Tuesday, February 23, 2010

There's a Cricket in Your Pocket

Our Texas readers have been observing the hot competition between Pocket Wireless and Cricket Wireless which has resulted in consistently low prices for Unlimited cellular service in the area. Pocket prices in Texas started as low as $25 per month, and Cricket almost always matched that price in common areas.

Today, Leap Wireless, the parent of Cricket, announced a new Leap-operated joint venture between the two companies. This probably signals the end of the Pocket brand in south Texas, and the Lone Star state price war. Pocket will continue to operate in New England but with plan prices that don't seem to concern Cricket.

It's always bad for consumers to lose a choice in a market, but this particular move will probably help keep Cricket afloat by removing a thorn in their side. I'm surprised that Pocket makes that much difference to a semi-national company like Cricket, but then it's only a "joint venture", right? Leap Wireless should be working a deal with MetroPCS or another large carrier instead of dealing with small potatoes. I guess you do the deals you can do. San Antonio region customers will get slightly better service, but you'll pay for it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Choosing a Phone

All of our web sites focus on specific cellular features like coverage, plans and service. But one of the most important decisions you need to make is which phone model to choose. It shouldn't be your first decision because you need to establish whether a wireless carrier is available in your area before you can look at any phone. Once you have determined which carriers serve your area and which plans fit your usage, the handset is next. Today's choices can be overwhelming.

If you wanted, say, an iPhone, then you only need to determine whether AT&T serves your area. Choosing a Blackberry widens your possibilities greatly. And if any nice, small flip-phone fills your needs, the whole spectrum of carriers and plans become available. How do you take that next step?

We recommend that you start searching for your next phone at a wireless store that features multiple carriers. Best Buy and Radio Shack come to mind ("No thanks, I'm just looking"), but you also have some great online choices like Let's Talk and Wirefly who usually offer better prices than brick & mortar stores. Don't buy right away. Step back, review your notes, and then go for it. Our family usually chooses the cheapest (free?) model that fills our minimum needs. We caution you not to over-analyze your choices in Don't Sweat Your Phone Choice.

Don’t fall in love with a certain phone model. Narrow your choice to certain carriers and plans first, then choose among their handsets. We recommend Phonescoop.com where you can check specifications, side-by-side, and Moose Wireless for the best online deals. Unfortunately, the larger carriers have exclusive access to certain phone models, but even the greatest phone in the world will be disappointing on an inadequate network. If a smaller network has the best combination of coverage and features, you’d be foolish to ignore them.

There is always the possibility of using a favorite handset on a different network, but the carriers fight that as best they can. Switching a SIM among GSM phones is an effective method in some cases, but not always. This opens the possibility of buying a phone on eBay or elsewhere, but you’re on your own for support. OK, let's review: service first, handset second. Then, don't look back.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Page Plus Reaction

After our recent article about the Rise of Page Plus, we heard from Page Plus users who have not been so happy with their service. We already knew about the inability to reach Customer Service in a timely matter, but the mysterious loss of minutes and service and the failing of their number porting abilities are a new twist. Let me share what we know about Page Plus.

First, we became a "dealer" to see what the inner workings were about, and we found competent, hard-working people. They admit, though, they are growing faster that they can really handle. Among other concerns, they're having trouble keeping enough phones in stock and have cancelled some marketing programs until they can catch up. However, in our opinion, the improvements they have made in their plans and fees, have only made their problems worse. It chokes me up to say this, but they shouldn't lower their prices until they're ready to handle more customers. However, if I were sitting in the Page Plus office and a better deal became available, why would I want to hold the business back? It's a tough decision.

It's really easy to become a Page Plus dealer, and while that may put some unqualified people into their marketing stream, these dealers have actually been a lot more helpful and accessible than Page Plus itself. Last year I switched over a family member to Page Plus and he has been a very happy user, except for the idiosyncrasies of prepaid. I wanted to switch over my wife, but she didn't want to be limited to Page Plus's fewer choices of phone models.

