Monday, March 24, 2014

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

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.

26 comments:

  1. Great write up. I would prefer the framily plan from Sprint.

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    1. Anonymous: Thanks for pointing out Sprint's Framily plan - it's definitely one of the better offers available from the big 4, but I think the number of people for whom it's really the best/cheapest choice is small (but, you may be among those small number of people). For the Framily plan to be better for you than one of the above plans, EVERY PERSON in your Framily will have to fulfill ALL of the below criteria:

      1. You have to have at least 7 members in your Framily to get the per-line price down to $25 (which includes 1GB of data per line). Personally, I think I would have difficulty finding 5 other people to agree to move to Sprint with my wife and me, but perhaps other people would find that less difficult.

      2. You use your smart phone a ton and need unlimited everything (if you don't need unlimited everything, RingPlus or Ting will almost certainly be a better deal for you), or you talk/text a ton but don't use much data and are content with 1GB/month per line.

      3. You HAVE to have 4G LTE data, and you live in a place with Sprint 4G LTE service (otherwise, Republic Wireless's unlimited everything plan with 3G data will be a better deal for you).

      4. You simply MUST have the latest and greatest phone all the time, are disciplined enough to take advantage of the yearly upgrade option, and get a new phone every year (this also assumes that you're paying the extra $20/month for unlimited data and annual upgrades). Otherwise, Republic Wireless's unlimited everything with 4G is probably a better deal for you.

      If there is even one person in your Framily who doesn't fulfill all of the above criteria, then being in a Framily probably isn't be best idea for them, and they should go with one of the plans in the post, which would then increase the price for everyone else in the Framily.


      (An exception to the above is if EVERYONE in your Framily simply MUST have an iPhone - then the Framily plan might still be the best option even if ALL of the above criteria don't apply to every person in the Framily, since it's more difficult to find cheap prepaid options that support iPhones.)

      So, I agree that the Sprint Framily plan may be a good idea for a select niche of people - but I'm guessing that, for most people, one of the plans in the post is still the best way to go.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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    2. Have you checked out AIO/Cricket, ATT network, SIM card $9.99, most high end flagship phones offered Iphone 5 Samsung 4, Google nexus, $35 unlimted with 500MB data tota cost (all fee's included) For another $10 you get unlimted and 2.5 GB. Customer service is excellent, device selection for smartphones is the best.

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    3. Anonymous: I did look at AIO/Cricket when putting this post together, and I just didn't think their plans were as good as the ones I listed above. For most people, if they don't need unlimited everything, then LycaMobile, RingPlus, or Ting will probably save them a lot of money over AIO/Cricket, and if they do need unlimited everything, then (at least in my opinion) Republic Wireless offers better value for money than AIO/Cricket. And Republic Wireless offers a super-high-end Moto X for half the price of a high-end phone from AIO/Cricket.

      But, if you need unlimited everything, simply MUST have an iPhone, and HATE/can't use Sprint (which I think is probably not very many people), then perhaps AIO/Cricket is worth a look - but I'm pretty sure you'd get more bang for your buck with one of the plans above.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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  2. Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your research. I'm a single parent (recent widow) with two young adult daughters. I've been trying very hard to meet my financial obligations...my kids are 22 and 27 whom I still help out because they are recent graduates and are paying their student loans and living expenses. Since they were teenagers I've helped them by paying their phone bills for which I have the ATT family plan. With only one income now it's been very difficult for me to continue to help them. As a result of that I started surfing the net for a possible solution and I found your article, so thanks again. I'm still trying to figure out what company/plan will work for our family, like you state, we all have different needs. My oldest for example would need unlimited everything! while my youngest and I would go from: moderate to light use. Thank God I don't have to worry about my two younger ones until they turn 18, because that's when they will be getting their cell phones no sooner than that. LOL THANKS AGAIN!

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    2. Anonymous: Glad to hear that it helped - good luck as you make your decisions!

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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  3. Have you looked at airvoicewireless $10 plan? Looks good too....

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    1. Anonymous: Airvoice Wireless's $10 plan isn't terrible, but it's not nearly as good as RingPlus's $10 plan. With Airvoice, $10 gets you 250 minutes OR 500 messages OR 150MB of data, or some combination thereof. Essentially, you're paying for $10 of credit, and minutes are 4 cents, texts 2 cents, and 1 MB of data 6.6 cents.

      Compare that with RingPlus, where $10 gets you 400 minutes AND 400 texts AND 300MB of data - MUCH more for your $10. Plus, RingPlus gives you access to Sprint's LTE network.

      While Airvoice runs on AT&T's network (which is generally better than Sprint's), Airvoice doesn't give you access to AT&T's LTE network.

      So, RingPlus gives you much more for your $10, plus access to LTE - a much better deal, in my opinion.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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  4. How do you think Scratch Wireless compares? (Thanks so much for this!!!) We're dumb phone users on our parents' plans needing to get on our own and get new phones (ours are dead and deader) but spend as little as possible.

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    1. Allexis: I looked at Scratch Wireless when they first launched, and I was relatively unimpressed. They'll sell you a Motorola Photon Q for $269, and then talk/text/data is free, but you can only use the phone on WiFi. They also sell what they call "passes" if you need access to the cell network - $2 for 30 min or 25MB of data in 24 hours, or $15 for 250 min or 200MB of data in 30 days.

      Personally, I would go with Republic Wireless over Scratch Wireless. Republic Wireless will sell you a MUCH nicer phone (the Moto G) for less money ($149).

      Republic charges $5/month for their WiFi-only phone plan, while Scratch charges $0 - so, Scratch wins on that front. However, Scratch's prices for access to the cell network, if you need it, are RIDICULOUSLY high.

