact representatives about tethering. It's completely OK with the service, and there won't be an additional fee. Users are free to use the data piped into their phones to its technical limit.

Sharing

The Zact service uses the most direct sharing/family system we've ever seen. Any compatible phone can be added to any family or group plan at any time - all you need to do is "pair" it to a primary phone, not unlike a Bluetooth connection. Additional lines are $5 a month, a bargain, and all voice minutes, texts, and data is shared between all paired phones. But it isn't just a simple pool system, like with most major carriers. Customers can select which phones are allocated how much of the total service. For example, a husband and wife could give one spouse 80% of available voice minutes and texts, while the other gets 90% of the data.

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There are no restrictions on how many or how few phones can be paired to a single master account. In another consumer-friendly move, phones can be added or removed with no penalties. If you won't be using a line for a few months, take it off to save a few bucks. The $5 a month per-line service charge reserves a unique phone number, but it's possible to allocate 0% of service to that line to keep it active, if that's what you need. Percentages can be adjusted from an administrator phone at any time.

Parental Controls

The parental/administrator controls in the ItsOn software may be the most important feature for some users. (This feature would work great for small businesses as well, but Zact is focusing on the parental angle at the moment.) When you connect a new phone to the service, you designate it as an administrator or a standard user, not unlike a desktop computer. In addition to the service sharing functions mentions above, administrator phones can control a staggering amount of access options.

 

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First comes the curfew settings. You can keep your kids from calling and/or texting during certain hours, on a weekly schedule - say, during school hours and when they should be sleeping. Even better, you can select which individual apps will be available, either turning them off completely or restricting their use to certain hours. A whitelist or blacklist can be applied when specifying individual apps.

Again, this is all handled remotely through an administrator phone. You never have to touch the other devices once they're paired. The parental restrictions work over the cellular network and WiFi.

Drawbacks

Aside from the obvious restriction to Sprint's network (which isn't likely to change any time soon), Zact will launch with just two disappointing phones: the LG Viper 4G LTE (which runs Ice Cream Sandwich) and the LG Optimus Elite (which doesn't). They come in at $399 and $199 respectively, and are only offered via no-contract, unsubsidized plans. The service is open today for pre-orders via Zact.com, with an expected launch date in June. 

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Data on Zact can get very expensive if you want access to the same amounts that are currently offered on national networks. During our brief time with the service, we saw that 4GB of data costs $85, and remember, that's in addition to voice and text, and shared with your entire device pool. All of this is subject to change, but it looks like Zact won't be a legitimate option for data-hungry users, or those who want the latest and greatest smartphones... at least for the moment.

most

Due to the proprietary services from ItsOn, customers won't be able to bring unlocked phones to Zact, even if they use hardware from Sprint or another MVNO. We specifically asked about rooting and custom ROMs for power users. Representatives said that they wouldn't actively stop customers from doing either, but would not guarantee that a modified phone would work with the service. Based on our time with Zact, we'd say that root and other basic modifications will probably work, but custom ROMs (at least those that are based on AOSP and the like) are out.

Future

ItsOn believes that its system is the future of cell phone service, and based on just a little time with Zact, we are optimistic. The company hopes to license its technology to other providers, opening the doors for a wider set of users. The Zact company and service is, more or less, a proof of concept. Though it's unlikely that the Big Four are eager to offer customers these kinds of money-saving options at the moment, there's at least some hope: Verizon, Vodafone, and Best Buy are among the small company's initial investors.

For the immediate future, Zact hopes to add more powerful phones to its lineup within the year. Though they couldn't tell us specifics, company representatives mentioned that they were talking to "at least three" notable manufacturers. They also plan to release tablets, which can be paired like any other device.

At this point, Zact looks like an amazingly innovative solution for some people, and a wish list of features for others. The shared plans and parental controls are nothing short of astounding, but the Sprint backbone, limitations on data, and a poor initial selection of devices means that power users and frequent travelers will probably need to look elsewhere. Even so, we hope that the innovative features (particularly the pay-what-you-want pricing) make their way to other providers soon.

