Over the years I have usually been very lazy, paying little or no attention to my cell phone bill. Years ago I sort of got into a rut, clicking around to use whatever cell phone plan on AT&T offered unlimited data and unlimited domestic calling and unlimited texting. Maybe a year ago I found I was paying $180 per month, and then I got it down to $120 per month, and then with a phone call I got it knocked down to $80 per month. I thought I was doing pretty well, and then realized that there are MVNOs that charge a lot less. I finally took the plunge and now it looks as though I will be paying $23 per month for unlimited talk and text and data. In this blog article I discuss factors that I think you might want to consider in possibly switching to a less expensive carrier.
Cutting to the chase, I am now paying $23 per month for unlimited talk and text and data. I have no regrets having migrated to this new much less expensive carrier, called Mint. There are lots of less expensive carriers nowadays, of which Mint is just one. I am not really saying you ought to pick Mint. I am really just suggesting that you use a less expensive carrier. My only reason for mentioning Mint repeatedly in this article is that it is the less expensive carrier that I have some experience with.
I should emphasize that I am not getting any sales commission from Mint. I won’t get any money or anything if you sign up with Mint. I’m just hoping to share some ideas about how to save money on your cell phone bill.
Anyway, I was switching away from a very well known carrier, AT&T. What did I give up when I switched away from AT&T?
Coverage. The whole point of an MVNO is that the MVNO resells service from a name-brand carrier (by which I mean Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile). In the case of Mint Mobile, the name-brand carrier that they resell is T-Mobile. So one thing that I gave up is that I will only benefit from T-Mobile’s coverage which, historically, has been crummier than AT&T’s coverage.
Coverage is a very personal thing, of course. One person may frequent geographic areas for which carrier A is much better than carrier B. Another person may frequent geographic areas for which carrier B is much better than carrier A. One should give only limited significance to whether one carrier claims to have so many percent better coverage than some other carrier. The areas of better coverage might be in places where you never go!
What I found when I switched is that most of the places where I go are covered as well by T-Mobile (and thus by Mint) as they are by AT&T.
What I have read is that T-Mobile has installed lots more cell towers in the last couple of years, and that as a result the T-Mobile coverage, while still pretty consistently not as comprehensive as that of Verizon or AT&T or Sprint, now comes closer to matching their coverage. My experience is consistent with this.
Call quality. In the old days, call quality used to be a big deal. But these days, if your phone is an LTE phone and if the cell tower you are connecting with is an LTE cell tower, it is extremely unlikely you will have anything other than perfect call quality. Everywhere that I go nowadays has LTE cell towers. I cannot recall that last time I had a cell phone call of other than perfect signal quality. I think it’s probably that way these days with any and all carriers that provide LTE service. (Mint, like many other carriers, provides LTE service wherever T-Mobile has LTE towers. As far as I can tell, nearly all of T-Mobile’s towers are LTE towers nowadays.)
Wifi calling. These days the smart consumer will make sure that his or her phone can do wifi calling, and will use a carrier that supports wifi calling. This means that even if you are in an area of poor coverage, you will do fine if you are in a place where there is good wifi. Mint supports wifi calling (as do all of the name-brand carriers and some of the MVNOs). So every now and then I imagine that a coverage gap ends up troubling me less than one might expect because my call goes out over wifi.
Carrier-unlocked phone. For as many years as I have been a cell phone customer, I have been on a sort of treadmill where I get my telephone from the carrier and it is locked to the carrier and then I have to browbeat the carrier to cough up an unlocking code so that my phone can be carrier unlocked. Even after the unlocking, however, the phone is filled with carrier-branded crapware that cannot be deleted or uninstalled.
If you are going to use an MVNO you are probably going to need to have a phone that is carrier unlocked. You might get lucky and a Mint SIM card might work in your phone (if, for example, it is carrier locked to T-Mobile) but as a general matter you are going to want to use a carrier-unlocked phone.
The smart consumer approach in 2018, I suggest, is to get off the treadmill. Stop getting your phone from your carrier. Get a phone that is carrier unlocked from the factory. What I recommend these days is the HTC U11 life. As I discuss in a separate blog article, I think it is dumb to keep purchasing high-priced top-of-the-line smart phones (such as Samsung Galaxy phones and iPhones) and especially dumb to keep purchasing high-priced smart phones that are locked to a particular carrier (and that are loaded with crapware). I think the smart approach is to purchase a carrier-unlocked smart phone that is more reasonably priced.
