Sell-old-cell-phone-300x255December has arrived — this is the silly season where people splurge on mobile handsets without fully thinking through what carrier to use so that you can USE your new, too-hot-to-handle smartphone or other mobile device.  Here’s the information that we (and others) have compiled about the best value plans for cellular service. At the end of this post, we revealed the carrier and plan that we use …….it was the best deal for our needs.

Republic Wireless

Republic may be offering the best wireless phone values in the U.S.  It charges $25 per month for a 1GB unlimited plan and $40 per month for 2GB monthly service. (It also offers a $10 monthly plan for don’t need data access when they are on the road and don’t have WiFi access). Pretty sweet pricing.  The unusual wrinkle in the Republic offering is that if you don’t use all of the data that you’ve paid for, then you get a refund for that unused portion.

Republic is also unusual in that all of its text and data services are handled by WiFi and, if there’s no WiFi signal available, the phone switches over to a cellular network. Currently, you are limited to the use of only two phones: the Moto X and Motorola Defy. Both are decent phones: the X is a highly rated smartphone that Republic is offering for $249.  If you are OK with lower-end Moto phones, they’ll cost between $129-199.

To the extent that there are downsides, it is that Republic uses the Sprint wireless network, which is among the weaker wireless networks. The other bad catch is that if you exceed 5GB of Sprint data per month for three consecutive months you will be cut back to lower speeds.

Project Fi –  Google’s competitive offering

Another recent development fueling wireless price reductions is Google’s  entry into the wireless service markets.  Like other MVNOs (also called Mobile Virtual Network Operators) such as Republic, Freedom Pop, Ting, Consumer Cellular and TracFone,  Google will be buying spectrum from T-Mobile and Sprint.  The catch: Google’s Project Fi service is  available for Nexus 5& 6 customers.  It offers a special SIM card which gives access to TMobile or Sprint networks as well as any nearby accessible wifi.   Prices will start at $20 a month for “the basics,” or voice service, texting, Wifi tethering and international coverage. After that it’s $10 per gigabyte of data you use in the U.S. and abroad and you do get to sell back what you don’t use.  That $30 comes with 10GBs of data and which includes unlimited domestic talk and text,unlimited international texts, low-cost international calls, Wi-Fi tethering and coverage in 120+ countries.  Like some other carriers,  at the end of each month, you’ll get your unused data credited in dollars and cents, so you only pay for what you use.

Insiders view it as unlikely that Google is going to go head to head with AT&T or Verizon. Instead, Google seems to be more interested in forcing the wireless market to make changes that would free-up customers to use more data for less money — which gives Google more opportunities to show advertising to consumers and mine customer data.   Google’s motivations matter less than the fact that its threat to enter the wireless markets as a retailer will continue to put downward pressure on wireless rates.  Combined with Google’s Nexus line of smartphones that help make the price of high-end smartphones more affordable,  Google is putting substantial outside pressure on the wireless industry. Naturally, we went for this “best value”, since we already had a Nexus 6.  It’s worked quite well although coverage in rural areas was spotty.

Cricket Wireless – Lowest cost for limited talk but unlimited data/text

For an inclusive plan that covers all the basics, the $35 per month option from Cricket Wireless is well worth considering. It includes 300 minutes, voicemail, caller ID, unlimited messaging, and 2.5GB.   H2O Wireless and Consumer Cellular also offer decently priced data-talk-text-voice plans.  Also, check out Virgin Mobile’s “Beyond Talk” plan is $35. It includes unlimited anytime minutes and unlimited mobile and text, as well as 1GB of high speed data. Importantly, it is available for Android smart phones , unlike the recently announced Verizon prepaid mobile phone plan and some of the other prepaid low-cost plans.    Virgin Mobile is offering some reasonably powerful smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S and the iPhone 5.   The one catch is that Virgin’s “unlimited data” plan is capped at 2.5GB per month after which data speed is reduced significantly.

Airvoice Wireless – If you only want voice or text

If data isn’t a biggie for you and you don’t need a lot of voice minutes, the $10 talk and text plan from Airvoice Wireless may represent one of the best values around. $10 per month gets you 250 voice minutes or 500 text messages over a period of 30 days.  Regular anytime minutes are $0.04 each, while regular text messages – both sent and received – are $0.02 each. Cell phone plans that include data start at $35 per month.

TracFone Wireless – Senior plans for emergency cell phones.

