Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Takeover in Alaska

Alaska Communications has agreed to sell their wireless assets and customers to GCI (General Communications Inc.) .   Alaska seems so far away from us but it is an interesting study in what happens when the big wireless players come to town.  Alaska Communications and GCI watched AT&T arrive several years ago with their purchase of the old Cellular One network and weren't too worried about it.  But when they saw Verizon headed north to Alaska, and they were coming with a new broadband network, the locals decided to build up their defenses.

Alaska Communications and GCI teamed up to utilize their large coverage footprint to make it a superior broadband network.  Within a very short time, the local owners had the makings of a great network leaving Verizon to assemble their network from the ground up with new infrastructure and roaming agreements.

Alaska Communications is turning over their wireless operations to GCI to focus on their land line operations, which, believe it or not, are growing.  Since GCI now covers almost every populated spot in the state, they are Alaska's top dog and Verizon will be hard-pressed to catch up.  As supporters of maximum coverage and minimum costs, we're cheering on GCI.

If citizen's of the 49th state show some loyalty, this GCI acquisition will be a great benefit to Alaskans.  Sadly, this also means it will now be easier to package up the whole network and sell it to one of the Top 4, most likely AT&T, which has not been as aggressive in improving its Alaska network.  For now, we'll enjoy our new northern exposure broadband connections. They arrived as a result of competition.

Friday, November 7, 2014

AT&T to Buy Mexico's Iusacell

We thought AT&T was going to pick up a few pieces of the TelCel network that will be cast off to comply with future Mexico regulations..but no.  AT&T has decided to jump into the Mexico market with both feet and buy the existing Iusacell network.  This should create quite a shakeup in the Mexico wireless landscape and maybe even more so for Americas who use wireless when traveling south of the border.

AT&T currently has a favorable roaming agreement with TelCel, which we feel is the best network in Mexico.  That may change relatively soon.  Since Iusacell is the least developed of the top 3 Mexico cellular networks we expect AT&T to make a significant investment in bringing the technology up to fairly high standards, probably right up to 4G LTE.  This should mean better coverage and better deals for AT&T, and possibly Cricket, customers to roam in Mexico, and a potentially worse situation for Verizon and Sprint roamers.  Isuacel maintains what little CDMA coverage that is left in Mexico and I can see no good reason for AT&T to further upgrade the CDMA capabilties...maybe even turn it off.  That won't happen soon and there could be a another shoe to drop before all this shakes out.

We'll be watching the unfolding Mexico situation at

Monday, October 20, 2014

Roaming Across Europe

Our recent vacation was, as usual, an investigation as to how our wireless phones work in foreign countries, and how to do it, cheaply.  We threw a dart at the globe and picked Italy and it turned out to get there required travel through a number of other European countries.  This requires a different mode of operation than using wireless in a single country.

I re-activated my T-Mobile Prepaid phone, primarily to make calls through their built-in Wi-Fi Calling app.  This is a nice feature that you can make and receive calls through your US T-Mobile number at your normal US Prepaid per-minute rate.  My regular phone, a Motorola, comes unlocked, but since it's not a T-Mobile branded phone, it doesn't have the Wi-Fi Calling app and you can't get it at Google Play.  All our incoming calls were Call Forwarded to the T-Mobile phone.

Once we landed in Italy, I bought a SIM ($26USD) from a Wind store near the train station (We know Wind, they offers service in Canada).  My phone needed to be re-configured manually (the APN) which they were happy to do at the store.  Their SIM worked well and we used it for local calls and broadband.   Right in town there was some 4G service, but more more reliably, 3G.  Once we left town, service was only at EDGE levels, which was totally usable for email and location-based apps, like maps.  It was faster than the Wi-Fi available on our Italo train.

