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Small Carriers Compared: Slash Your Smartphone Bill

Tired of the big guys bullying you into long-term contracts with huge data fees just because they have the phone you drool over? Ever dream of fighting The Man by going no-contract with a great phone for less by switching to a smaller carrier? It’s not just a fantasy anymore.

Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, Virgin Mobile and other upstarts now offer a solid smartphone selection in addition to nationwide networks and cheap monthly plans. Plus, most of these carriers offer a few special features that the big names don’t. You can even get the iPhone without a contract. So, how do you know which small carrier provides the biggest value? We have everything you need to help you make the right call.

Boost Mobile

Boost has moved beyond promoting its walkie-talkie feature and the viral “Where You At” campaign. The company has expanded its marketing by targeting a young, urban demographic to gain a broader audience, spanning ages 25 to 45. Boost has also ranked Highest in Customer Service Performance and Purchase Experience among Non-Contract Wireless Providers by J.D. Power and Associates twice in a row. With the recent addition of ClearWire’s WiMAX 4G network, Boost is targeting customers searching for 4G speeds with no strings attached.

Special Features

The Re-Boost Facebook App allows Boost subscribers to add money to their account via Facebook as well as send and receive Re-Boost gifts to friends. Another unique feature is Mobile ID packs, a set of preinstalled apps bundled together by theme, including Entertainment, Socially Connected and Business Pro. Social networking addicts will appreciate Boost Hookt, a private-labeled mobile community. Similar to BlackBerry’s BBM service, Boost Hookt users can connect with others via public and private messaging lounges.

Coverage

Boost Mobile has a nationwide footprint because it leverages Sprint’s 3G network. Even better news is Sprint’s recent push to bring 4G coverage to Boost Mobile customers. As Sprint begins launching its 4G LTE network, it will be actively migrating subscribers off its WiMAX 4G network, freeing it up for Boost Mobile (and Virgin Mobile). As a result, you’ll be able to get 4G coverage throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. Another benefit of using Sprint’s 4G network is the lack of roaming charges and data throttling.

Plans and Value

There aren’t a lot of moving parts with Boost Mobile plans. Instead of rationing out minutes and data to its users, Boost offers unlimited talk, text, email and Web for Boost phones. A monthly Android plan costs $55, while BlackBerry users will pay $60.

Although Boost plans are affordable, subscribers can save even more money with the carrier’s Shrinkage option. This perk literally shrinks the cost of the plan by $5 every six months—provided you pay the bill on time. You can wind up paying as little as $40 per month. Best of all, the Shrinkage rate carries over for users who upgrade to a new device.

Smartphone Selection

Boost Mobile currently offers seven smartphones in its online store, including the BlackBerry Curve 8530, the Samsung Replenish and the ZTE Warp (pictured above). The $299 HTC EVO Design 4G (pictured right) is Boost Mobile’s current premier smartphone. Boost Mobile’s first 4G phone offers a single-core 1.2-GHz Qualcomm MSM8655 processor with 768MB of RAM, a 5-megapixel rear camera, a 1.3-megapixel front camera, and Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) with HTC Sense 3.6.

Verdict

Consumers searching for 4G speeds without the hassle of a two-year contract will definitely want to check out Boost Mobile. There’s also the added bonus of a shrinking bill and the convenience of paying via Facebook. Overall, Boost Mobile is a solid choice for consumers in the market for a no-contract Android phone with relatively fast speeds and low prices.

Cricket Wireless

Originally, Cricket Wireless aimed to be a regional alternative to contract carriers, but it has since expanded to target a wider swath of budget-conscious folks across the U.S. Right now, the carrier boasts about 6.2 million users, both on its own regional networks and through a roaming deal with Sprint. Expect that number to keep growing—especially with contract-free iPhones now on board.

Special Features

Cricket offers a music-focused plan called Muve Music, which features unlimited song downloads via an app preinstalled on your phone. Music is stored on a specially encrypted SD card that can fit about 3,000 songs.

Coverage

Cricket’s service is available nationwide, but its deployment is split into two channels: a native CDMA/EVDO network in 35 states around the U.S. (where Cricket has built and operates its own networks) and roaming with Sprint in other major cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco. Whether you’re on roaming or on the native network, however, Cricket promises that data speeds won’t be compromised.

