Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Absolute Cheapest (Even Free!) Cell Phone Plans, 2015 Edition

While your bill may not be $20k per month, you are almost
certainly paying way more for your cell phone than you should.

One of my most popular posts ever was my post last year on the cheapest (and yet still awesome) cell phone plans available in the US - many thousands of people read it, and many commented to thank me on it or add additional info. Since it's been about a year and there are new offers out there (and because I have more personal experience with some of the companies I'll tell you about), I figured it was time for an update, with the newest, best, and/or cheapest plans available right now, in April 2015!

First, the background:

Last year, I helped my parents and my wife cut the cord from the Death Star (i.e., AT&T Mobile) - prior to making the change, we were paying $200+ per month for two dumb phones and two smart phones on a family plan, and we didn't even have unlimited minutes. Now, my dad is paying about $0.50/month for his dumb phone plan, and my wife, my mom, and I are each paying $0/month for our smart phone plans - that's right, 100% free.

So, from $200 per month to $0.50 per month, for the four of us - that isn't a typo.

How much are you paying? If you're in the US, you're paying too much, and you're paying a lot more than the rest of the developed world is. The minimum service packages typically available in the USA do not come at a minimum price point:


Furthermore, US customers pay a lot more on average than customers in other advanced countries:


"But wait - surely we're getting more, if we're paying more, right?" you say. "Wrong," I reply. Here's a cost comparison that prices what the same level of usage would cost in each country:


So, you're paying a lot more for your cell phone than people in other countries are. What can you do about it?

I have done a lot of research into the current offerings out there, and I've found some really innovating pricing done by small companies - many of whom offer much, MUCH better deals than the big 4 in the USA (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint). As I don't want all that research and knowledge to go to waste, I figured I'd write an overview of what I found and detail the best cell phone deals available (as of April 2015) for a bunch of different consumer archetypes - the odds are that you fall into one of the below buckets, and the odds are that you can save A LOT of money compared to your current cell phone bill.

(Disclaimer: My wife, my mom, and I are all on FreedomPop, my dad is on LycaMobile, my father-in-law is on RingPlus, and my mother-in-law is on BYO Wireless. I was not paid any money by any company for this post, nor do I receive any referral fees. I detail any personal experiences with the companies I've had below; I have not had personal experiences with all the below-listed companies. Also, none of the below prices include possible taxes, fees, etc., so your monthly bill from any of them might be a little higher than detailed below - e.g., when I was on RingPlus's $10/month plan, my total bill was $12.15/month, which is pretty typical.)

All of the below plans are prepaid plans (as prepaid cell plans are far cheaper than contract plans), but that means that you have to pay full price for your phone up-front (I recommend buying a used or refurbished phone, as they are perfectly functional at a substantial discount). However, even paying full price for a phone, you'll be saving a lot of money over the course of a two year contract with one of the big companies. So, I don't want to hear any complaints about how much a phone costs. You're saving oodles of money in the long-run.

Alrighty, let's save you some serious money - and if you want to support the blog, feel free to donate a portion of your savings via PayPal via the email address in the upper right part of the page ;)

This Year's Winner: Free Service for Light/Moderate Smart Phone Users with Spring LTE Coverage: FreedomPop


My recommended plan: Their free plan - 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of 4G data for $0 per month. If you connect with your other friends on FreedomPop (or with other FreedomPop users via this Facebook group), you can get 50 extra MB per month per friend, up to 500MB additional free, per month. So, you can get up to 1GB of data free per month.
The Phone: In the past year, FreedomPop's phone choices have gone from pretty bad to quite good. FreedomPop will happily sell you a refurbished Samsung Galaxy S3 or S4 or an iPhone 5, or you can bring your own (fully-paid off) Sprint-compatible phone, if it's on this list. If you're bringing a phone that requires a SIM card, you'll need a Sprint CDMA SIM card, which is easiest to order from Ting, strangely enough. When they added my beloved Google Nexus 5 to their BYOD list, I jumped ship immediately from RingPlus to FreedomPop, to take my monthly cell phone bill down to $0. Note that bringing your own device does incur a one-time $20 activation fee.
The Good: Yes, Virginia, you can get totally free smart phone service, and it should be enough for you if you're a light/moderate user. The service works great anywhere that Sprint has an LTE signal, and Sprint is working hard to improve their network and expand their LTE coverage, so FreedomPop's coverage is only going to get better going forward. Due to their VOIP setup, FreedomPop calls, texts, and data also work anywhere there's a WiFi signal - not just a Sprint signal. If you set your phone up to do VOIP calls and texts over Google Hangouts instead of over FreedomPop's network (which is what I do), then you can have unlimited minutes and unlimited texts for free, as long as you don't go over your monthly free data allotment.
The Bad: It runs on Sprint's network, which, despite recent improvements, isn't be best network out there. FreedomPop's VOIP voice often fails to work on Sprint's 2G/3G network, which is why I only recommend FreedomPop if you live in an area with Sprint LTE. (Emergency calls go over Sprint's [or Verizon's] normal network, so that will always work anywhere there's any signal.) And if you live in an area covered by Sprint Spark (like me - I get 38Mbps down and 10Mbps up with a ping of 48ms - on Sprint!) and have a Sprint Spark-capable phone (I'd recommend the Google Nexus 5 or the LG G2), the service is really quite excellent. However, to some extent, you get what you pay for - though I've never had a problem bringing a device to FreedomPop, setup does require some technical savvy, and their customer service is rather slow. You also have to pay attention that FreedomPop doesn't add on extra (non-free) services, and you have to disable auto top-up in order to be sure to never be charged anything for your phone service. Finally, if you do go over your free allotment, their per-minute and per-megabyte charges are higher than the other options here (they've got to make money somehow, after all). There's also no roaming off of Sprint's network, but I see this as less of a problem, given that FreedomPop also works over WiFi.
The Verdict: I think FreedomPop definitely offers the best value of any of the plans on this page (which is why I'm now with them). With the greatly improved BYOD program, the availability of top-tier (if slightly dated) phones like the Google Nexus 5, LG G2, Samsung Galaxy S4, and iPhone 5, the ever-improving Sprint network, and up to 1GB of data per month for FREE, FreedomPop is a much bigger contender in this year's ranking, which is why I give FreedomPop my recommendation for most users out there (especially if paired with a great Sprint Spark phone like the Google Nexus 5 or LG G2), unless you use your phone a lot in an area with no Sprint LTE or WiFi, or if you REALLY need a TON of mobile data (but if you can get good-enough service for free, surely you can cut back a little on your data usage, no?).