After crossing into France, the Wind SIM worked for 24 hours with reminders to upgrade our service.  After that, we still had coverage through the T-Mobile Calling app and Wi-Fi.  The single-country  SIM would have worked if we hadn't left Italy, but since we covered 4 countries, we should have purchased a Universal Roaming SIM.  We saw these in airport magazine shops and Online.  We used what we learned to completely re-design our International Roaming Pages.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Li-Fi Goes Past Wi-Fi

Many of us sit and wonder, "What's next?" We don't try be a tech news source but this is so cool, and, we're guessing, a game-changer.  Li-Fi uses any  LED light in a room into a communications device, much like Wi-Fi, at line-of-sight frequencies.  I expect this to be installed in every wireless device within in a few years.  We're not good at predictions, and we're not investing in this thing...but what a great idea.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Smart Phone Rules

In this case, "Rules" is a verb. Much of wireless is concentrated on the Smart phone user and satisfying their needs...needs that were formerly just desires.  Last summer we reviewed how many of our visitors read our pages on small screens and decided we need to catch up.  As a result, our time has been spent re-designing all of our web sites, one by one, to make them more user-friendly to the small screen.  This means simpler pages and more compact information.  A total makeover may come later, but for now, look for easier to hit links for fingers both fat and thin.

With re-design comes updated information.  Many of the carriers that we formerly reported as independent, like MetroPCS and Cricket, are now part of the Prepaid soup which has moved to the Mountain Prepaid pages.   Also, 2014 has marked a record number of lost carriers, some that were purchased by larger carriers and some that just disappeared. This has forced us to review all of the carriers listed at Mountain Wireless more often to make sure others haven't thrown in the towel.  In most cases, a local phone company or co-op has just gone out of the wireless business and ultimately very few customers are affected.

Among our most active inquiries, MetroPCS and Straight Talk have been our most highly-searched topics indicating to us that a large number of people are looking at these two carriers for more economical wireless services.  Surprisingly, Cricket is not among those hot topics and is now a cheap way to join AT&T.  As AT&T GoPhone becomes more mainstream we're surprised more users don't forgo a few roaming agreements for the cheaper Cricket plans.  We think it's a trend that just hasn't started yet.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bargains: Get 'em While They Last

We haven't been too excited about some of the latest price deals but maybe we should.  Some prices have dropped significantly partly due to the failed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile.  There's at least one plan that drops prices to as low as $10 for a 10-member family share plan.  Some of this may be too good to last.  The Prepaid companies will slowly offer increased data levels in their plans but the carriers themselves will jockey for position until we make it to the next step in the wireless landscape.  That could involve one carrier just giving up.  Looking at Canada, we can see the downside of a 3-carrier market, and US regulators may be trying to avoid just that kind of scenario.

What to do? Take advantage of a plan or a phone offer now while it can make measurable savings for your usage.  If the prices get better, you'll be able to switch again.  If something bad happens, you'll enjoy the deals, even if they expire later on.

Unfortunately, some of these deals are self-destructive and while the low prices may survive, one of the carriers may not.  We're hoping that we'll enjoy a few price deals and the carriers will get back to  profitability and we'll preserve the 4-carrier marketplace that Canadians can only dream about.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Rise of Wal-Mart Wireless

We try to keep up with the lowest-priced plans with the highest data allowance at each price point on our Moose Wireless Plan Page.  Recently we changed the listing for the best $40 price plan available to the one offered by Wal-Mart Family Mobile.  The Wal-Mart plan offers all the usual Unlimited goodies but the data threshold is a generous 2.5 Gb, 150% higher than its precessor.  Also, Wal-Mart Mobile lets you bring your own GSM phone and, while there's no contract, billing is postpaid...not prepaid.

Wal-Mart's wireless uses the T-Mobile network and they offer a handful of basic Smart and Feature phones in addition to their SIM package.  Of course you might be able to head to the nearest Wal-Mart and sign up for this service but you can also do it in your jammies at our own Moose Wireless.  It's a good deal for the price and handily beats T-Mobile's own $40 plan that only offers a 500 Mb threshold.  We expect to make a few other changes as providers offer more data for your money...a welcome change, especially at these low price levels.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Plateau Wireless: The Next to Fall

Plateau Wireless of eastern New Mexico has agreed to sell their network, licenses and customers to AT&T.  Plateau has very good coverage and for current customers, service will probably get better.  While wireless under AT&T will be a bit more convenient, local users will lose any 'bundle' discounts with the local telephone companies' other services.

