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Prepaid GSM In The U.S.

GSM TowerA while ago, Luca Filigheddu asked me about prepaid mobile phone options in the U.S.. I wrote up a short email explaining it to him, and I thought a more comprehensive work piece on the subject as in order.

I’m only covering the two major GSM carriers in the U.S.: AT&T and T-Mobile. There are a number of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that make use of GSM, but I am not going to cover them. In some cases, you might find a slightly better deal with these MVNOs, but they typically only include voice and SMS service, no data service whatsoever.

I also realize that the CDMA carriers, especially those that are MVNOs, might even have better deals. I have no experience with them, nor do I want to do anything to encourage the use of CDMA. They’re not being covered.

One thing to keep in mind here in the U.S.: you pay for both incoming calls and SMS, unlike most of the rest of the world. You will need to factor that into your calculations for how many minutes you’ll need.

Details after the jump.

AT&T GoPhone

GOphoneAT&T’s prepaid offering is called GoPhone. They offer two varieties of plans: a conventional prepaid model where you buy your minutes upfront and use them until they’re gone (“Pay As You Go”) or what looks like a normal contract plan (“Pick Your Plan”) sans the contract. Your credit card is auto-billed a particular amount of money each month under the Pick Your Plan and you can add a certain number of extras (like text messages or unlimited data).

The Pay As You Go offering also has two choices: you can either pay $0.25 a minute for calls, or you can pay $1.00 per day where your phone is used and only $0.10 a minute for calls to non-AT&T customers. Calls to other AT&T mobile phones are “mobile to mobile” and are free. You can buy minutes in denominations of up to $100 and the $100 card has a one year expiration.

The main problem with Pay As You Go, aside from the high per-minute rate on one of the plans, is that there aren’t nearly the same data choices as you get on the Pick Your Plan plans. You are able to purchase unlimited data on Pick Your Plan plans, whereas on Pay As You Go, you can only buy 1mb or 5mb of data for 30 days. If you have a compatible HSDPA handset, you can use data service at 3G speeds for no additional charge!

SMS can be purchased in packages on the Pick Your Plan, but not on the Pay As You Go side, where you pay $0.15 a message, inbound or outbound. This should increase to $0.20 a message in March 2008. Instead of per-message charges, you can buy packages of messages.

AT&T has a fairly large GSM network. On the Pay As You Go plans, you can only use AT&T-owned towers. On the Pick Your Plan, you are allowed to roam on AT&T’s domestic roaming partners.

T-Mobile To Go

tmobiletogo_med.jpgT-Mobile To Go is what my wife and her parents are using. It is a conventional prepaid offering where you buy your minutes upfront and they are good for a particular period of time. Once you’ve purchased $100 worth of airtime over the lifetime of your account, all purchases below $100 are given “bonus” time and a 1 year expiration date.

T-Mobile doesn’t offer any “plans” for use of text messages or data service, though they have a special deal if you have a Sidekick. In this case, you can get unlimited data and text messages for $1 a day plus $0.15/minute for voice calls. Why they don’t offer this plan to non-Sidekick users, I don’t know.

While there are no packages for SMS, T-Mobile’s prepaid SMS rates are reasonable: $0.10 to send, $0.05 to receive. Their post-paid plans aren’t even that good!

T-Mobile gives you limited access to the web from your device as part of your service (a.k.a. t-zones), but it is heavily filtered for things outside of web usage. This is included as part of their prepaid offering at no charge.

The main issue with T-Mobile is their network is smaller than AT&T’s. They also do not offer roaming in most non-T-Mobile areas. Check the coverage map before signing up!

Which Is Right For You?

Neither option is particularly good, if you ask me. These prepaid services only seem to focus on voice and SMS, though T-Mobile’s offering is far simpler than AT&T’s convoluted multiple offerings. Reasonably-priced prepaid data services are only available in particular situations. I’d love to see a data add-on for the pay-per-minute crowd on both T-Mobile and AT&T.

Run the numbers and the coverage maps to see what is going to work best for you!


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Parent, Writer, Podcaster, Coffee Achiever, VoIP/Telco Curious, C-List Information Security Celebrity, and Mobile Phone Connoisseur residing in Gig Harbor WA US. Sometimes NSFW, always a 49ers fan.