The mobile-phone industry is in a state of flux. Where once you had little choice but to buy a subsidized phone from a major carrier and pay two years' worth of whatever monthly fees it chose to levy, now you have options aplenty.
After that, you have several choices. Three of the Big Four carriers — AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless — have started offering off-contract plans alongside their two-year contracts, while the fourth, T-Mobile, has doffed the contract system completely.
But wait — there's more. You are no longer stuck with one of the Big Four — you can take your current post-contract phone to another carrier offering better rates. You can also get both a new phone and a different plan from one of a growing number of smaller outfits promising to go easier on your wallet.
For this story, we look at 16 of those smaller carriers — also known as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs. These services provide voice, messaging and data for your smartphone — usually at lower monthly costs and with less hassle.
(Note that although there are perhaps a dozen more similar "Off Broadway" carriers, we chose a cross-section of both new and established companies as representative of the industry as a whole.)
Most of them do this by leasing Big Four bandwidth and tweaking the typical monthly-plan formulas. (A few, like Boost Mobile, are actually owned by a larger carrier.) Some leverage other tech, like Wi-Fi and voice-over-IP, to offer lower rates. Some do both. And most let you bring over an existing phone, great if you're looking to extend the life of handset that's already bought and paid for.
Bring your own phone — or use theirs?
Suppose, for instance, you have an iPhone 4S that just reached the end of a two-year contract with AT&T. It's a common misconception that you need to stay with the same carrier and pay the same monthly rate — even if you don't feel the need to upgrade to a new phone. AT&T and T-Mobile phones, both of which run on GSM networks, can be unlocked and taken to any other carrier that piggybacks on one of those same networks.
So instead of continuing to pay AT&T, say, $80 per month to use your iPhone 4S, you could take it to Giv Mobile or Straight Talk and pay a lower rate — no contract required.
This Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) option gets a bit more complicated with CDMA phones from Sprint and Verizon. Although several MVNOs piggyback on Sprint's network, not all welcome outside phones. And the one carrier that leverages only Verizon's network — Page Plus Cellular — doesn't officially support phones purchased from Verizon proper.
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