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Updated: 10:52 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 | Posted: 2:18 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014

Smartphone and Data Plan Guide for 2014



By Clark Howard

ClarkHoward.com


The cost of monthly cell phone service is dropping. The change for your wallet is the best since the last big wave of discounting began 15 years ago. Plans and services are morphing in many different directions at once. That makes saving money more complicated and requires you to decide what compromises you are willing to live with to save money.

 

Find the best deal on no-contract mobile and cell service

Cell phone service can now be divided into 3 types: The Big Four, discounters, and innovators.

The "Big Four" Mobile providers

  • T-Mobile changed the market for the Big Four with its Uncarrier strategy. Now they've expanded their family plan to support up to 10 people.

    You sign up no contract and pay a real price for a phone. When it comes to service, the first line is $50 per month. The second line is $30 per month. Lines 3 through 10 are $10 per month.  Each line comes with unlimited talk, text, and 2.5 GB of data through 2015.

    Here's a bonus: T-Mobile will pay termination fees for you if you leave any contract carrier and come to them.

    Meanwhile, T-Mobile has cut prices on its sub-brand called GoSmartMobile.com. For $25 a month, GoSmartMobile customers get unlimited talk and text and unlimited Facebook at 4G speeds. At $35 a month, you get unlimited talk, text, Facebook, and 500 MBs of data a month. And for $40 a month, you get all that and 3 GBs of data in total, which would meet the needs of the vast majority of smartphone users.

  • AT&T has suffered the most lost customers to T-Mobile, as both companies use the same technology called GSM, and T-Mobile is paying termination fees for you if you leave any contract carrier and come to them.

    Feeling the heat from T-Mobile, AT&T has now instituted a big price cut as well for families. The first two lines cost $130 per month. Not great. However, each additional line is $15 per month. For 5 lines you pay $175 per month or $35 per line. That includes unlimited talk and text for all lines and 10 gigs of data to share among the lines.

    Meanwhile, AT&T also has a new discount brand of cell service now that they've bought Cricket. The pricing starts at $35 a month and goes up to $55 a month depending on how much data you use.

 

  • Sprint has a new offer at a jaw-dropping low price: You can have up to 10 people on your plan for a flat $100. That includes unlimited talk, text, and 20GB of data to share among the 10 lines. (There's also an additional 2GB included per line to avoid any overages!)

    Like T-Mobile and AT&T, Sprint will also pay your early termination fees if you leave another carrier.

    Although this is a limited-time offer, the Sprint Family Share Pack is hands down the best offer for family plans as of now. Current Sprint family plan customers who want to get this amazing deal must meet one of these conditions:

    1. One Sprint Easy Pay phone transaction on your account.
    2. One line is upgrade eligible on your account.
    3. By adding a new line of service to these plans on your account.

    For individuals, the company also has new lower-priced plans too. $60 per month will get you unlimited talk and text with unlimited data.

 

  • Verizon has just announced a rate cut for Edge customers. What they used to charge $110 for will now be discounted to $60 a month. That includes unlimited talk, text, and 2GB of data.

    While this certainly isn't the best deal for single individuals, it's worth noting becasue Verizon has historically been reluctant to discount. If you're looking for the best and cheapest deal for individuals with unlimited everything, check out this $25 a month option from a smaller player in the wireless world.

As with most discounts, you have to ask for these to get them; if you don't ask, you don't get! And if you're intent on staying with any of the Big 4, take a look at WhistleOut.com. The site makes it easy for you to find the best plan to meet your needs with a free comparison shopping tool.

The Discounters

The discounters have grown their customer bases by big amounts in the last few  years. However, I don't expect much growth unless they cut rates again.  


  • Straight Talk charges around $45 per month for unlimited talk and text with 3 to 5 gigs of data a month. All are non-contract and all buy blocks of time on the networks of the Big Four. Straight Talk is the largest and has service on all 4.

  • Boost Mobile, meanwhile, is offering a new special 4G service for $35 per month (for 6 months) with unlimited talk and text and 3.6 gigs of LTE data. This introductory monthly rate increases to $50 a month after 6  months. At that time, you are eligible to earn remaining Shrinking Payment milestones (potentially reducing payment to $40/month after max milestones earned).

With any of the discounters, the phone you buy or bring determines whose network you will be on.

The Innovators

These providers have the most opportunity to save money -- and the most odd terms of use. All three use wi-fi as a way to pass savings on to you.

  • Republic Wireless is my favorite. For $25 per month you get unlimited talk, text, and data. That is the best deal in America. You buy a very good Android called the Moto X for $299 or a decent phone called the Moto G for $149. Then you use the phone like any other, except most of the time you are on wi-fi instead of cellular. Thus the savings. (My review of Republic Wireless.)

  • Scratch Wireless offers a free plan that is hard to wrap your mind around. You buy a Motorola Photon Q for $269. It is a dated midrange Android. You have unlimited everything anywhere there is wi-fi, and get unlimited free texting everywhere including on cellular. If you want talk and data on the go, you can pay a daily or monthly fee. Scratch is counting on the fact that most of the time we are somewhere where there is free wi-fi.

  • Freedom Pop offers a freemium service. You buy any of a variety of Androids with prices all over the place (starting at around $99) and get 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 1/2 Gigabyte of data per month for free. There are a variety of paid options including unlimited talk and text for $10.99 per month, and $20 a month for unlimited talk and text with 1 GB of high-speed data. And finally, you can now use the iPhone on Freedom Pop. See their website for details.

    That's the good news about Freedom Pop. The bad news is the call quality on FreedomPop is severly lacking. While the coverage seems fine, the call quality is just mediocre at best. It's a definite work in progress. But the data works very well, just as promised.

    There will be many more new innovators in 2014. Look around and take your time before you choose. And NEVER sign a 2-year contract again!

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