AT&T previously had very poor coverage in New Mexico and this, along with their Alltel acquisition, improves coverage significantly.  This is fairly unpopulated territory but it includes some I-40 and I-25 coverage.  Plateau's associated telephone cooperatives will continue to offer their other communications services and will probably do it better with a little AT&T money in their pockets.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

More in The Wireless Graveyard

Recently lost: Long Lines Wireless in Iowa, Airfire Mobile in Wisconsin and Allwest Wireless in Utah.  Only the Long Lines network will remain intact and their customers will be switched over to AT&T.  These carriers are small enough to disappear with little notice.   They lived near the middle of our Mountain Wireless Ratings and their loss will probably only be symbolic.

Sadly, the loss of T-Mobile moved one step closer to reality today unless common sense prevails in Washington.  Common sense? That's not likely, but it has happened before when they denied the AT&T/T-Mobile combination.  All Sprint needs is more spectrum and it seems to be coming available in bits and pieces, it's just in markets too small to help out.  We can just hope.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Don't Look Behind the Curtain

The curtain is the one that revealed the Wizard of Oz wasn't so wizard-ly after all.  In our case, if you find a good bargain in wireless, don't mess with it.  Today's biggest bargains are found by switching from one of the main carriers' plans to one of the bargain prepaid operators.  You could save as much as 50%.  This is a big deal when your monthly bill goes from, say, $90 to $45.  Be aware, these bargains come at a price.

Savings come from dealing with these companies in the cheapest way possible, either online or with offshore customer service.  Sometimes you need to ignore the little annoyances, including the ones that cost a few dollars.  One reader shared his story about dealing with one of the America Movil companies.  He was thrilled to have a big gob of Data for, say, $45 per month, and all the Talk & Text he could eat, only to be surprised that taxes were added.  Now he's closer to $50 per month.  He then took advantage of a $2.50 discount for Auto-Pay and found himself paying closer to the expected $45 per month.

Our friend then bought a new phone and found out it took a different size SIM.  He wasn't too put off about having to PAY for a new SIM, but later he found he was charged for "FREE" Shipping.  He called to complain and the carrier was happy to credit his account by adding one week of service.  He thought that was a good deal until he was notified that his Auto-Pay took place on the old date.  He called back to have them correct the Auto-Pay date which they were happy to adjust.

So far, so good, right?  Nope. When you change the Auto-Pay date you lose the $2.50 Auto-Pay discount.  That was a "promotion".  Our boy realizes dealing with the "alternative" carriers is different than dealing with the major carriers.  Getting a bargain does have a few "costs".  Just don't look behind the curtain.  Come Toto.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

America Movil and AT&T to Part Ways

The back story behind the AT&T/DirecTV merger is that if the combination is approved, AT&T becomes a new competitor to America Movil in Latin America.  AT&T executives have already resigned from the America Movil Board of Directors, and AT&T has placed their ownership in America Movil up for sale. This could also directly affect US wireless customers.

Any changes would be slowed by existing contracts, but let's look at what could happen with America Movil and AT&T no longer giving each other favorable treatment:

  • America Movil may need to pay higher roaming fees to use the AT&T network which may require higher prices, or reductions in features or data limits for US users, or potentially roaming available in fewer areas.  Remember, Straight Talk, NET10 and TracFone have no US network of their own.
  • AT&T customers may no longer have preferential roaming abilities in America Movil areas in Mexico and other Latin American countries, most notably our favorite deal of .25/minute Mexico roaming on AT&T GoPhone.
  • T-Mobile may rise to become the roaming leader in these Latin American countries, either with existing deals made outside of America Movil or with new deals that may offer greater competition to AT&T.
Of course, none of these changes may occur.  There are millions of dollars at stake and all of these companies may need to maintain the status quo to survive in a falling-rate environment.  Indeed, the sky may not be falling.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Cellular One in Montana Shuts Down

A sharp-eyed reader in Montana has reported that Cellular One (MTPCS) of Montana has decided to discontinue service as of the end of July, 2014.   This leaves some rural properties still being operated by this Cellular One in Lousiana and Texas, and the Broadpoint network in the Gulf of Mexico.  As with many shrinking local operators, Cellular One couldn't find a buyer for their network or their spectrum.  AT&T will offer some discounts for Cellular One switchers and they also offer superior coverage on the old Alltel network.