While both MetroPCS and U.S. Cellular have 4G networks, Cricket users unfortunately have to make do with the carrier’s 3G speeds—unless they live in Tucson, Ariz., the only city where the carrier currently provides 4G LTE service. However, Cricket has signed an agreement with Clearwire to provide 4G roaming for two-thirds of its current network footprint within two to three years.

Plans and Value

As of press time, two types of rates existed on the network: Cricket Core plans and Cricket National Retail plans. In each of the 35 states where Cricket service is available “natively,” users can sign up for the core plans. Everywhere else, Cricket national retail plans are offered through retailers, including Best Buy and Walmart.

As part of its core plans, Cricket offers a $55-per-month smartphone plan. This nets you unlimited talk and text, but only 1GB of 3G mobile data. Music junkies, on the other hand, might be interested in the carrier’s Muve Music plan. The top-tier Android Muve Music Plan for $65 per month gets you unlimited talk, text and Web for smartphones, though it’s worth noting that if you exceed 1GB of data, Cricket may throttle you.

Where Cricket isn’t available natively, subscribers can sign up for its $55 monthly Android Muve plan, which includes email, data backup and app store access. This plan caps you at 1,000 U.S. minutes for calling, but you get unlimited texts and the same 1GB of data as you do with the core plan.

With the iPhone 4 or 4S, Cricket guarantees 2.3GB of full-speed data per month. After exceeding that, your speeds may be slowed.

Smartphone Selection

In late June, both the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S became available on Cricket, marking the first time the Apple device has been offered on a no-contract carrier. Users can pony up $500 for the 16GB iPhone 4S or $400 for the 2-year-old iPhone 4—but you can’t use it on any other network.

In addition, you’ll have to deal with some limitations, geographically speaking: Cricket released the iPhone in about 60 U.S. cities, but these don’t include such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco.

For these lucky folks, Cricket’s estimate is $1,719 over the course of two years for its customers on its $55-per-month, contract-free plan. It’s worth noting, however, that users may experience throttled speeds with data usage beyond 2.3GB.

As for the rest of its handset selection, Cricket offers the Samsung Vitality and the ZTE Score through its online store for national retail availability. But if you reside in a state where Cricket operates its own networks, you can choose from those plus four more handsets: the BlackBerry Curve 9350, Huawei Mercury, Huawei Ascend II and Samsung Transfix.

Verdict

Cricket used to be just a decent option for those interested in making the switch to a no-contract carrier, but now the carrier has a weapon to wield with killer appeal: the iPhone. Even though Cricket iPhone users have to pay more up front compared with getting the device on a major carrier, the overall package may be worth it for Apple enthusiasts. After all, it’s a great chance for you to get the iPhone off-contract, with an affordable monthly bill.

Metro PCS

For too long, smartphone owners desiring 4G LTE speeds had to sign up for an oppressive and expensive two-year contract. Enter MetroPCS, with its affordable lineup of devices and plans. Established in 1994 as General Wireless, MetroPCS primarily markets toward young urbanites, recruiting popular sports figures such as Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets as one of its prominent spokespeople. The carrier currently serves 9.5 million subscribers in major metropolitan areas, offering a bevy of unlimited features.

Special Features

MetroPCS offers a number of special features that sets it apart from the pack. There’s eWallet, which enables customers to check and pay their bills, change plans or add and remove unlimited features. Subscribers can also take advantage of MetroStudio, where users can purchase songs, ringtones and ringback tones. Avid music lovers willing to spend a few extra dollars can opt-in for unlimited music or video service via unlimited Rhaspody and Video on Demand services for $9.99 per month each. Streaming-video fans can also check out the Videos on Demand Service. There’s also MetroPCS’ @metro App Store, which has a relatively meager offering of 750 apps and games that users can purchase to personalize their devices.

Coverage

MetroPCS says it covers 90 percent of all Americans, or 280 million people. The carrier offers 4G LTE speeds in its 14 core markets, including Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and

Orlando, but only in parts of those cities. MetroPCS is in the process of completing its 1:1 overlay, which would expand its 4G LTE footprint to match the coverage area of its CDMA network.