[Post first-draft edit: Although most people that I have signed up for FreedomPop have had no problems with their service, it just wouldn't work for my father-in-law - neither his home internet connection nor the Sprint towers near his house seemed capable of maintaining a high-quality VOIP call over FreedomPop's network. So, I moved him and his Sprint phone to RingPlus, which is probably my second-favorite low-cost Sprint MVNO. If FreedomPop isn't working for you, try taking your Sprint phone to RingPlus - they offer a wide selection of low-cost plans and are a great carrier. Or, you could also try Ting (described below) - they're more expensive than RingPlus, but they have extras like voice and text roaming on Verizon.]

Dirt-Cheap Per-Minute Service for Grandma and Grandpa: LycaMobile


My recommended plan: Their pay as you go plan (5 cents per voice minute; 4 cents per text; 6 cents per megabyte of data.) Based on what I see in dad's account, it looks like incoming calls are still 2 cents per minute (their old pricing), while outgoing calls are now 5 cents per minute. [Note: last year, Lycamobile announced that top-ups would expire after 90 days regardless of use, but Lycamobile seems to have changed its mind, as that is no longer in their terms and conditions, and my dad's credit hasn't expired. But, they might decide to reinstate that policy - with prepaid phones, anything is possible.]
The Phone: Any unlocked GSM phone (i.e. any phone that is unlocked and compatible with AT&T or T-Mobile). These kinds of dumb phones can be bought used for $20 or less, or you may even have some of these lying around in a drawer somewhere.
The Good: Dirt-cheap per-minute cell phone service. LycaMobile is also the only prepaid service I know of where your credit doesn't expire after a certain period of time (e.g. after 30 or 90 days), as long as you make 1 phone call or send 1 text every 90 days. Since my dad only uses about 25 minutes per month, dad's monthly bill with LycaMobile is $0.50-$1 per month. Fantastic. LycaMobile uses T-Mobile's network (and it includes 4G access where available), so coverage is pretty good, especially in cities.
The Bad: The per-minute text and data rates are higher than some of the other options on this list, so I don't recommend this for a smart phone user. Also, even though their coverage is nationwide, you can only sign up if you have an address in a city. For example, my parents in rural Tennessee couldn't sign up for this plan directly - I had to have the SIM cards shipped to me in DC and had to sign them up with a DC phone number, though the service works fine for them in Tennessee.
The Verdict: This is a great plan for people like Grandma and Grandpa, who don't use many minutes, don't need much/any texting or data, and just want a simple dumb phone with very basic, cheap service. Other options (on the Sprint network, if you prefer that to T-Mobile) are with RingPlus - they have a $0.99/month plan with 10 minutes or a $1.99/month plan with 50 minutes.

Cheap, Unlimited Smart Phone Service (if you can live with Sprint's 3G): Republic Wireless


My recommended plan: Unlimited everything (including 3G only data) for $25/month.
The Phone: If you're going with the cheaper 3G plan, I'd recommend the Moto G for $149.
The Good: People say (I don't know from personal experience) that the service is good, and that the customer service is excellent. My brother is on Republic Wireless with a Moto G and is very pleased with his experience thus far. Republic does offer some roaming (you can check their coverage map), so it may even be a good option for those of you in more rural areas.
The Bad: I wouldn't say it's bad, but it is a reality of using Republic Wireless - they want you to connect to WiFi at home, work, and wherever else you can. When you're connected to WiFi, they route all your calls and data through WiFi, which is much cheaper for them. They consider WiFi to be your primary cell phone connection, and the actual cell service as a backup for when you're not near WiFi. Finally, I don't like the fact that I can't bring my own phone (e.g. my beloved Google Nexus 5).
The Verdict: If I had a teenager, this plan with the Moto G is almost certainly what I'd get for them - it's hard to argue with unlimited everything for $25, if you are content with Sprint 3G data speeds. Republic Wireless's roaming offers coverage in many areas not covered by the above companies that don't have roaming agreements. If you don't want/need mobile data, Republic Wireless also has a plan that is unlimited talk and text (but no mobile data) for $10/month.

