Thursday, October 25, 2012

Nobody's Perfect

I have been trying to switch to a full-time Smart phone, but I need to do it without the monthly charges breaking the bank.  It turns out, none of the top 4 carriers gets a perfect score with any Smart phone, mostly due to coverage dead spots.  Verizon doesn't work at the rec center.  AT&T drops out when researching at the library.  Sprint and T-Mobile signals both disappear behind the hill in our own neighborhood.  What's a guy to do?

In my case, Verizon wins at coverage but loses with too high of a price.  I can't justify doubling my cost just to add data.  T-Mobile and Sprint do very well with Data speeds but have dead spots for voice calls in critical locations (I was really pulling for T-Mobile!).  AT&T sits right the middle with Goldilocks coverage and data (not too good...not too bad).  The most important thing I learned is that data is a side interest and that voice calls are still most important.

The next step is deciding whether to work directly with AT&T or an AT&T re-seller.  The price difference is Straight Talk at $45 per month vs. AT&T GoPhone at $65 a month.  AT&T's data limit is 1Gb a month, Straight Talk's is more than double that, and there are almost 10 other alternatives that all use the AT&T network.  Price is not necessarily the most important point, but guess which one I'm trying first?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Plateau Wireless Lives On

Why can't they get this right?  Today, Verizon Wireless announced that they have "completed their purchase of Plateau Wireless".  The problem is only a PART of Plateau's network has been purchased and we were one of only a few news services that clarified the deal last Spring.  Plateau still maintains a wireless network in their previous coverage areas in New Mexico and west Texas, and will be making considerable improvements to that GSM network.

I spoke with Plateau's CEO Tom Phelps today to make sure that the deal hadn't changed.  He was also a bit miffed that most of the wireless press still can't get the story right.  Mr. Phelps also added that they were using the money from the Verizon transaction to upgrade their wireless network to 4G and adding fiber to their wired network.

We hate to see a small wireless company give up, but, in this case, Plateau made a creative move that will improve the wireless experience for many rural New Mexico and Texas cellular customers, whether they end up with Verizon or with a new and improved Plateau.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Your Mexico Vacation

Each year we update our Mexico wireless information, this year it's just ahead of the winter travel season.  We have so much new information we need list them:
  • MEXICO CELLULAR: This is our new entry point for all kinds of wireless information for Mexico travelers, including reviews on the Mexican wireless carriers.
  • USING YOUR US PHONE IN MEXICO: Can you just take your current phone with you?  Even more important: should you use that phone?
  • WIRELESS CALLING INSTRUCTIONS: We've tried to dig up all the oddities you might encounter when trying to make a wireless call in Mexico, and listed Helpful Tips.
  • ZOOMABLE MEXICO COVERAGE MAPS: We have added one of our most popular features of our Cellular Maps site for US carriers: Interactive Maps for Mexican carriers.
  • DATA ROAMING DANGERS!  There are horror stories of people just checking their email in Mexico and getting hundreds of dollars in data roaming charges!
Some of the Mexican wireless carriers have adopted US features like "Calling Circles" and Free Long Distance across Mexico and to the US.  These are things we have taken for granted here for years.  One of the disturbing trends is that T-Mobile and Sprint roaming charges are now approaching $2 a minute for calls within Mexico.  Shades of 1984!  GoPhone is still two bits (what's that?).

Have a good trip and email us with your wireless experiences.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Smart Phone Race

Go ahead, call it a 'Race to the Bottom'.  Our search for the best value in a Smart Phone plan is really a quest for the cheapest Smart Phone plan.  One of the decisions made early in the process was to go with a GSM phone primarily to take advantage of all the 'Bring Your Own Phone" opportunities.  After playing with the bargain-priced T-Mobile $30 for 5Gb/100 Minutes plan, I knew I needed a lot more minutes when I eventually converted to one main phone.

I was convinced that the best route was the SIMple Mobile $40 plan.  Then a friend told me about her weekend in rural Colorado.  You know, one of those areas where there's only Verizon and AT&T coverage.  Where would that leave a SIMple Mobile phone?  Unusable.  They do not claim any coverage off the T-Mobile network.  So much for the $40 plan.