      If you're on Republic's $5/month WiFi-only plan and go on a trip or something where you need cell access temporarily, you can switch over to their $10/month (unlimited talk/text) or $25/month (unlimited talk/text/data) for a few days or a week, and then switch back - and you'll probably have saved money over Scratch's incredibly inflated cell prices.

      And, Republic has a proven track record and excellent customer service, while Scratch is still very new.

      So, on balance, I'd go with Republic over Scratch - much better phone for less money, very cheap (though not free) WiFi-only service, easy (and cheap) to increase your level of service temporarily if needed, and proven customer service.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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  5. My wife and I are on the republic wireless $10/plan which is better than any of the other plans you mentioned. Unlimited calls and texts. Data is through Wi-Fi. Just want to make sure you covered all the best deals.

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    1. Anonymous: You're right, I probably should have included that plan somewhere in my post, since it's a good one - I just didn't think that it would be very attractive to many of my readers, since that plan includes no mobile data.

      (That's why I like my $10 RingPlus plan better - it includes data, and I can use my Google Nexus 5 with RingPlus instead of having to buy one of Republic's phones.)

      But, the $10 Republic plan is definitely a great one for some people.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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    2. Thanks for your explanation. That makes sense.

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  6. I have been considering a TracPhone. Do you have any information on these?

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    1. Anonymous: I would HIGHLY recommend against going with TracPhone. The phones they sell are TERRIBLE - I would recommend that you buy a Moto G from Republic Wireless and get either the unlimited talk and text plan ($10/month) or the unlimited talk/text/data plan, if you need mobile data ($25/month) - it will be MUCH cheaper and MUCH nicer than TracPhone if you do anything more than minimal calling/texting.

      And if all you do is minimal calling/texting, I'd recommend LycaMobile's pay-as-you-go plan (described above in the post) - it will be cheaper over the long run than any of TracPhone's pay-as-you-go plans.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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    2. Straight talk is the best!

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    3. Anonymous: I'm definitely going to have to disagree with you about Straight Talk being the best. I would definitely go with Republic's Unlimited $10 or $25 plan over any of Straight Talk's plans (which start at $45).

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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  7. It looks like LycaMobile is no longer offering the pay as you go plan, unfortunately.

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    1. Cathie: As best I can tell (from my searching on the web), you can still get the pay-as-you-go plan by getting a Lycamobile SIM card, activating it, and then putting money on it (instead of choosing a monthly plan) - it then should still default to the pay-as-you-go plan.

      However, as part of Lycamobile's upgrade to 4G LTE service, they may be raising the per-minute rate from 2 cents/minute to 5 cents/minute - see here: http://www.prepaidphonenews.com/2014/07/lycamobile-raises-pay-as-you-go-per.html

      (I'll note that, as of yesterday when I checked, however, my parents were still being charged 2 cents/minute. Perhaps the 5 cents/minute comes when you get a new LTE SIM card.)

      But, since the credit you put on your SIM card doesn't expire as long as you make 1 phone call or send 1 text every 90 days, it's still the best deal for very light users - for example, if minutes are 5 cents/minute, then my parents' bills will be a whopping $3 month instead of $1.20 per month. Still far cheaper for them than any other option.

      So, don't despair - I'm pretty sure you can still get the Lycamobile pay-as-you-go plan. But, be sure to let us know here if you try to get it and it turns out that you can't.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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  8. Great article! I'm wondering if by chance you may know this answer?? I purchased my iPhone 5 threw sprint, my 2-yr contract has now ended. Could I somehow take MY (lol) iPhone to any other carrier? I'm looking for cheaper services. I'm paying @$200 a month for 3-iPhones. One 4, and two iPhone 5's.... Any help is appreciated in advance. So glad I came across your article.

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    1. Michelle: Thanks for your comment!

      You should be able to take your Sprint iPhones to most Sprint-based MVNOs. I'd probably recommend Ting or RingPlus (both of which I mention in the post above) - your phones should definitely work with those services, and you can easily check on their websites and see if you can use your phones with those services.

      Hope it works out for you - write back and let me know if you have any problems switching your phones to Ting or RingPlus!

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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  9. What about Brightspot Mobile's $35 plan includes 300 minutes of talk, unlimited text, and unlimited data(3GB if which are 4G)? I am actually considering this plan for myself once I meet the requirements for MetroPCS to unlock my phone! I think this plan us worth considering if T-Mobile coverage us good in your area and you don't use your phone to talk much!

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    1. "of which" I mean.

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    2. Anonymous: That's why I love this post - I get to learn about new providers when people post about them.

      Brightspot seems like a good option for people who want lots of 4G data for cheap - if the extra 200 minutes of talk time (and 2GB less of 4G data) for $5 more is a good tradeoff for you, then it might be a better plan than T-Mobile's $30 plan I mention above. Personally, I'd probably go with T-Mobile's $30 plan, but I can see how Brightspot's plan might be better for a good number of people.

      But, I'd check to make sure Brightspot's plans include LTE - with "4G," they could just mean T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, not LTE - if that's the case, I would definitely go with T-Mobile's plan, as it includes LTE. Brightspot's website doesn't mention LTE, so their plans may not include LTE data.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

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    3. P.S. It appears I'm correct - LTE isn't listed under Brightspot on this very handy list of USA MVNOs:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_mobile_virtual_network_operators

      So, in that case, I'd definitely go with T-Mobile's $30 plan, since you get 5GB of LTE data with that plan (though you do only get 100 minutes of talk).

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