Inexpensive, Unlimited Smart Phone Service (with Sprint's 4G LTE): Republic Wireless


My recommended plan: Unlimited everything (including up to 5GB of 4G LTE data) for $40/month.
The Phone: They will sell you a 2nd gen Moto X for $399 (which is a decent price for an excellent phone). Since the Moto G is 3G only, you have to have the Moto X for this plan.
The Good: The same as the above, with the addition of 4G LTE data (up to 5GB per month, and slowed after that).
The Bad: Same as the above.
The Verdict: An excellent option if you want an excellent phone and unlimited everything with 4G LTE service, without totally breaking your bank. Republic Wireless's roaming offers coverage in many areas not covered by the above companies that don't have roaming agreements.

Inexpensive (but metered) Service, with Free Voice and Text Roaming on Verizon: Ting


My recommended plan: There is only one plan, and it scales with your usage as detailed here.
The Phone: They have the largest variety of phones available for sale of any of the companies listed on this page, including recently-launched phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and others. You can also bring almost any Sprint phone, and I'd recommend buying a Google Nexus 5 or 6 from Google and taking it to Ting to use.
The Good: Huge variety of phones (and the ability to bring your own). People say (I don't know from personal experience) that the service is good, and that the customer service is excellent. Ting offers free voice and text roaming on Verizon, so they have voice and text (not data) coverage practically everywhere. Your monthly bill scales to your actual usage, so if you use very little in one month, your bill shrinks dramatically, and then goes back to normal the next month.
The Bad: They don't have any unlimited service plan options, and their service is way more expensive than FreedomPop's free service.
The Verdict: If you're not an extremely heavy cell phone user but want 4G (and/or want a wider selection of phones), Ting will likely save you money and will definitely offer you more phone options than Republic Wireless. They also offer the absolute newest phones, if you're not content with FreedomPop's slightly dated phones. If you're in rural America, their roaming deal with Verizon has you covered for voice and text, but not data. Ting also just a launched a GSM-based service on T-Mobile's network, but since T-Mobile's coverage is often worse than Sprint's, I can't really recommend their GSM service.

If You HATE Sprint but Want Loads of Data for Cheap: T-Mobile Monthly4G


My recommended plan: 100 Minutes, Unlimited Texts, and Unlimited Data (up to 5GB at 4G speeds) for $30/month.
The Phone: Any unlocked GSM phone will work, though obviously, you'd want one compatible with T-Mobile's 4G LTE service. Might I recommend the Google Nexus 5?
The Good: T-Mobile earns props for being the only company of the big 4 that earns a spot on my list at all, even if it is a bit of a niche plan. If you simply HATE Sprint irrationally (or if Sprint's coverage in your area is particularly bad), this plan is a cheap way to get lots of data.
The Bad: Very low number of minutes (not a problem for me, but a problem for some/many). This plan is only available from Wal-Mart or directly from t-mobile.com.
The Verdict: An excellent option for people who want lots of data and don't want to / can't use Sprint, and/or who already have an unlocked GSM smart phone they can use with this service. I had an out-of-contract Samsung Galaxy S2 from AT&T and used it on this plan for several months until the phone finally broke (when I replaced it with a Google Nexus 5 and switched to an even-cheaper RingPlus plan, and then to FreedomPop after that). However, I'll note that T-Mobile's coverage is often quite poor outside of cities.

LTE Data in Rural America: Page Plus Cellular


Good news for those of you who live in the middle of nowhere and simply HAVE to have 4G LTE data - this past year, Verizon finally opened up it's LTE network to a company other than Verizon, and that company is Page Plus Cellular. With Page Plus, you can get access to Verizon's LTE network for a good deal less than what Verizon charges. The downside to Page Plus is that the LTE speed is capped at 5 Mbps - while that's fast enough for most purposes, it's a lot slower than the 15+ Mbps you'd see on Verizon's LTE network or the 60+ Mbps you'd see on Verizon's XLTE network.

That said, Page Plus may be in the process of being shut down - so soon,  the only prepaid options for Verizon LTE (also at capped speeds like Page Plus) might be Straight Talk and TracFone. (/sarcasm/ I'm SURE it's just a coincidence, but the parent company for both Straight Talk and TracFone [which, also coincidentally, just launched LTE service on Verizon's network] recently bought Page Plus, so this probably has nothing to do with buying up and then shutting down a competitor. /sarcasm/). It will be a shame if Page Plus disappears, because it offers a much wider array of plans than either Straight Talk or TracFone.

Oh well - if you live in the middle of nowhere, you've got to take what you can get, I suppose, or give your first born child to Verizon.

Honorable Mention for Verizon Coverage on the Cheap: BYO Wireless


I'm sure some of you out there are like my mother-in-law, who lives in a rural area and wanted Verizon's coverage, but wanted to pay a lot less for it, particularly since she doesn't need unlimited minutes or much data. With BYO Wireless's CDMA network, you can bring your own non-LTE Verizon devices (e.g., an iPhone 4s) and get 2G and 3G Verizon coverage for cheap - for example, my mother-in-law is going with the 100 minutes, 100 texts, and 20MB of data plan for $5/month, or with the 250 minutes, 250 texts, and 50MB of data plan for $10/month on Verizon's network. There's no Verizon 4G with BYO Wireless, but there's no cheaper way to get coverage on Verizon's network, if that's a priority for you. Setup was very easy - just enter the IMEI of the phone, follow the instructions, make a phone call, and bam - my mother-in-law was up and running with the exact same service she had before in just 5 minutes, but she is now paying $5-10/month instead of $80/month. BYO Wireless also offers GSM coverage through T-Mobile's network (and that includes LTE), but I think their real value is in their low-cost access to Verizon's network. If you want a bit more data on Verizon but are still OK with 3G speeds, Red Pocket Mobile offers 300 minutes, unlimited texts, and 1GB of 3G data on Verizon for $20/month, which is also a pretty good deal.

