Roundup of prepaid cell phone plans and USA coverage maps
I was recently informed that my current cell phone, a Nokia 5165, will cease to work in a few months. This cell phone uses the old TDMA network which is being phased out in favor of the newer CDMA and GSM networks. My current service provider is Beyond Wireless, and I couldn’t be happier with their TDMA prepaid plan.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and their replacement plan isn’t as good. I set out to research the prepaid cell phone plans that use the newer CDMA or GSM networks.
Initially, I wasn’t too bummed about the impending switch. I was looking forward to getting a better phone, maybe one with a real email client, a web browser, and even GPS navigation.
Of course, I was hoping not to pay a lot for those features. But what really surprised me was that in almost all cases, I would find plans that cost a lot more but offered far less in terms of coverage. My quest changed from looking for the best value on new features, to looking for a plan that would just match the coverage I have now, without costing a lot more. It wasn’t easy.
I’d been spoiled by my current phone, which works just about everywhere in the United States. This is mostly because my Nokia 5165 is a “dual-mode” phone, meaning that it works with both the old TDMA network and the even older, but more ubiquitous, analog network (sometimes referred to as AMPS). As a result, this phone often works in rural areas where other phones fail. To me, there’s just no point in carrying a cell phone if it’s not going to work when I need it.
What follows is a roundup of some of the current prepaid cell phone plans and their associated coverage maps.
With T-Mobile’s prepaid plan, your minutes expire in 30 days to 365 days, depending on the cost of the refill. The best deal is if you buy the $100 card (for 1000 minutes, or $0.10 per minute), which doesn’t expire for 365 days.
However, their coverage is rather spotty. It looks like there are a few New England states with no coverage at all, along with the western half of Kansas, the northern half of Iowa, and most of Oregon.
T-Mobile prepaid plans use GSM networks only.
T-Mobile prepaid coverage, as of 12/29/2006
TracFone’s best deal is a $99.99 card which gives you 250 minutes that expire after one year.
Their web site asks for your zip code before it will give you a coverage map. This may be because they resell from a variety of different networks (GSM, CDMA, and TDMA) and the network they give you depends on where you live. When I entered a zip code for Austin, Texas, I got a selection of GSM phones with the below coverage. It’s pretty decent, as long as you don’t stray too far from the interstate highways.
TracFone prepaid coverage, based on zip code 78737, as of 12/29/2006
3. STi Mobile
STi Mobile’s cheapest plan for light users is a flat $0.10 per day, plus $0.10 per minute of use. At $36.50 per year plus a dime a minute for air time, this is one of the least expensive plans for people who don’t use their phone very often.
STi Mobile uses a subset of the Sprint CDMA network, and their coverage is mainly limited to urban areas and major interstates. Pay close attention to the legend below, as there are four colors that represent “no service available.” Look at the orange and dark green colors to find the areas with service.
STi Mobile prepaid coverage, as of 12/29/2006
4. Virgin Mobile
Like STi Mobile, Virgin Mobile uses a subset of the Sprint CDMA network with no roaming. Their cheapest plan for low volume users is $20 every 90 days, and air time costs $0.18 per minute. They don’t post a nationwide coverage map on their web site, but it’s almost certainly the same as STi Mobile’s coverage, above (with service in the orange and dark green areas only). In other words, urban areas and major interstates only.
Here’s their coverage for the area around Austin, Texas. As you can see, there are plenty of holes:
Virgin Mobile coverage in Central Texas, as of 12/30/2006
5. 7-Eleven Speak Out
Yes, that’s 7-Eleven, the convenience store. They have their own brand of prepaid cell phone service, using the Cingular GSM network. Air time is more expensive than many others, at $0.20 per minute. However, the minutes don’t expire for 365 days, regardless of the refill cost, so you could theoretically use their smallest refill card ($25) once a year. That makes this plan one of the least expensive for people who use few minutes. (Note that they also deduct a “regulatory cost recovery fee” of $0.99 each month.)
Their coverage varies greatly, with coverage in the major cities and on most interstates, except for a gaping hole in the north central US:
7-Eleven Speak Out Wireless coverage, as of 12/30/2006
6. Cingular GoPhone Pay As You Go
Cingular offers two prepaid plans, each costing a minimum of $100 per year. The difference is that one plan charges a flat rate of $0.25 per minute of air time, while the other charges $0.10 per minute plus a dollar for each day that you use the phone. If you use just a few minutes on the days that you use the phone, the flat rate plan will save you money. After about 7 minutes, the second plan becomes cheaper.
It’s no surprise that their coverage looks identical to the Speak Out plan above, since Speak Out is a reseller for Cingular’s GSM network.
Cingular GoPhone Pay As You Go coverage, as of 12/30/2006
7. Alltel U Prepaid
Alltel has one of the best coverage maps of any carrier. They support both CDMA and analog (AMPS) service, and they have reciprocal agreements with Verizon Wireless and Sprint-Nextel to provide their customers with roaming access to those networks. (Be sure that your phone works on both the CDMA and AMPS networks if you want good coverage.)
Their “U Prepaid” plan charges $0.15 per minute, with a $4 charge for each month that your phone is not used. If you don’t use a lot of minutes and if you can make a point to use your phone every month, this plan can be extremely inexpensive once you get past the $35 activation charge.
Unfortunately, they only offer this plan to people residing in their native service areas, which does NOT include Austin, Texas. It’s too bad, because this is a great price for excellent coverage.
Alltel U Prepaid coverage, as of 12/30/2006
8. Boost Mobile
Boost Mobile’s US operation is owned by Sprint-Nextel and uses Nextel’s “iDEN” network. They have no coverage at all in some states. In the states where they have coverage, it’s often limited to populated areas and highways. See the Texas map below for an example.
They charge $0.10 or $0.20 per minute, depending on the time of day and the day of the week. You’re required to add at at least $15 in air time every 90 days, which results in a minimum annual cost of $60.
Boost Mobile national coverage, as of 12/30/2006
Boost Mobile coverage in Texas, as of 12/30/2006
9. Page Plus Cellular
Page Plus Cellular resells wireless service using the Verizon Wireless network. They support both CDMA and analog (AMPS) networks, resulting in excellent coverage – again, as long as you make sure that your phone works on both of those networks.
They also have one of the worst web sites of any wireless service provider, ever.
Air time is $0.10 to $0.14 per minute, depending on the refill amount. The smallest refill is $10 and it expires after 120 days, giving a minimum annual cost of $40. Activations can be bought on Ebay with 100 minutes included for less than $5. Their web site doesn’t offer a national coverage map, so I obtained the following map from one of their dealers. Note that although this map indicates a large roaming area, the Page Plus Cellular web site advertises “No roaming charges nationwide.” I believe the areas marked as roaming on this map are considered part of the Page Plus network.
Page Plus Cellular coverage, as of 12/30/2006
Update 4/10/07: This state map, sourced directly from Page Plus Cellular, confirms that the areas marked as roaming in the nationwide map are considered “local rate” areas.
Page Plus Cellular coverage for Texas, as of 4/10/2007
I believe the two best choices for prepaid wireless plans, if coverage is important to you, are the Alltel U Prepaid or the Page Plus Cellular plans. Alltel’s plan is the better of the two, but it is not available in all areas (including mine, sadly). I’m going to go with Page Plus.