Plans and Value

Similar to Boost Mobile, MetroPCS offers unlimited talk, text and Web. MetroPCS customers have the benefit of limited 4G LTE service, though it’s subject to data throttling. There are four 4G LTE plans available on MetroPCS, starting with the $40 plan for a meager 250MB of data. The $50 plan ups the limit to 2.5GB of 4G LTE, while $60 subscribers receive 5GB of data. The $70 plan offers unlimited 4G LTE as well as MetroStudio on Video on Demand, which gives customers instant streaming video from ABC, ESPN and NBC.

MetroPCS customers have the option to upgrade or downgrade their plan from month to month. Unlike big carriers, MetroPCS doesn’t charge roaming fees due to the partnerships it has in place with other carriers.

Smartphone Selection

MetroPCS offers 11 smartphones via its online store. However, only three phones, the $329 LG Esteem, the $249 Samsung Galaxy Attain 4G and the $249 LG Connect 4G are 4G LTE-compatible. During our testing the LG Connect 4G delivered strong performance and graphics, thanks to its 1.2-GHz dual-core CPU. The pricier Esteem features a 1-GHz Snapdragon processor, a 4.3-inch Gorilla Glass Screen, 5-MP camera and front-facing 1.3-MP camera.

Verdict

Consumers looking for unlimited talk, text and data with a splash of 4G LTE speed should give MetroPCS a shot. While not as cheap as Boost Mobile and its Shrinkage feature, MetroPCS remains a cheaper alternative to larger carriers. It’s a solid choice for consumers who want a nice bundled package with some high-speed data thrown in.

U.S. Cellular

U.S. Cellular boasts that it has the “happiest customers in wireless” due to its broad network and unique reward structure that’s available with the carrier’s Belief Plans. You can get a new phone in as little as 11 months. U.S. Cellular offers both contract and prepaid plans, though not all of its smartphones are available sans contract. The carrier recently began rolling out its 4G LTE network and plans to cover 54 percent of its 5.9 million customers by the end of the year.

Special Features

U.S. Cellular offers a rewards program that gives customers monthly points based on their plan, points for customer longevity and points for referring friends and downloading apps. Every 1,000 points redeemed takes one month off the standard upgrade time, so customers can get a new phone in as little 13 months on a single line, with some phones costing just a penny. Points may also be redeemed for accessories, ringtones or to cover an overage charge on your account.

Plus, if you’re out and about and your phone battery dies, you can visit any U.S. Cellular store and swap it out for a new, fully charged battery—as long as you’re not using a prepaid phone.

Coverage

U.S. Cellular phones and service are available for purchase in much of the U.S., though the provider’s licensed markets don’t easily conform to state lines. Service is available in Illinois, northwest Indiana, Iowa, Kansas (but not Topeka), Maine, Missouri (but not Kansas City), Nebraska, New Hampshire, northern California, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, eastern Tennessee, northeastern Texas, Vermont, Virginia, southern Washington, West Virginia and the lower half of Wisconsin.

Thanks to roaming agreements, U.S. Cellular offers nationwide 3G voice and data and doesn’t charge customers roaming fees. Though it’s available only in select cities in Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin, the company plans to cover 54 percent of its customers with 4G LTE by the end of 2012.

Plans and Value

Text messaging is unlimited when added to any prepaid or postpaid plan. Unlimited voice is available, but data is capped at 2GB for prepaid and a generous 10GB plus tethering for all contact-based plans. Monthly and prepaid plans both include free incoming texts, including picture and video messages.

U.S. Cellular’s least expensive prepaid plan for a smartphone costs $40 per month, which includes 450 minutes, unlimited texts and a miniscule 200 MB of data. For $60 per month, you get 2GB of data, or you can upgrade to a top-level prepaid plan with unlimited voice and messaging and 2GB of data for $70 per month.

U.S. Cellular recently revamped its plans to include 300MB ($20 extra per month), 2GB ($25), 4GB ($45), 5GB ($50) and 10GB ($90) data offerings, with tethering included on plans that are 4GB or more.

The most basic smartphone plan with 450 minutes, unlimited messaging and 2GB of data costs $74.99 a month, though users can get up to 5 percent off by signing up for automatic billing on any plan. Unlimited voice and messaging with 2GB of data runs $114 per month, but this plan will allow you to upgrade your phone after 13 months. If you reach for your smartphone to surf the Web more often than to make a call, you’ll likely want to upgrade to a 4GB, 5GB or 10GB monthly data allowance.

