When it comes time to choose a wireless carrier, most Americans just go with AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon. Recently, more and more people have been tempted by T-Mobile's cost-slashing "Uncarrier" moves, but that's about where it ends: the four major carriers.
And that reluctance to look beyond the big guys could be costing you money.
Did you know there are a host of different carriers in the U.S. that use the same networks as the big companies but offer some serious discounts on your monthly bill? They're called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and piggyback on the major carrier's networks.
If you've never heard of MVNOs, you soon will. Google reportedly wants to get in on the MVNO game and offer its own cell plans using the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile, paired with Wi-Fi. Beyond MVNOs, another report says Cablevision is planning a mobile carrier service called Freewheel that will depend entirely on Wi-Fi — including free access to the company's more than one million public hotspots.
But you don't have to wait for Cablevision and Google to get in the cell phone service game. There are already numerous MVNOs running on networks from all four major carriers, and some that also offer Wi-Fi only plans. Many of the more interesting carriers run on Sprint, but there are also a number of options that use T-Mobile for anyone looking to use a GSM-based phone.
In no particular order, here's a look at 10 MVNOs that are well worth a look, at least on paper. We haven't been able to test these networks ourselves so you'll have to judge their quality on your own.
It should also go without saying, but if you plan to bring your own device (BYOD) to an MVNO — not all allow it — the device must be compatible with that MVNO's underlying network, be it Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T.
- Carrier: Sprint
- BYOD: Yes (some restrictions)
- Cost: $21 per month (monthly average)
- LTE: Yes
Ting is one of the more interesting choices among MVNOs. The company offers what is more or less a pay-as-you-go model. Ting categorizes usage by buckets. The first 1-100 minutes, for example, cost $3, the next bucket $9, and the next $18. There are also buckets for SMS and MB of data usage, and you must pay a monthly per-device fee of $6 each. The company's complete rates are on its site. Ting says the average monthly cost per device is $21.
A variety of phones are available with Ting, including the iPhone 5s, Nexus 5, and Galaxy S5. If you're thinking of moving to Ting, the company says it will pay 25 percent of the early termination fee (ETF) from your current carrier, up to $75.
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