Phone think

The phone crisis is heating up at Chez Doctroid.

Right now Heather and I have a family cell phone plan with Credo, an MVNO for God-hating socialist treehuggers that uses the Sprint network. We’ve been with Credo for years and have been fairly happy with them. But things are changing.

For one thing, Kenny’s old enough that we’re considering getting him a phone. For another, Heather’s gotten fed up with her feature phone. I’ve had a smartphone (an HTC Hero, now getting long in the tooth) for nearly two years now. Heather’s held off, but not for much longer. She and Kenny and I could just get new phones on Credo, but there are other considerations.

One is: iPhone? Heather and I are both Mac users; that didn’t sway me much in deciding on Android over iPhone, but Heather’s less sure which she wants. Credo doesn’t have iPhones.

Sprint does. But Sprint, like Credo, and like the rest of the contract carriers, wants to charge what seems to us a lot of money for phone plans that offer unlimited or hundreds of minutes/messages/megabytes per month, much more than we actually use.

So another consideration is the evolution of some non-contract MVNOs that look worth considering. Prepaid no longer means crappy phone selection and sketchy reputation. Virgin Mobile, for instance, has both iPhone and some nice Androids such as the HTC Evo V, along with unlimited data plans starting at $35/month  per handset.

Maybe more interesting are a couple of more non-traditional contenders. Ting is a new carrier whose main draw is their pricing scheme: You can prepay for whatever mix of voice minutes, text messages, and data megabytes you want, and if you go over or under it’s adjusted — and not at penalty rates — on the next month’s bill. And those minutes, messages, and megabytes can be shared among multiple devices; you just pay $6 per device on top of the usage charges.

Now, if you use gigabytes of data per month, you’re better off with Virgin, but my average in recent months has been just under 250 megabytes. As for voice and text messages, we both use very little. My own recent average phone use would cost me about $25 a month on Ting. Adding in Heather with a projection that she’d use roughly the same amount of data on a smartphone would bring it up to $48. Adding Kenny probably wouldn’t (at least right away) push us into the next usage brackets, so I’m guessing $54 a month for the family.

Yet another company is Republic. They’re a very new carrier, beta testing a new way of carrying phone calls: Their handsets use WiFi whenever possible to send phone calls over the Internet, falling back on the Sprint network only when WiFi isn’t available. Since they don’t have to buy so much bandwidth from Sprint, they can charge low rates — $19 a month per handset for unlimited use.

The mathematically inclined will notice that would come to $57 a month for three handsets, or $3 more than my estimate for what we’d spend on Ting, but without limits. So what are the other considerations? Well, as I said, Republic is in beta. They’re building a new phone technology and presumably have bugs to work out. And they’re not ready for all comers. For some months earlier this year they were taking no new customers. Now they are, but at a limited rate; they invited Beta Wave B at the end of July and are now up to Wave D. Heather and I are on the waiting list at Waves K and L  respectively. My Credo contract isn’t up until November, so I don’t mind waiting, but Heather’s contract was up ages ago and she wants a new phone soon.

Another consideration is the hardware. Republic requires phones with modifications to do the WiFi/cell thing… and at the moment they offer only one such phone, a midrange Android 2.3 handset from Motorola. Android 2.3? Okay, granted, most of the phones out there, especially in the midrange, are running 2.3 or even 2.2, and I certainly can live with it (I do — I have the CyanogenMod ROM on my Hero) but really… do I want to be using a 2010 operating system in 2014?

Then there’s hotspots. For whatever reason, wireless connectivity at Heather’s college seems to be flaky at best, and she’s been finding it difficult to get online. If she had a phone with mobile hotspot capability she could use that. But Republic doesn’t approve of tethering or hotspotting (indeed, they encourage you to use your phone on WiFi, not the other way around). Virgin charges $15 a month for hotspotting. Sprint charges extra too, although I have yet to decipher exactly how much. And Ting? No extra charge. You’re just paying for whatever data you use, however you use it. Of course a lot of hotspotting could easily bump us into a higher data use bracket.

Credo, Sprint, Virgin, and Ting all have some nice Android phones. Sprint and Virgin have iPhones. Credo and Sprint both charge a lot more than the rest; their only virtue seems to be their phone subsidies, but we can afford to buy phones up front to save money after a few months. Virgin would be attractive if we were chewing up gigabytes of data, but I don’t see that happening for now. Republic would be the cheapest for a single handset, but Ting’s rate structure is more attractive for multiple handsets. I think we’ll become a Ting family soon. But the decision hasn’t been made yet…



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