The next move up in price is Straight Talk at $45.  They claim their GSM coverage is the same whether you put their SIM in an AT&T or T-Mobile phone, locked or unlocked.  After reading posts from Straight Talk users, it appears the ones who use an AT&T phone get "throttled" after using more than 2 to 3Gb a month, while users with T-Mobile phones don't have similar complaints.  We'll make our decision soon and report on the results.

As a disclaimer, I notice there are numerous ads for Straight Talk service across our web sites.  We are not compensated for reporting on or leaning toward that service.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

T-Mobile's Next Phase

Updated to reflect the MetroPCS/T-Mobile merger is confirmed.

Just after I decided to join T-Mobile for most, if not someday all, of our wireless needs, T-Mobile finalized a spectrum swap with Cricket Wireless.  Then came the news that T-Mobile will merge with Metro PCS.  This may be an easily-approved combination and we're trying to see how it feels from a consumer viewpoint.   With incompatible CDMA vs. GSM technologies, there are a few hurdles to overcome.  Both companies do have a long-term goal to embrace LTE technology.  MetroPCS already uses VoIP so synergies are already possible. We must not overlook the incompatibilities of the networks.  As with the purchase of Nextel by Sprint, the technology problems may never be solved without big losses of money or customers.

For the short term, there should be no need for wholesale handset conversion, it could evolve as users decide to change their needs.  The bigger question is how much the loss of a competitor affects the overall market.  MetroPCS is not available in many US markets, but it serves a number of the largest cities.  This means a loss of competition in the nation's biggest cities but it increases the wireless capacity for the number four network, right where we need it most.

A larger T-Mobile may make it even more difficult for the next largest carrier, Cricket, to survive, forcing them toward another suitor, potentially Sprint.  Sprint came within a whisker of buying MetroPCS.  That means Sprint may still be in the market for the spectrum and customers that Cricket could bring to the table, and woop, another competitor disappears.  Don't overlook the possibility that Cricket could also still join the T-Metro party.

A few years ago we were appalled at the idea of only 5 or 6 national wireless carriers, now we're desperate to keep 4!  We thought the best idea was a MetroPCS-Cricket combination.  Now we're cheerleading to keep T-Mobile and Sprint alive.  It's our own form of Long-Term Evolution!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

T-Mobile Wins The Smart Phone Race...for Now

After a false start, I finally landed in the Smart phone arena armed with lots of knowledge about data plans.  The idea was to add a data to our wireless arsenal, without a contract, with hopes that it may some day become the "one and only," and yet not end up doubling our monthly wireless bill.

As with so many users, the "ideal" collection of features, cost and deal-killers are very personal.  For example, my top concerns were price and mobile email.   Yours may be staying in touch with Facebook or YouTube.  What they all have in common is data and what you pay for it.  Until a few weeks ago the best value for that data was the SIMple Mobile $40 Unlimited plan that comes on a SIM and accesses the T-Mobile network.  There are others, but this was our best choice.  SIMple Mobile only provides the SIM, you need to bring your own T-Mobile-compatible phone, unlocked GSM device, or they'll help you find one linked from their web site.  The $40 plan gives you 3G coverage, which is probably more than good enough for most of us.

Since then I discovered T-Mobile's own generous non-contract $30 plan which gives you 5Gb of 4G data per month (really 30 days), Unlimited Texts, but only 100 minutes of Voice calls.  That's perfect for a 'data-only' phone, but most of us use more than 100 minutes a month.  This is where people start looking at the likes of Google Voice, Vonage and a bunch of apps that help you bypass the regular carriers' "minutes."  This $30/5Gb plan has a curious twist, voice overages are only .10 per minute.  This puts you on a semi-'pay-as-you-go' basis which might make wireless data charges a far easier pill to swallow.  Once those overages hit an additional $10, though, you'll be wishing for the SIMple Mobile plan.  Like always, "Do the math."

If you're interested in the T-Mobile $30 data/text/100 minute plan there are some restrictions, but they're workable.  The most important is that it is for new plans only but that may only mean a new SIM, which may also mean a new phone number, but there are ways around that, too.

Then there's the latest news about who might own T-Mobile, look for that in our next article.