Over the years we have been checking in with Cellular One to see if we could update our Montana coverage maps and found indeed, none of the areas shown as "future coverage" ever materialized.  Also, Cellular One's Rating slips down a notch due to their need to roam on other networks for urban coverage.

It's also a shame that no other operator will step in take over the network.  Even at "free" the network must be too expensive to operate.  I'm sure we will hear more stories like this.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lower, Low-End Data Plans

Recently we modified the Mountain Unlimited Web Site to report the cheapest Smart Phone plans, arranged by price, showing the largest amount of Data available at that price level.  As the carriers themselves have improved the price levels of their Data plans, so have the Prepaid re-sellers.  One of the most surprising changes comes from Red Pocket Mobile who is now offering a $10 per 30 days Data plan that includes Unlimited Talk & Text and a whopping 1GB of 4G data before your download rate is throttled to presumably 2G speeds.

Red Pocket seems be using the T-Mobile network to provide this new Data offering and we hope it causes other Prepaids to follow.  It's odd to now see fewer minutes or tighter restrictions for plans at higher price levels, but we expect that to change.  Innovation should bring us even lower prices.

Who thought we would see plans as low as $5 per month?  You might say some of these cheap plans depend on wi-fi for data delivery, but Comcast just recently said that is precisely how they will deliver their own wireless network in competition with the largest wireless carriers.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

More Good Guys Give Up

Add 2 more wireless operators who are selling out to the big carriers.  Earlier this month we were saddened to see that one of our Top-Rated wireless carriers, Cincinnati Bell Wireless, was selling their spectrum to Verizon Wireless.  This week another pair of carriers who live at the top our Ratings, Golden State Cellular of California and Mobi PCS in Hawaii, have decided to give up their wireless operations.

Golden State will give up network, spectrum and customers to Verizon Wireless and Mobi will give up their spectrum.  In Mobi's case they will keep operating for a longer transition period, presumably to give their customers (read neighbors) a better choice in where to eventually take their wireless business.

With the loss of a #8, #9, and #10 rated carrier from our Ratings List, we may either need to adjust the now shorter list to give some carriers a better position, or light a candle for the carriers that remain in the top spots lamenting their impeding demise.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Cincinnati Bell Gives Up Wireless

Of course we had hoped that such a top-notch wireless operation like Cincinnati Bell would survive.  Even one of our top-rated wireless companies sees the writing on the wall and has decided to give up wireless and sell out to one of the Top 4, in this case Verizon Wireless.  Verizon can make good use of Bell's spectrum holdings but will probably just turn off the existing Cincinnati Bell wireless GSM network.

We have given in to the inevitable loss of several other wireless networks that have been operating close to, if not under, the line of profitability.  In the case of Cincinnati Bell, our hopes for their survival rest on the fact that they have always Rated at or near the top of wireless carriers in the US.  Since this Bell will survive as a thriving business in most other communications products, the transition for their customers away from their own wireless network should go smoothly whether or not you take them up on any discount when switching to Verizon Wireless, as has happened to so many other regional phone companies.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Math Has Changed

Most major carriers have 'adjusted' their pricing recently, mostly in response to T-Mobile's new, "un-carrier" program.  This presents two important considerations for the cellular consumer: 1)Do Your Math, and 2) Do Your Shopping.