So, that's what I found - have you found an even better deal? If so, let me know in the comments.

(FYI - the best list of all MVNOs available in the USA is probably this one right here - if you explore that list and find an awesome deal I that I overlooked, be sure to let me know in the comments.)

Also, the above obviously only applies to my American readers - but if you're from another country and have found a sweet cell phone deal, feel free to share that in the comments as well.

[Post first-draft edit/warning: Sprint has changed their system for how they check whether phones are eligible to be activated on a Sprint MVNO, and there are reports that Sprint is falsely rejecting a lot of phones for their MVNO services. So, to be safe, I'd recommend either buying your phone directly from either Google/Apple/Sprint or the company above that you want to do business with, OR get the seller (if you're buying a used phone via Ebay, Amazon, Craigslist, etc.) to send you the ESN of the phone they're selling before you buy so you can check to make sure it is able to activate via the Ting ESN checker, RingPlus ESN checker, or FreedomPop ESN checker. But, in the past couple of weeks, Sprint seems to have fixed most of the activation problems they were having, so I'm hoping this won't be much of an issue moving forward - but, I would still check the ESN of a phone before buying it.]

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Personal Update - Life Is Too Good to Be Blogging

You just keep on spinning, world - I'mma be riding the carousel at the Zoo.

Well, that was certainly unexpected - my last post to this blog went up about 10 months ago, and then I rather disappeared from the Internet.

Whoops.

I hadn't really planned on taking an extended blogging break, but that's obviously what's ended up happening. I don't really plan on starting to blog regularly again soon, but I wanted to take a minute to let everyone know that I am indeed not dead.

As you probably don't remember at this point, I moved from DC to Chattanooga, TN about 10 months ago, for two primary reasons:
  1. To be closer to family, since all of the Babycrat's grandparents live in TN and will NEVER, EVER, EVER move, and
  2. To have ridiculously fast internet.
(We were also sick of all of the compromises that DC was demanding of our family, but you can read about that in the separate post linked above.)

Granted, the first reason was the primary one for leaving DC and moving to TN, but the second reason was much of the motivation for settling in Chattanooga as opposed to Nashville, Knoxville, etc.

In spite of my wife's and my carefully cultivated self-image of excessively urbane, cultured people utterly discontent with life outside of a megalopolis, it has become embarrassingly obvious that the move was an extremely good one for our family, for any huge host of reasons:

The Babycrat gets to see her grandparents MUCH more often, which is good for her and for them.

Everything is cheaper. And TN has no state income tax (which is bad for the State and most people in it, but good for us personally).

We just DO much more stuff together than we used to do in DC. The Babycrat and I go to the Zoo or the Aquarium once a week or so, and we have a marvelous time together - we never would have done that so often in DC, given the sheer effort that it takes in DC to do anything with a child.

We also go wander our little downtown and/or go to the park at least once a week (usually more often), and the Babycrat loves going to Happy Hour with me (she has fries while I have a beer). Can you imaging taking a toddler to Happy Hour in DC? Ha, yeah, right. But here, the Babycrat and I are celebrities at our local bar.

We take the time to go out to eat more often - I do miss the world-class restaurants in DC, but due to the expense and kid-hostile atmosphere in those DC restaurants, we almost never went out to eat in DC anyway.

We are renting a house - a whole house, just for our little family, with a porch and a yard and trees and everything. And we're talking seriously about buying a house in an excellent school district, and it's not going to cost us everything we have and everything we can borrow and steal from family members.

No traffic jams practically ever (except for a few miles of I-24 during afternoon rush hour, but that is very easily avoided).

Cheap professional baseball - we went to several Chattanooga Lookouts games last summer for a whopping $5 per adult. I plan on going to MANY games this summer with the Babycrat. I lived across the street from Nationals Stadium in DC, but I only occasionally went to games, due to the expense.

Although we live in downtown Chattanooga, utter wilderness is only a 5 minute drive from our house - and when we go there, there aren't very many other people there with us.

I also get to see my brother in Atlanta more other than just at Christmas and our annual fishing trip, so that's an added bonus.

Have I mentioned the crazy fast Internet? It's great for (my now 100% remote) work, but also for tons of other things - everything online is absolutely instantaneous.

So ... life has just been too good to be spending time blogging about what's wrong with the world - there are a lot of people who are paid to do that, so there's no need for me to do so in my spare time. Over the past 400 or so posts, I've laid out a pretty comprehensive view of what I think the world should look like, so I'm not sure there's much to add on that front. The Republican Party continues to do all kinds of dumb things that make the rich richer in the short-term but harm everyone else (and the country, environment, future generations, etc.) in the short- and long-term - but again, there are plenty of other people documenting that.

What's left for me as a blogger then? I'm not sure - I'll definitely keep the blog up, continue to respond to comments, and post new things as the mood strikes, but I probably won't be blogging again regularly for a while - there's just too much in life to enjoy right now.