Zact.com

Jeremiah Rice
Jeremiah is a US-based blogger who bought a Nexus One the day it came out and never looked back. In his spare time he watches Star Trek, cooks eggs, and completely fails to write novels.
  • http://twitter.com/trickedoutdavid David Margolin

    t-mobiles 300 min, unlimited texts, unlimited data (5gb throttled) for 30 bucks is still a better deal...

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      For single member accounts, Zact may not be right, depending on usage.

      But for family plans or for small businesses (there is no limit on the number of phones, I was told), or for people who barely use their phones (think parents and grandparents), Zact may save a ton.

      But ItsOn/Zact is so much more - you are not looking at the big picture. This Sprint venture is just to get their foot through the door and show us the technology. The power of managing your devices this way for families and businesses is highly attractive. True a la carte plan components is the future. And you get credit back for anything you don't use meaning you only pay for what you use? That's exactly the way things should be.

      I am very impressed with what ItsOn has brought to the table and really hope they do get picked up by more carriers, ones with better networks. In the meantime, better devices and tablets should be coming by the end of the year.

      I am rooting for you, ItsOn.

      • Evan

        > The power of managing your devices this way for families and businesses is highly attractive. True a la carte plan components is the future. And you get credit back for anything you don't use meaning you only pay for what you use? That's exactly the way things should be.

        This is the only thing that I am excited about... granted, I am counting down the days until I can leave Sprint to go to a network with even mediocre coverage, but I'm hoping that Zact succeeds just to show carriers that people want this level of granular control over their plan. As it sits now, I have the lowest unlimited data plan and I am paying for a ton of minutes I don't ever use. If I could save some money by adjusting individual silos that would be awesome.

        I also think this idea of paying for access on a per-app basis makes a lot of sense for a large segment of users. My wife would be fine paying for Facebook and then only having a small pool of data as a buffer. That alone could save me $25/month.

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

          Exactly - you could get creative with a few add-ons like that and cover 99% of your mobile data use, then just buy like 100MB for the rest. And the beauty is - it's impossible to go over and end up with a bill. The phones just won't let you, until you top off yourself (which is done via contextual prompts and a few taps when you do run out).

          But yeah, I escaped Sprint for AT&T myself last year and couldn't be happier. Even the ETF was worth it.

          • Evan

            Those ETFs are the only thing holding me in place now. I would owe about $700 for two lines, and I just can't stomach giving them that much money in one fell swoop to get out.

            I know I could change my radio and get them to drop my contract, but I feel like that is unethical (and knowing my luck they would just charge me for all the roaming)

    • andy_o

      300 min?

      • http://twitter.com/trickedoutdavid David Margolin

        i use apps to supplement the limited number of minutes by calling over 3/4g

        • andy_o

          sure, me too, but the plan is only 100 minutes, I just wanted to check if I was missing something.

          • http://twitter.com/trickedoutdavid David Margolin

            oh woops... yeah, your right...

      • Freak4Dell

        It's 100 minutes.

  • Josh Flowers

    this was awesome...until "The MVNO will use Sprint's service as a backbone,"...
    love the concept--love the customer focus--hate the network. other areas might have fantastic sprint coverage--but in charlotte it's still slow as 2g with several family members leaving it recently (ymmv).
    if only it were GSM

    • Jeremiah Rice

      I know how you feel. Sprint seems to be the only company that will play ball with MVNOs - see Republic Wireless.

    • http://www.facebook.com/archercc Ryan Stewart

      I had to leave. But for this type of service it might be fine. Sprint needs all of the revenue they can get and this is obviously targeted for the frugal.

      There are tons of people who don't even know what fast phone data service is, they still look upon the idea of being online on your phone as a miracle.

      For those people its perfect. For power users, obviously not. Ill be sticking with Straight Talk/T-Mobile but like that there are more MNVOs out there.

      • wolfkabal

        I would like to count myself as one of those people who didn't know what fast service was. I've been on sprint since 2000, back then it was great. Lately all I had was 3G still (on an SIII even). Then it finally turned on. LTE in my area. What can I say, I've never seen speeds this fast. Mind you, I only get those speeds at work and at home I'm lucky to even have a connection, but that's what wi-fi is for.

        But yeah, Sprint's coverage and 3G service are horrible compared to others. Their LTE speeds are great, but again coverage is crap, especially compared to Verizon.