But anyway you won’t be able to proceed with the big monthly savings of an MVNO unless you get a carrier-unlocked phone. And there are two ways to accomplish this — one is to browbeat your carrier into giving you an unlocking code for your carrier-locked phone, and the other is to select and purchase a phone that is carrier-unlocked from the factory.
Lack of a brick-and-mortar store. Some people probably feel that it is important to pick a carrier that has brick-and-mortar stores. Such a person will not want to migrate to a money-saving MVNO because the ones that save you the most money do not have brick-and-mortar stores.
Fixed monthly cost. Most folks probably pick a cell phone plan in part because it protects the customer from a surprise bill at the end of the month. For me personally this is a very important factor in selecting a plan. But at least with any of the name-brand carriers, to get protection from a surprise bill at the end of the month, you have to pay quite a bit of money per month.
The way that Mint accomplishes the protection from a surprise bill at the end of the month is by slowing down your data if you use up the monthly bucket of high-speed data that you are paying for. You can pay a predictable, no-surprises monthly fee of $23 and this gets you 2 gigabytes (GB) of data. If during the monthly cycle you use up your 2 GB then your data rate drops to a slower rate for the rest of the cycle. Then it gets fast again.
Or you can pay a monthly fee of $30 and get 5GB. Or you can pay a monthly fee of $38 and get 10GB.
Note that the data is unlimited no matter which Mint plan you pick. It’s just that the unlimited data is fast only if you are within your bucket of high-speed data. When you get past the bucket, your unlimited data is slow unlimited data.
I note that any of these three numbers ($23 or $30 or $38) is pretty astonishingly cheaper than the monthly fee for unlimited data from a name-brand carrier (typically something like $80).
You can also read lots of news stories in which people gripe about how the “unlimited” data from this name-brand carrier or that name-brand carrier also gets throttled down at times that the customer was not expecting to have it throttled down. The impression that one gets from the various news stories is that each name-brand carrier has secret or poorly disclosed thresholds that lead to throttled data rates under various circumstances.
Number porting. As most readers know, in the US a consumer benefits from “number portability”. You can keep the same phone number when switching from one cell phone company to another or when switching from a cell phone to a landline or vice versa. Years ago the number porting process often had delays of several days and it was not easy to predict when exactly the porting would take effect. In my recent migration from AT&T to Mint I was astonished to find that the porting took a mere seven minutes. I have heard from colleagues that nowadays everybody (except me) is already aware that number porting nowadays only needs a few minutes to take effect.
Voice mail. One thing to keep in mind is that the moment you port a phone number, your voice mail messages from the old carrier will disappear. This includes messages that you have not yet heard (if any) and messages that you have saved. Be sure to plan ahead on this, listening to or making recordings of any important voice mail messages from the old carrier.
Calls to countries outside the US. The way it works with Mint, the monthly plan includes unlimited calls to phone numbers in the US and Canada and Mexico. If you want to call to other countries you prepay. Calls to other countries are priced as cheaply as those of any mobile carrier I have seen. Lots of destinations cost 1¢ per minute.
Because you prepay, the result is that you would never have a surprise big bill at the end of the month. Of course what might happen is you use up your prepaid balance and cannot call some international number at a time that you wanted to be able to place a call.
Roaming outside the US. These days if you are smart enough about it, no matter which carrier you have selected, you can find ways to roam outside of the US without having to fear a surprise big bill at the end of the month. Wifi calling helps a lot since when you connect to wifi in that foreign country, probably it will cost no more to place a call than it would cost if you were placing that exact same call from a cell tower in the US.
Mint’s approach is that you prepay for international roaming. The cost per minute is the same (25¢) no matter which country you happen to be in.
The thing of course is that you might just pick up a local SIM card in the foreign country, which would be easy to do since your phone will be a carrier unlocked phone.
Anyway, as of right now I have not identified any reason to regret having migrated to Mint Mobile. There are probably lots of other MVNOs that you might be just as happy with as Mint. By switching to an inexpensive MVNO, you will probably save lots of money as compared with the name-brand carrier that you have been using for all these years.