TracFone Wireless is the one service we recommend to seniors who are looking essentially for an emergency cell phone to use periodically. Tracfone offers a special deal that bundles large-button phones (not smart phones, though) with one year of service for $99 per year for 400 minutes (essentially, $8.25 per month). Tracfone offers this at its website and through resellers. In fact, we found the same deal offered through HSN for the too good to be true price of $64.45. If you don’t need a one-year commitment, TracFone’s Pay-as-you-go airtime cards start at $9.99 for 30 minutes with a 30 day expiration period, but the rate gets less expensive with larger refills. The $79.99 card, for instance, includes 450 minutes with a 90-day expiration period.

Safelink –  cell service for low-income customers

SafeLink Wireless offers free phones & free minutes to low-income people who are currently enrolled in programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, TANF/Welfare, or SSI. SafeLink offers up to 250 minutes and 1250 text messages per month. SafeLink Wireless is a U.S. federal government program, funded by those “Universal Service Fund” fees you see on your phone bill each month

THE BIG FOUR

Unfortunately most Americans appear to go with the safety of the “big four” carriers:   Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T.     T-Mobile and Sprint have begun to offer some pretty decent value propositions with their plans.   Currently, according to Bob Rankin,  T-mobile is targeting specific rivals one at a time, with short-term deals throughout December. They’re offering up to $650 per line to everyone who switches from any other carrier to defray early-termination fees, or buy out the balance of service plans.
Through December 13, T-mobile is also offering $200 off the price of a 128 GB iPhone 6S to AT&T customers who switch to T-mobile. The $200 comes in the form of a bill credit, and brings the price of the phone down to $649.99; that’s what T-mobile charges other customers for a 16 GB iPhone 6S. AT&T switchers can also get up to $125 off on accessories such as the Apple Watch, Beats headphones, and Bluetooth speakers from JBL and UE Boom.

Sprint, like T-mobile, is offering up to $650 to switchers. Unlike T-Mobile, Sprint requires a phone trade-in. With a trade-in, you can get a 16 GB iPhone 6S for $15/month, and a new iPhone every year “forever,” or until your 22-month contract expires. This offer is good only in Sprint stores, because you have to hand over your trade-in phone. If you don’t want to trade in a phone or deal with Sprint face to face, you can get the LG G Flex2 for free with a 24-month contract, and order online or by phone. For five days, (December 7 to 11) Sprint is giving away daily gifts to its customers. The December 7 batch included give bucks off your next Uber ride, 10% discounts on iTunes music, or a free Alcatel ONETOUCH PIXI™ 7 tablet with a free year of service.

We have no Verizon or AT&T plans to recommend.   Verizon is offering 2 GB of bonus data every month for every phone they add or upgrade through Jan. 6. The additional 2 GB of monthly data can be shared, and the deal can be combined with other offers. The catch is that you must buy a lot of data to qualify for the extra 2 GB. The minimum qualifying plan is Verizon’s XL plan which offers 12 GB of data for $80 per month. This might be worth considering, but only if you use your phone primarily away from your home Wi-Fi, or and/or use an inordinate amount of data.  AT&T is……..well, there’s nothing good that can be said, so we’ll say nothing.

As to service quality,  three of the four carriers pretty much share the same network quality — none of it is particularly outstanding, according to JD Power’s most recent survey.   The one exception is Verizon, whose service in the West is clearly superior.    Of course, that higher quality comes at a cost;   Verizon charges premium prices for its service.   AT&T also charges premium prices for clearly inferior service and we continue to discourage consumers from using AT&T if they live in California.

Consumer Reports’ end-of-the-year survey of its members found that T-Mobile nudged past Verizon for the top cell carrier. Its readers were most satisfied with T-Mobile customer support and value, though they ranked the network’s call and data quality below that of Verizon and AT&T. Only Sprint was found to have more Web problems and slower data speeds than T-Mobile.  So while T-Mobile may not have the best coverage or speed, it offers the best “value”, as viewed by Consumer Reports’ members — we agree. But keep in mind that these same savvy consumers rated  Consumer Cellular, Ting, Jitterbug, Credo, Virgin Mobile and U.S. Cellular as offering even better values than the top-4..

As to the phone service that we use? Well, we need a smart phone with unlimited texting and data, but we don’t use it much for voice (voice quality on cell phones is marginal. (We use Ooma VOIP phone for most voice calls )  As we discussed above, we went with Google’s Project Fi (only available for Nexus 6 phone owners) for $30, but with 10GBs of data and which includes unlimited domestic talk and text,unlimited international texts, low-cost international calls, Wi-Fi tethering and coverage in 120+ countries.   It is a compelling offering and includes some free gifts, including an external battery, Nexus 6 case and earbuds for sharing music.   We’ve received about $5 per month in unused data credit since September.