        • http://www.facebook.com/archercc Ryan Stewart

          The big question is have you used HSPA+ yet? Its as fast as the actual speeds you will find on LTE right now in most urban environments and its essentially synonymous with 3G. With TMobile the only places I dont get HSPA+ is where I am stuck on edge (boonies).

          Imagine getting LTE speeds all of the time, its great. Its obvious with HSPA+ that our current limitation is on the back end. LTE can blow it away in theory but right now nobody has big enough pipes or enough towers to really beat it. In practice you get maybe 20Mb/s on HSPA+ or LTE with LTE only besting it in a fluke like markets where nobody else is using it.

          • wolfkabal

            I haven't, but been considering T-Mo for a while now. The big issue would be for the rural areas (boonies) as I travel to odd parts of the state on weekends. Connectivity isn't critical then, but it'd be nice.

            The other factor is swapping phones too, just got the S3 not long ago, and would prefer to stick with it, so that'd be some marginal loss after selling and buying (presumed). Ugh, US cell services, get your crap together!

          • http://www.facebook.com/archercc Ryan Stewart

            I can only speak for rural Georgia but my connectivity was great. Data was balls slow edge but it was there.

            The only ding is building penetration. It struggles getting into the bowels of massive buildings.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      I shared this very sentiment with ItsOn/Zact execs and PR people, but to my surprise, they weren't even aware that Sprint sucked so badly. In part that may be because they said they would let their phones roam much sooner than Sprint itself, meaning they would kick you to Verizon's network as soon as they detect Sprint's connection isn't best, which I think may be key here. In San Francisco downtown, where Sprint usually sucks, I was given live speed test demos, and the 3G one was around 800kbps both up and down, which is good for Sprint, while LTE was about 3mbps, which is meh for LTE, but note than enough for most people who would be interested in Zact.

      Plus, think a year from now, when Sprint will have a lot bigger LTE footprint.

      • http://www.facebook.com/archercc Ryan Stewart

        We shall see what they do with their backhaul. We have had Sprint's LTE for some time in Atlanta and the experience was still the same when I switched a couple of months ago.

        800K was considered "excellent" for CMDA and LTE was rare. When (maybe 20% of the time) you got it in the city you got about 4-6. The only time I saw anything faster was when I found a random tower well outside of the city.

        I dont think the wireless part of the equation is the one letting the side down, I think Sprint just doesn't provide enough bandwidth on the back end.

      • Mike Reid

        Weren't aware ? Or pretended not to know ?

        Non-tech people/execs/PR/marketing tend to ignore the "whining" of tech people. And that's assuming they even have knowledgeable tech people unafraid to tell the emperor he has few clothes.

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

          Yeah, I found his surprise odd too. Market research much?

          • Freak4Dell

            He knows. I guarantee he knows. He's just trying to pretend he doesn't know, because that's also what Sprint does.

    • Freak4Dell

      Yup...got halfway through the article, saw Sprint, and promptly ignored the rest of the article.

  • http://twitter.com/FudgieWhale1 Fudgie The Whale

    Nice concept. But it's sounds like just another MvNO with a really nice family management app. Pricing for "emergency phone" use is pretty good but that's about all.

    • TheCraiggers

      Not sure what your definition of "emergency" is, but ANY phone will work in an emergency in the US. You don't need a plan to call 911, just a signal.

      I keep an old flip phone in the glove box for this reason.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      It lets you buy exactly the parts you want a la carte and gives you refunds for the stuff you buy but don't end up using. It's anything but yet another MVNO.

      Plus, Zact is just a tech demo on my eyes, for the technology underneath. It will show other carriers the power of their software and that this approach can still be profitable (hopefully, otherwise we are doomed).

  • exa

    You need real competition, last year in france a new provider appeared on the market and now the average is:

    20euros for unlimited voice (france and 41 destinations)/sms/mms 3GB data throttled

  • duse

    This sounds amazing. The future of voice talking should really be VoIP over WiFi, and users should be able to realize real savings as a result - as opposed to shit carriers like Verizon who have now included unlimited minutes in every plan (and priced them accordingly) to ensure they will not lose revenue due to new technologies replacing traditional cell calls. Users are forced to pay for something they no longer need, negating most of the benefits of the new technology. This should frankly be illegal.