In the next couple of weeks, I'll be updating my 2014 post on the best cell phone plan deals for 2015, but other than that kind of stuff, I'm not sure what to write about. Any suggestions? I'm also happy to have guest writers (or even have someone else take over more frequent posting, if there's someone out there who's interested in such things). If that's you, you can shoot me an email at the address to the upper right.

So, I'll catch you in a couple of weeks, if not before.

-The Angry Bureaucrat

Sunday, May 4, 2014

One Very Good Reason to Move to Chattanooga - 1Gbps Internet To My House

So, we are safely ensconced in our new house in Chattanooga - it's all over except for the unpacking. Posting will probably continue to be sparse while we finish the unpacking and settling in, and then I hope to get back into a more regular blogging rhythm.

But, I wanted to share a quick thought with you. Aside from being closer to family (which was the primary reason we moved to Chattanooga), here is another very good reason to move to Chattanooga - these are the internet speeds TO MY HOUSE:


That's just shy of 100x faster than the Comcast connection I had in DC (download speed only; the upload speed is about 300x faster). Granted, FiOS had just launched in our DC neighborhood 2 months prior to us moving out, which would have been a big improvement over Comcast - with FiOS, I could have gotten 500Mbps down / 100Mbps up ... for $305/month. Here, I get 1Gbps down / 1Gbps up for $70/month.

Wicked.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Good-Bye DC - I'm Dumping You, and It's Not Me, It's You

So long, DC, and thanks for all the fish.

I mentioned a month ago, when I came back from my work-and-life imposed blogging break, that I had a major announcement that I'd be making relatively soon - well, that day has come.

DC, I'm breaking up with you. And sorry, but it's not me - it's you.

Now, stop throwing things at me and let me explain. It's not that I dislike you now, or that we haven't had lots of fun together these past 4 years. Back in 2010, when I graduated from grad school into a terrible economy, you were just about the only place in the country with a deep job market for educated people like me, thanks to the eternal demand created by the federal government - and for that, I'm thankful.

You're a lively, vibrant city with tons to offer young professionals like me - lots to see and do, an ever-improving restaurant and bar scene, music for all tastes and styles, tons of cultural activities, perhaps the most under-appreciated theatre scene in the entire United States, and much more.

But, I've grown and changed - and while you've changed, you haven't grown in the same way I have.

Let's be honest - you are a TERRIBLE place to try to raise a family. This is my biggest beef with you, and why I simply must break it off. You see, I now have this child that I have to care for, and she is a rather demanding little creature. Sure, you say that you have lots of parks and the like, but it's at least a 15 minute walk through your concrete jungle and lots of traffic if I want to put my daughter on a patch of grass to play. And though my job is relatively family friendly, the general work-addicted culture of DC isn't child-friendly. And everyone stares us at us like we're insane whenever we try to take our kid to any restaurant in DC - children generally aren't welcome in public in DC outside of parks and other kid-only designated spaces; at least, that's the way I feel.

And schools - we have a few years before this becomes central to our lives, but oh God, your schools, DC, where to even start. If I want to get the Babycrat into a good school in DC, I only have 4 options to do so, all of which suck:
  1. Move to the suburbs. This is what most people with kids do. There, I might be able to find a modest, small house with a small yard for around $350k that's in a good school district. The trade-off is that my new hour+ commute will make me want to kill myself daily.
  2. Spend $900k+ to buy a tiny house in a rich neighborhood in NW where there is a history of having good schools. Do you know how many houses I can buy for $900k in a little town in the Northeastern USA with some of the best schools in the country? 4. Big ones. 4 big houses, for the same price as a tiny house in NW DC.
  3. Spend $600k+ to buy a tiny/moderate sized house in NE DC in a neighborhood with a newly decent school, and hope and pray that my house isn't rezoned into the crappy school district a couple of blocks away.
  4. Spend $20k+ per year per kid on private school tuition.
Well, you know what, DC? That's beyond ridiculous - I'm not going to do it, so I'm out.

And I'm sick of your traffic. Good lord, your traffic - the worst in the entire USA, by some measures. And the congestion along my street has gotten noticeably worse in the past 4 years. I just can't take it anymore. Experts (and anyone with any common sense) say that the congestion is only going to get worse in the coming decades - well, I refuse to be around to see it.

Oh, and I hate the Comcast monopoly that you live under - you have an ultra-fast public Internet network - why not let the DC citizens enjoy the use of it?

Let's be honest, DC - ever since my daughter was born, the only thing keeping us together has been the fact that my job kept me anchored to you, like a medieval prisoner to his ball-and-chain. Recently, however, my job decided to let me become a full-time teleworker and choose where I'm going to live and work - so I'm taking them up on their offer and dumping you.

So, my family and I are off to live in Chattanooga, TN for a few years, while the Babycrat is still young, so she can spend much more time with her grandparents (and so her grandparents can help us out with raising her, and with raising any possible future children, should such children materialize). When the Babycrat needs to enter school (because, let's face it, Tennessee schools aren't much/any better than your schools, DC), then we'll likely set our sights on settling in Burlington, VT or somewhere outside Boston, where it's possible to buy a house in a district with world-class schools for less than $900k. Or perhaps we'll buy 4 houses, just for the hell of it.

I don't mean for this to sound unkind - you've been very good to us for the past 4 years, and I have greatly enjoyed (most of) the time we've spent together. I've grown up and matured, however, and you've just grown - and you're just demanding too many compromises of me (and too much money from me) for me to stick around.