Do Your Math!  Grab a calculator and add up how much a "2-year" plan will cost you vs. what that plan will cost you if you buy the phone separate from the plan.  In many cases we found that the 2-year contract cost was less than buying the phone outright, especially if you actually pay extra for the right to buy a new phone early.  As with any computation, there are additional numbers involved.  If you want to change before, or not change phones at the end of that 2-year obligation, your costs change, too.  Many of us can't live with the same technology that long.

Do Your Shopping! Today you can choose the model of phone you want, buy it the way you want, and choose the plan you want.  Unfortunately, there is a large variation in how each of those inteact, and we certainly don't want to suffer from the "Tyranny of Choice".  Today you can get a decent amount of Data along with Unlimited Calls and Texts for $45.  That number is beginning to by challenged at the $40 level with included Data ranging from 500Mb to 1Gb.  And yes, you can go cheaper than that. Net10 now offers a $40 plan and even AT&T has promised to will offer $40 plans after they take control of Cricket Wireless.

This is also a heads up for those of you who are nosing through the information in the Mountain Wireless Networks.  We often mention a price range for certain products that, unknown to us, has changed, usually to the downside, making it even more important to do your shopping.  We've got the tools to do just that among our sites.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Yanking Out the Wires

A few months ago we reported that Verizon Communications was planning on replacing a large of number of wired telephone customers in Long Island with wireless boxes.  The plan was to replace telephone service to those areas destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in a far less expensive manner, especially since the residents in that area were not very big telephone users and may not replace their landlines anyway, it seemed like a good idea.  At the time the FCC saw otherwise.  They thought not rebuilding the wired network may have dangerous ramifications.

Since then there has been a change in thinking. AT&T proposed adding only coaxial cable (or fiber) to new installations in Florida as an experimental trial.  This time to FCC says it's worth a try.  After all, why install a few pair of wires and a high-capacity pipe for all communications, especially when the same company, AT&T in this case, control both.  So much for the 'twisted pair'.  This is harder to clarify in areas like where I live where a different company controls each.

We have watched the trends and the CDC reports as of 2013, fully one third of US homes now have wireless as their only means of telephone communications.  Many of these homes have cable installed in their homes, so it is likely they use cable as their broadband access, but not everybody.  With the additional broadband growth of the wireless carriers today, we see that number should shrink as well. We are following the trend at our 'cut the cord' web site which was recently changed from The Unwired Home to Mountain Unwired to reflect the growing used of wireless in all of our devices wherever we are, no longer just at home.

Noisy Disclaimer

The Federal Trade Commission requires bloggers to reveal any compensation offered for positive reviews about any products.  We don't get any money for our reports, doggone it.  We do, however, have financial investments in most of not all of the wireless carriers we review.  Through mutual funds and  Exchange Traded Funds we own small parts of several wireless carriers.  After looking through the fund holdings, I own a large chunk of AT&T, a smaller piece of Verizon Communications, much smaller pieces of really small carries like US Cellular and NTelos, and surprisingly, no Sprint or T-Mobile stock.

I find that we have been more critical of the carriers in which we have some stock, therefore I would say we don't show much conflict of interest.  This year we should be less critical of AT&T and T-Mobile and more critical of Verizon and Sprint, and lots of hand-wringing over US Cellular.  Now I hope the Feds are happy.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

MetroPCS Goes to Mexico

A few days ago we featured MetroPCS, now owned by T-Mobile, as a newcomer in many areas of the US, and wondered if, or how, they would start promoting the service.  I have begun to hear a few plain vanilla radio ads and seen some bus sides for them, and a few TV mentions.  But the thing that caught our eye was their new Mexico roaming abilities.  

Until recently, AT&T's GoPhone was the only US Prepaid phone that roamed economically in Mexico.  Now MetroPCS takes advantage of the fact that new customers are being issued GSM phones that will easily roam in Mexico.  The catch is that Mexico roaming requires a $10 add-on that gives you a couple hundred minutes of talk time or texts from Mexico, and unlimited incoming texts while in Mexico.  Most of us would need Mexico roaming only a few times a year, if that.  But the plan also includes an even bigger number of calls to Mexico including unlimited calls to Mexico landlines. You need to subscribe to their $50 (or higher) monthly plan to qualify for this add-on...not the catchy $40 plan they advertise.  There's no mention of Data.   Those who cross the border on a semi-regular basis or those with family in Mexico would stand to gain, the rest of us, less so.