    If most of your long conversations happen at home, you could probably find a good VoIP provider that works over WiFi and use that for most of your calls. This would let you set your minutes to a crazy low amount with Zact. Use Google Voice and you can set texting to zero. This just leaves data - aggressively use offline caching options with things like Slacker, Google Music, Maps, etc., and you may be able to do with surprisingly little (500 MB or less per month). Boom - then you have cell phone service for less than 10 bucks a month, but it's still not restricting you during those times when you need more minutes or data.

    The concept is amazing, unfortunately it's far too innovative and good to ever arrive on AT&T's network, and if I can't use it with a Nexus, I'll be hard-pressed to ever try it. Your desire to see this concept arrive on other carriers is also rather pointless - if Verizon picked it up, they would immediately screw it up by setting the minimum to $90/month or something insane like that. Just like how Verizon took a good concept like shared data and twisted and crafted it to actually screw over most consumers while tricking them into thinking it was a benefit, the same would happen with something like this. In fact, they would probably take the "per-app" part of it to the extreme and make it into an extreme violation of network neutrality.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      Yeah, the amount of innovation here blew my mind. The ability to set per person limits on something like amount of allowed data or SMS means my son will not be able to use up the whole family's allowance. And if he does something bad, then I'll welcome him to SMS, Internet, and apps block. That's parenting in the 21st century.

      The word "grounded" will suddenly get really powerful again with a press of a button on my master phone.

      • Greg

        Ting allows per person limits and customizable plans and does it without requiring you to buy a new $200 phone. How is Zact introducing these features over a year later innovative?

  • Jeremiah Rice

    Personally, I can't wait to see what Zact's tablet offerings will be. I can't rely on Sprint service for my phone, but the ability to pay $5 a month for LTE data and add as much or as little as I need would be an awesome way to use a tablet. Hey, Zact: something from Asus, please.

  • rap

    Excited to see innovative changes in the cell phone industry. Republic Wireless, Tmobile's new plans, ItsOn/Zact, etc. This one looks really interesting. Love the parental controls. Love that you could have an Android phone very cheap if you mostly use wifi. I have a tracfone and a wifi tablet. Would love an Android phone that I can set a very low usage on. Also would be great for my Nexus 7. It has 3G but I've never used it because of the cost. Would love to have a very low amount data plan that would let me use it or tether it on those occasions when I don't have wifi. I'd like to see some slightly better phones available. I could probably live with the viper except for the measly 2gb of storage. Even that I could deal with as long as I still have my Nexus 7 to have most of my larger stuff on.

  • xspirits

    sorry for the caps but: WHAT A RIPOFF!

    Seriously?

    I know in France we've low prices, but still as David Margolin says this is way to expensive. what a shame... Disappointed.

  • atlouiedog

    I can't believe that no one is mentioning Ting here even though it's been brought up on AP many times before. It's basically the same thing. It's missing that level of parental control and per-app data, but the phone selection is so much better. You can basically use any phone that works on Sprint, new or used.

    This would actually be a couple of bucks cheaper for me than Ting is, but at $200 for a Gingerbread phone or $400 for something that isn't as good as what I'm currently using, there's no way I'd consider switching right now.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      Ting is nice indeed.

      One thing to note is Ting's 3G doesn't roam, unlike Zact's, so 3G data may be much worse.

  • GrĂ©gory Emirian

    It's just like the French carrier called Joe mobile

  • JT

    Not being able to bring my own device is such a bad idea, I get that they make money off the phones they sell but those phones are like toys compared to what I own and I just switched to ting i'm not a heavy user and I know I'll switch to zact in a heart beat because In the last 2 months I wasted on ting $6 +tax only for 3 one minute calls and 1 text since i only use internet on the phone and use gvoice for calls and text I'll definitely save with Zact I'll get double of what I get from ting for half the price since most of the time I'm arround wifi.

  • Ralph1001

    I'll stick with metroPCS. I get unlimited talk, text, picture messaging, and 250 megs data which is fine as I'm on wifi 99% of the time. All for $30 per month.

  • Wally Rooh

    Zact sucks. Their lying cheating bazturds. They contract with bestbuy to sell phones, then go out of business. They hide fees, and don't disclose rhem until you've bought the phone and are ready to activate. Their customer service is extremly rude.

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