Additionally, contract customers receive free incoming calls, unlimited mobile-to-mobile, nights and weekends starting at 7 p.m. and overage protection.

Smartphone Selection

Though there’s only one Windows Phone available, the HTC 7 Pro (a doppelganger of the HTC Arrive on Sprint), U.S. Cellular offers numerous Android phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S III, Motorola Electrify (which appears identical to the Motorola Photon 4G on Sprint), HTC Hero S, HTC Wildfire S and Huawei Ascend II. The carrier’s other smartphones run Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and cost less than $200.

U.S. Cellular has a few tablets available with contracts, including the original 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, the HTC Flyer and the Motorola Xoom.

The carrier currently offers one 4G LTE phone and one 4G LTE tablet: the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, respectively.

Verdict

U.S Cellular’s stable of devices is more advanced than other small carriers, but its pricing is more in line with the big guys. However, the company has spent years building up a strong customer service reputation. We love that users can control their own smartphone destiny by earning points to get a new device in as little as 13 months, and newer phones are offered with prepaid plans. Whether you choose a contract plan or prepaid plan, you’re sure to find a solid device from this carrier that offers plenty of perks.

Virgin Mobile

With an estimated subscriber base of about 6 million users, Virgin Mobile has positioned itself as the carrier of choice for “savvy connectors”—18- to 34-year-olds who use their phones 24/7 to stay connected with their friends, but use voice minutes less than other forms of communication, such as Facebook, Instagram, instant messaging and text. Riding on Sprint’s network, the provider’s monthly Beyond Talk plans offer unlimited data, with varying amounts of voice minutes. And you can now get 4G on the cheap.

Special Features

Unlike other small carriers such as Cricket Wireless, Virgin Mobile doesn’t offer plans with a lot of bells and whistles. However, Beyond Talk subscribers enjoy free access to Virgin Mobile Live, which allows users to stream studio and live performances from past and present Virgin Mobile Festival artists.

Coverage

Virgin Mobile offers nationwide service via Sprint’s network, covering major metropolitan areas on the West Coast, as well as most of the Northeast and the Midwest. However, certain parts of the country—most of the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming—enjoy barely any coverage at all.

As of May 31, customers who purchase the HTC Evo V can start streaming data at 4G speeds over Sprint’s WiMax network (sorry, no LTE here). The 4G network covers more than 70 major metro areas.

Plans and Value

Even among small carriers, Virgin Mobile’s plans are cheap. First off are the Beyond Talk plans, which include unlimited data and messaging. For 300 anytime minutes, unlimited texting and data, you’ll pay just $35; 1,200 minutes and unlimited texting and data costs $45 per month and $55 per month gets you unlimited data, texting and talk time. Note that these plans include 2.5GB of full-speed data; once you hit that cap, you may get throttled speeds.

If you opt for a phone with mobile hotspot capability, you’ll have to pay $15 extra per month to use that service.

Smartphone Selection

In June, Virgin Mobile became the second small carrier—after Cricket Wireless—to carry the iPhone 4S. Of course, buyers looking for a no-contract iPhone on Virgin Mobile will have to swallow a $549 price tag as a trade-off, as well as 3G speeds (the iPhone won’t run on Sprint’s WiMax network). As of press time, Virgin Mobile also offers seven other smartphones through its online store: the HTC EVO V 4G, HTC Wildfire S, LG Optimus Elite, LG Optimus Slider, LG Optimus V, Motorola Triumph and Venture. Two of the above handsets—the Optimus Slider and Venture—have physical keyboards, which heavy texters will appreciate.

The carrier’s flagship phone is the EVO V 4G, which is Virgin’s version of Sprint’s EVO 3D. It offers 4G WiMax speeds, a 1.2-GHz processor, 4.3-inch screen and mobile hotspot capability. You also get a 5-MP camera with 720p video recording and a front-facing camera.

Verdict

If you’re looking to stay connected for the smallest monthly fee possible, it’s hard to beat Virgin Mobile—for just $35 per month, you can get unlimited texts and 2.5GB of data. However, you’ll be trading minutes for bytes. Although Virgin’s 4G network doesn’t use the fastest technology, you’re getting very good speeds for the money.