While T-Mobile phones only roam on the smaller Movistar network in Mexico, it should be adequate for most gringos. The most notable part of this offering is that T-Mobile has taken MetroPCS in a direction that is different that T-Mobile itself.  Along with T-Mobile's greatly increased International roaming capabilities, this new Mexico roaming capability gives us a taste of what may be possible from the carrier that's wearing the same clothes but now has a much better looking body.  We even gave them another "Star" in our Mountain Prepaid Ratings improving them toward the middle of favored no-contract carriers.

Friday, January 24, 2014

What's that MetroPCS Store?

Welcome MetroPCS to your neighborhood, who, up until now, has only been in a few large markets.  Now they are opening new stores in cities across the country with little promotion.  MetroPCS is now owned by T-Mobile who has absorbed all of Metro’s wireless spectrum as well expanded the name across the country.

I’m not sure what value the name is outside of their old markets since most of us have never heard of them.  They might as well have named it Pete’s Wireless…it would have had the same recognition value.  You may soon see (or have already seen) the new signs and wonder what do they sell there?  In my brief interviews the top answer is, “Computers”,  as in PC’S.  T-Metro has a lot of work to do in publicizing their brand in these new markets and it needs to be a lot more than sponsoring the latest monster truck jam.

MetroPCS gives users an alternative to the mainstream carriers’ deals by offering a good amount of “Unlimited” data in some simple plans AND a store to back up what they sell, even if it’s just a SIM.  So, even though MetroPCS doesn’t really offer the BEST Smart phone deals, they DO offer a way for us to improve our wireless costs (and maybe our phones) and a place to hang out until the rest of the world figures out what these stores are selling.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The New Year Shuffle

One of the things we do at Mountain Wireless is Rate each cellular carrier based on how they perform compared to the others.  As some carriers slip to a lower position, others move up, even if they haven't made any improvements.  Lately, there has been a shakeup among the Top 5 carriers which has resulted in a shakeup in their Ratings at our site.  The actual Rating number isn't that important, but the changes might cause you to reconsider which of the top tier carriers you want to use:

  • AT&T has been raised 2 whole places in their ratings over the past 3 months after they have chosen to compete, mostly against the recent moves of T-Mobile, which has resulted in several consumer-friendly features and plans.  They changed the no-contract pricing so you really aren't charged for your phone after you pay it off.  Also, they have some new, lower-priced plans that  appeal to a more modest user.
  • Sprint has been dropped one rating point even though they have made significant improvements in their network coverage.  What has given them a lesser rank is their lack of really competitive plans and, for some reason, a whole bunch of consumer complaints.  We can't point to any one factor.  We're guessing they are either having a difficult time finding properly trained help, or  just not enough of them.
  • T-Mobile moved up 2 notches over the past 6 months for several reasons.  They made some significant technical changes, part of which was re-aligning their coverage bands to support the iPhone.  A year ago they were slacking off, now, under an aggressive CEO, they have become the wireless "disrupter". Not only do they offer a wide variety of competitive prices, they have made the huge move of allowing their customers to roam internationally, either Free or at a reasonable rate.  Remember when free nationwide roaming across the US was a big deal?
  • Verizon has lost one position in the Ratings mainly because they have chosen to the be "premium" carrier, and with their superior coverage across the US, especially at 4G, they have earned that higher value.  But the price-sensitive customer has much better places to go.
  • US Cellular keeps moving forward even though we reduced them from the lofty Top position in the Ratings earlier last year.  We were ready to drop them again but finally offering the iPhone brought them back into keeping their lofty position by giving something that keeps customers from escaping.
We expect these competitive positions to change over the next year as pricing becomes more important than coverage. What great times we live in!