More than one reader uses their cellular phone for business exclusively, and probably shouldn't depend on Page Plus, or any wireless reseller. There's no one to complain to when there are problems beyond your own handset. Mobile professionals need someone to go to bat for them, and Page Plus currently can't do that. But we still feel Page Plus is a great choice for less critical uses and as a 2nd or 3rd phone in the family. This is why we said we were considering bringing Page Plus to the top of our recommendations. Not yet. We actually dropped their Rating on our PayAsYouGo pages.

For the time being, Page Plus isn't quite our Top choice. I'd also like to address how Net10, TracFone and Straight Talk compare, later. Just let the buyer beware.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Alltel Comes to the Unlimited Party

Even as they shrink into a smaller carrier, Alltel Wireless has finally come up with some nice Unlimited plans. They matched the major carriers with their own $70 Unlimited Talk plan with matching Family Plans. Then they went one step further and introduced a Prepaid version of their Unlimited plan for $45, which may be a real winner.

For now, the Prepaid Unlimited coverage map looks like both the Alltel and Verizon Wireless networks are included, which is larger than the coverage offered by the other $45 Unlimited plan offered by Straight Talk which is limited to the Verizon Wireless network. However, if you call Alltel, they claim Prepaid Unlimited does not roam off the Alltel network even though their maps show otherwise. We believe the map since it looks like a very new and unique map with huge holes in the middle of Minnesota and Oregon.

You do need to be in their own service area to sign up and they still only require a 1-year contract for their postpaid plans. At least Alltel has come to the Unlimited knife fight with competitive plans which keeps them at the top of our Reviews. Better late than never.

We have Unlimited plan reviews by Price, and by Carrier.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Rise of Page Plus

Page Plus Cellular has risen to become, in our opinion, one of the most desirable alternative cellular services, and this week they got even better. Their rise has followed the expansion of the Verizon Wireless network to the point where Page Plus, like Verizon, now offers service in most of the country. Page Plus uses the Verizon network, and does it at a very competitive rate that you can pay as you go. You can also pick up their $40 Unlimited Talk & Text plan. A recent rate adjustment lowered their per minute rate to as low as .04 a minute and this week they cut their Roaming fees in half, to .29 per minute.

T-Mobile's Prepaid has been our favorite low-cost plan for several years, but these new Page Plus plans have us considering them as the new leader in low-cost wireless. Their only downside is their 120-day expiration vs. T-Mobile's 365-day reset. Their Customer Service isn't growing as fast as the number of subscribers, so that may also be considered a reason for caution.

One of the considerations in Page Plus's favor is their lower acquisition cost. Their Activation fee is $10, but it can be had for less than $1 if you look around. The cheapest way to start service is to use an old, non-active Verizon Wireless phone. There are a lot of those around. That might include one you may be using now. While T-Mobile Prepaid can be used in any old T-Mobile or unlocked GSM phone, we need to cross the $100 of refills threshold before enjoying their Gold Rewards 1-year expiration time. T-Mobile allows no-cost roaming off their network, but with Page Plus there's little chance of losing your home network. And even when you do, Text Messages are still .08 each, Roaming or not. T-Mobile's .10 a minute voice rate is beginning to look expensive. Ain't competition grand?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Finding Cell Sites

One of our most popular web sites helps you Find Cell Sites. Recently when updating the site we found several wireless companies that reveal their own cell sites, either on a map or a list. We re-arranged the link categories to show cell site information categorized by carrier, tower companies, the FCC and others.

That there is enough data to need to break it up into categories is good news. As we face fewer carriers each year, it's nice to know this information is still available. The best maps come from the smallest carriers.

KGI Wireless, one of the "tower" companies, was a good source of Alltel tower locations and now identifies most of those locations as belonging to Verizon Wireless. The reality is that more towers are adding more carriers, and many of those towers credited to Verizon may eventually be transferred to AT&T or ATN. So, it's still takes some detective work to find your sites.