But don't worry - I'll be back often enough, and I'm sure we'll stay friends.

(A note to my readers: even though I'll be leaving DC, this blog will soldier on, though perhaps at the more leisurely posting rate of late, rather than the 1-2 posts per day at the outset of the blog. I'm also happy to entertain guest posts, if you have a screed you want to share with my other readers.)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Your Cell Phone Costs Too Much - Here's the Best (Cheapest) Plan for You

[Announcement: There is an updated 2015 version of this post with additional and more current information available by clicking this link.]

While your bill may not be $20k per month, you are almost
certainly paying way more for your cell phone than you should.

Very recently, I helped my parents and my wife cut the cord from the Death Star (i.e., AT&T Mobile) - prior to making the change, we were paying $200+ per month for two dumb phones and two smart phones on a family plan, and we didn't even have unlimited minutes. Now, my parents are each paying about $2/month for their dumb phone plans, and my wife and I are each paying $10/month for our smart phone plans.

So, from $200 per month to $25 per month, for the four of us.

How much are you paying? If you're in the US, you're paying too much, and you're paying a lot more than the rest of the developed world is:


As a part of this change, I did a lot of research into the current offerings out there, and found some really innovating pricing done by small companies - many of whom offer much, MUCH better deals than the big 4 in the USA (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint). As I don't want all that research and knowledge to go to waste, I figured I'd write an overview of what I found and detail the best cell phone deal available (as of March 2014) for a bunch of different consumer archetypes - the odds are that you fall into one of the below buckets, and the odds are that you can save A LOT of money compared to your current cell phone bill.

(Disclaimer: My wife and I are both on RingPlus, and my parents are on LycaMobile. I was not paid any money by any company for this post, nor do I receive any referral fees. I detail any personal experiences with the companies I've had below; I have not had personal experiences with all the below-listed companies. Also, none of the below prices include possible taxes, fees, etc., so your monthly bill from any of them might be a little higher than detailed below.)

All of the below plans are prepaid plans (as prepaid cell plans are far cheaper than contract plans), but that means that you have to pay full price for your phone up-front. However, even paying full price for a phone, you'll be saving a lot of money over the course of a two year contract with one of the big companies. So, I don't want to hear any complaints about how much a phone costs. You're saving money in the long-run.

Free (but Questionable) Service for Light/Moderate Smart Phone Users in Big Cities: FreedomPop


My recommended plan: Their free plan - 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of 4G data for $0 per month.
The Phone: A refurbished Samsung Galaxy S2, currently available from them for $160. A decent, if dated phone - I used a Samsung Galaxy S2 happily for more than 2 years, and would have kept using it if I hadn't broken it. They also have very limited bring your own phone options (so limited as to be almost worthless, but they say they're working on that - but, they've been "working on" that for several months now).
The Good: Yes, Virginia, you can get totally free smart phone service, and it should be enough for you if you're a light/moderate user. I have a wireless 4G hotspot from FreedomPop, and it works well enough and is indeed 100% free.
The Bad: It runs on Sprint's network, which isn't be best network out there. And to some extent, you get what you pay for. I tried their free phone service when it first launched with an HTC Evo 4G, and it was so bad that I couldn't use it day-to-day - but, I'm not sure how much of that was the service quality, and how much was the extremely old cell phone. I'm sure the service is much better with the Samsung Galaxy S2. Their customer service is rather slow. I'm also relatively certain that you can only sign up with FreedomPop if you live in a city with Sprint 4G service, but someone can correct me there if I'm wrong. (The phone works nationwide on Sprint, however - it's just for the initial setup/shipping that you need a city address.) Finally, if you do go over your free allotment, their per-minute and per-megabyte charges are higher than the other options here (they've got to make money somehow, after all).
The Verdict: It might be a great option for you, especially with the Samsung Galaxy S2 - free is free, after all. And if their service is too bad for you, they offer a 30 day money back guarantee on the phone you buy.

Dirt-Cheap Per-Minute Service for Grandma and Grandpa: LycaMobile


My recommended plan: Their pay as you go plan (2 cents per voice minute; 4 cents per text; 6 cents per megabyte of data.)
The Phone: Any unlocked GSM phone (i.e. any phone that is unlocked and compatible with AT&T or T-Mobile). These kinds of dumb phones can be bought used for $20 or less, or you may even have some of these lying around in a drawer somewhere.
The Good: Dirt-cheap per-minute cell phone service. LycaMobile is also the only prepaid service I know of where your credit doesn't expire after a certain period of time (e.g. after 30 or 90 days), as long as you make 1 phone call or send 1 text every 90 days. Therefore, as my parents only use about 60 minutes per month, their monthly bill with LycaMobile is approximately $1.20 per month. Fantastic. LycaMobile uses T-Mobile's network (and it includes 4G access where available), so coverage is pretty good, especially in cities.
The Bad: The per-minute text and data rates are higher than some of the other options on this list, so I don't recommend this for a smart phone user, except for people who are VERY light users. Also, even though their coverage is nationwide, you can only sign up if you have an address in a city. For example, my parents in rural Tennessee couldn't sign up for this plan directly - I had to have the SIM cards shipped to me in DC and had to sign them up with a DC phone number, though the service has worked fine for them in Tennessee for the past few months.
The Verdict: It is far and away the best plan for people like Grandma and Grandpa, who don't use many minutes and don't need much/any texting or data.

