Cell Phone Shopping in the USA (short story: it’s a rip-off)

Oh, US cell phones. I forgot just how much a pain you can be. Non-compatible phones, 2-year contracts and expensive monthly bills.

In the UK, I guess we were pretty spoiled. I was out of contract, paying 17.50/month (about $27) for 1GB of data and more phone minutes and texts than I’d ever use. I had an unlocked phone, and was able to easily switch carriers just before the move to get the best pay-as-you-go plan for our future UK visits.

Just before coming to the US, we started researching US carriers. A local San Diegan recommended Verizon for data coverage. Their plans were pricey (we were looking at $150/month for the two of us!), but on par with the other major carriers. Our first day in New York, we made a ‘quick trip’ to the Verizon store to sign up and get a couple SIMs for our unlocked phones. Thankfully the queue was fairly short, but after our 5-10 minute wait, we learned Verizon doesn’t use or offer SIMs. If we wanted to use their service, we had to buy one of their phones and make our much-loved existing handsets redundant. No thanks.

Next we visited AT&T. Again, our desired monthly plan was comparably priced ($140/month total, if I remember correctly). They do offer SIMs (check), but require a two year contract irrespective of whether you buy a new phone. No, we did not want to pay the same monthly premium or have the same contract length as someone who was buying a subsidized phone from the carrier.

We crossed the street to visit a T-Mobile store. They didn’t require a contract, and we could get a comparable plan for $60/month each. Hoorah! Not only would we have flexibility of no contract, we’d also be ‘saving’ $20+ a month. Better yet, we could go with Simple Mobile, an MVNO* running on T-Mobile’s network, which offered unlimited talk, text and data (“up to 3G speeds”) for $40/month. The only downside was the need to manually log in and pay the next month’s bill before the current month ran out, but that would hardly be an inconvenience. We bought the SIMs, activated the service, and were on our way, complete with San Diego phone numbers, and would have data service within 24 hrs.

Within 20 minutes or so, we were receiving EDGE (2G) data. We patiently checked our phones and waited for the rest of the day to see if/when we’d get 3G. We were used to running on either 3G or WiFi back home, so 2G felt s-l-o-w  (not to mention loading maps on my iPhone was literally impossible). After a day, we had no 3G. After a couple more days, we had no 3G. While we were happy to be on a lower-cost plan, a 2G connection wasn’t at all useful to us, considering we primarily use our phones for maps, email and social networking.

We called Simple Mobile, thinking perhaps we could upgrade to their slightly pricier plan that offered up full 4G speeds. Then, however, we learned that T-Mobile’s 3G network runs on a different frequency than certain phones receive it on (most notably the iPhone, and also Mark’s Nokia). In other words, we would not ever get 3 or 4G speeds with our phone until T-Mobile changed their infrastructure. #fail

We spent the next hour or two researching the ins and outs of US cell phone and data infrastructure and investigating other carriers and MVNOs.  After much research, we decided to try Straight Talk. Their unlimited plan is $45/month, but has the convenience of auto-payment and more importantly ran on AT&T’s network, which should be compatible with our phones. We ordered just one SIM to test the waters (annoyingly you can not buy a SIM in store anywhere, as far as we could tell). The SIMs are about $10 and if you want to port an existing number, you have to do so when you activate the SIM, so we didn’t want to spend any more money on our cell phone setup than was absolutely necessary.

Once the SIM arrived, we decided to experiment with Mark’s number. He used his phone (non-data) features less, so would be less inconvenienced by the temporary service outage during number porting. A few hours later it was activated, but again, he had no 3G. We tried adjusting APN configurations to no avail, and on a whim put the SIM in my iPhone. I immediately had 4G speeds (which is awesome, by the way).

Feeling even more frustrated, Mark continued researching cell phones carriers online. He learned 3G is broadcast on one or both of 2 frequencies. His phone only matched one of them, so he only had a 50/50 shot at any given time of having high speed data (his phone doesn’t do 4G). We had a couple days left in New York, where he obviously was not getting 3G, and opted to leave his SIM in my phone (then at least one of us had good data service, while he was stuck on EDGE using my SIM in his phone). Thankfully after arriving in San Diego, we Mark finally had high speed (3G) data service.

We’ve now ordered another Straight Talk SIM for me. In a few days, we should both be running at full speed again with unlimited usage for $90/month total. We’re still pretty frustrated (and somewhat confused) by the whole experience. We’re shocked by the lack of infrastructure standardization here in the US. While I like having 4G speed, it’s odd to consider that it’s so much more expensive for what I’d consider to be worse service overall (longer contracts, less transparency and no handset portability). Thank goodness for MVNOs.

*MVNO is a “mobile virtual network operator”. It’s a carrier alternative that buys their airtime from the main carriers, like Verizon or AT&T. Because they don’t have any infrastructure costs, and therefore have lower overhead costs, the service is considerably less expensive.

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One comment

  1. […] and I discovered early on just how complex and expensive cell phones can be in the US. Because we already owned carrier unlocked smartphones, we went with Straight Talk, an MVNO running […]

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