Reliable Service for Light/Moderate Smart Phone Users: RingPlus


My recommended plan: Their $10/month Bella plan (400 minutes, 400 texts, and 300MB of 3G/4G/LTE data). This is the plan that both my wife and I are on.
The Phone: Almost any Sprint phone. If you want the newest, top-of-the-line phone, I'd recommend a Google Nexus 5 (costs $349 and up - be sure to buy it straight from Google. To use a Google Nexus 5, you'll also need a Sprint LTE SIM card, available here for $10). If you're content with merely a great phone instead of the absolute best, the best smart phone deal available now is a used Samsung Galaxy S3 for $175. The S3 was made even more awesome recently because of Samsung's announcement that they'd be releasing Android 4.4 for the S3 sometime, so eventually, you'll even be able to run the newest Android version.
The Good: Excellent, reliable service anywhere that Sprint is available. RingPlus's customer service is very good. Per-minute, per-text, and per-megabyte rates are all quite low (2 cents each), so even if you go over your monthly allotment, your monthly bill won't explode.
The Bad: RingPlus doesn't offer roaming on any other networks, so the service only works where Sprint has towers. This is fine in cities and along highways, but if you live in a very rural area, this service is probably a bad choice for you.
The Verdict: Undoubtedly the best smart phone service deal for light/moderate users, if FreedomPop doesn't meet your needs (either because you want a newer phone, or because you find their service too unreliable). If you combine RingPlus's service with a used S3, it's probably my favorite smart phone deal available right now, unless you need unlimited everything.

Cheap, Unlimited Smart Phone Service (if you can live with Sprint's 3G): Republic Wireless


My recommended plan: Unlimited everything (including 3G only data) for $25/month.
The Phone: They will sell you a Moto X for $299 (which is a decent price for an excellent phone - second only to the Google Nexus 5, in my opinion). They're about to launch the Moto G for $149 as well, if you are happy with a nice but more modest spec sheet.
The Good: People say (I don't know from personal experience) that the service is good, and that the customer service is excellent. They offer some roaming (you can check their coverage map), so it may even be a good option for those of you in more rural areas.
The Bad: I wouldn't say it's bad, but it is a reality of using Republic Wireless - they want you to connect to WiFi at home, work, and wherever else you can. When you're connected to WiFi, they route all your calls and data through WiFi, which is much cheaper for them. They consider WiFi to be your primary cell phone connection, and the actual cell service as a backup for when you're not near WiFi. Finally, I don't like the fact that I can't bring my own phone (e.g. my new, beloved Google Nexus 5).
The Verdict: If I had a teenager, this plan with the Moto G is almost certainly what I'd get for them - it's hard to argue with unlimited everything for $25, if you are content with Sprint 3G data speeds. Republic Wireless's roaming offers coverage in many areas not covered by the above companies that don't have roaming agreements.

Inexpensive, Unlimited Smart Phone Service (with Sprint's 4G LTE): Republic Wireless


My recommended plan: Unlimited everything (including up to 5GB of 4G LTE data) for $40/month.
The Phone: They will sell you a Moto X for $299 (which is a decent price for an excellent phone - second only to the Google Nexus 5, in my opinion). Since the Moto G is 3G only, you have to have the Moto X for this plan.
The Good: The same as the above, with the addition of 4G LTE data (up to 5GB per month, and slowed after that).
The Bad: Same as the above.
The Verdict: An excellent option if you want an excellent phone and unlimited everything with 4G LTE service, without totally breaking your bank. Republic Wireless's roaming offers coverage in many areas not covered by the above companies that don't have roaming agreements.

Inexpensive (but metered) Service, with Free Voice and Text Roaming on Verizon: Ting


My recommended plan: There is only one plan, and it scales with your usage as detailed here.
The Phone: They have the largest variety of phones available for sale of any of the companies listed on this page, including just-launched phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, HTC One, and others. You can also bring almost any Sprint phone, and I'd recommend buying a Google Nexus 5 from Google and taking it to Ting to use.
The Good: Huge variety of phones (and the ability to bring your own). People say (I don't know from personal experience) that the service is good, and that the customer service is excellent. Ting offers free voice and text roaming on Verizon, so they have voice and text (not data) coverage practically everywhere. Your monthly bill scales to your actual usage, so if you use very little in one month, your bill shrinks dramatically, and then goes back to normal the next month.
The Bad: They don't have any unlimited service plan options.
The Verdict: If you're not an extremely heavy cell phone user but want 4G (and/or want a wider selection of phones), Ting will likely save you money and will definitely offer you more phone options than Republic Wireless. If you're in rural America, their roaming deal with Verizon has you covered for voice and text, but not data.

If You HATE Sprint but Want Loads of Data for Cheap: T-Mobile Monthly4G


My recommended plan: 100 Minutes, Unlimited Texts, and Unlimited Data (up to 5GB at 4G speeds) for $30/month.
The Phone: Any unlocked GSM phone will work, though obviously, you'd want one compatible with T-Mobile's 4G LTE service. Might I recommend the Google Nexus 5?
The Good: T-Mobile earns props for being the only company of the big 4 that earns a spot on my list at all, even if it is a bit of a niche plan. If you simply HATE Sprint irrationally (or if Sprint's coverage in your area is particularly bad), this plan is a cheap way to get lots of data.
The Bad: Very low number of minutes (not a problem for me, but a problem for some/many). This plan is only available from Wal-Mart or directly from t-mobile.com.
The Verdict: An excellent option for people who want lots of data and don't want to / can't use Sprint, and/or who already have an unlocked GSM smart phone they can use with this service. I had an out-of-contract Samsung Galaxy S2 from AT&T and used it on this plan for several months until the phone finally broke (when I replaced it with a Google Nexus 5 and switched to the even-cheaper RingPlus plan).

If You Simply MUST Have an iPhone: Virgin Mobile USA


As you may have noticed, most of the companies listed on this page run their networks through Sprint. Unfortunately, Sprint recently changed it's "bring your own device" rules for most of the small companies that run their service on Sprint's network, so you can no longer activate Sprint iPhones with most of these companies. If you're addicted to Apple products, I would recommend that you free yourself from your addiction, as Android or PC products offer more bang for your buck than Apple products. But, if you simply MUST have your iPhone fix, you can buy a new iPhone 5s (surprisingly cheaply, actually - $385 as of the time of writing) from Virgin Mobile USA (which uses Sprint's network). All of their plans offer unlimited data and texting, and you get 300 minutes for $35, 1200 minutes for $45, and unlimited minutes for $55 a month. I had Virgin Mobile USA for more than a year back when the 300 minute bucket was only $25 a month, and it was decent enough, though the customer service was rather mediocre.

LTE Data in Rural America: You're Screwed (For Now)


If you live in the middle of nowhere and simply HAVE to have 4G LTE data, paying full price for Verizon is your only option - unlike Sprint and T-Mobile (and, to a smaller extent, AT&T), Verizon doesn't give any small company access to its LTE network. If I were you, I'd get over my need for LTE data and go with Republic Wireless or Ting, but if you have to have LTE data in rural America, then you have no choice but to go with Verizon. Sorry - it sucks to be you. But, there may be some hope on the horizon - T-Mobile recently announced that they would be upgrading all of their 2G service to 4G LTE by mid-2015, so if you can hold out another year, then either LycaMobile or T-Mobile's own prepaid service will be heading your way.

So, that's what I found - have you found an even better deal? If so, let me know in the comments.

Also, the above obviously only applies to my American readers - but if you're from another country and have found a sweet cell phone deal, feel free to share that in the comments as well.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Public Service Announcement: The NFL Is a Registered Non-Proft Corporation

In the above picture, the Saint represents the NFL, and the Bear represents taxpayers.

I meant to post this back during football season, but, well, life got in the way. Better late than never, I suppose.

I guess I should stop being surprised by news like this, but I was truly surprised to learn
  1. that the NFL is a registered non-profit organization, and
  2. that in spite of earning billions of dollars a year, it manages to squeeze millions (and even billions) of dollars in public subsidies from taxpayers.
What kind of nonsense is the NFL up to? Well, let me quote the linked Atlantic article:
Though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to be an anti-spending conservative, each year the state of Louisiana forcibly extracts up to $6 million from its residents’ pockets and gives the cash to [New Orleans Saints owner Tom] Benson as an “inducement payment”—the actual term used—to keep Benson from developing a wandering eye.
 Or this:
CenturyLink Field, where the Seattle Seahawks play, opened in 2002, with Washington State taxpayers providing $390 million of the $560 million construction cost. The Seahawks, owned by Paul Allen, one of the richest people in the world, pay the state about $1 million annually in rent in return for most of the revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and broadcasting (all told, perhaps $200 million a year). Average people are taxed to fund Allen’s private-jet lifestyle.
In addition to all of that, the NFL is a registered non-profit - a non-profit that pays its top five executives $60 million a year and sucks in billions in public subsidies, and then gives itself huge props when it returns a few hundred thousand dollars to the communities that it's fleecing.

It would be farcical, except for the fact that the NFL is taking money away from schools, hospitals, and roads:
The NFL asked Congress to grant pro football a waiver from the disclosure rule. During the lobbying battle, Joe Browne, then the league’s vice president for public affairs, told The New York Times, “I finally get to the point where I’m making 150 grand, and they want to put my name and address on the [disclosure] form so the lawyer next door who makes a million dollars a year can laugh at me.” Browne added that $150,000 does not buy in the New York area what it would in “Dubuque, Iowa.” The waiver was denied. Left no option, the NFL revealed that at the time, Browne made about $2 million annually.
Crikey. Well, I guess that's another reason for me to never give the NFL a dime of my money, and to not give them money though advertisers by watching their games. But seriously - the NFL is profitable enough to survive (and thrive) without all of these public dollars. And the same applies to the NBA and MLB. At what point does greed become a shameful sin?

And from a rational, cost-benefit perspective, this seems like really bad public policy, very much like the terribly public policy of providing public subsidies to TV and movie producers, which I've written about before. There's really no excuse for such bad public policy.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

An Unforgiving Breakdown of the Obscene Amount of Sugar Americans Consume

One of the things I was involved in during my multi-month break was working on the new regulations recently announced by the White House that will limit the marketing of unhealthy foods in schools.

In that vein, I give you a friendly reminder:

Sugar is terrible for you. Awful, terrible, stuff. Eating more than a very small amount of it will slowly (or less slowly) kill you.

This infograpic is a start look at how much sugar we collectively consume, and what it's doing to us. It's bad, bad stuff, doing bad bad things: