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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.

1. T-Mobile

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

T-Mobile prepaid coverage, as of 12/29/2006

2. TracFone

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

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 map

STi Mobile prepaid coverage map legend

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 map, central Texas

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 map

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 wireless coverage map

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 wireless coverage map

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 prepaid wireless coverage map

Boost Mobile national coverage, as of 12/30/2006

Boost Mobile wireless coverage map, Texas

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 national coverage map

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 Texas Coverage
Page Plus Cellular coverage for Texas, as of 4/10/2007

Summary

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.

Comments

Comment from orb9220
Time: December 31, 2006, 9:29 pm

You did not include net10 which is a flat .10 cents a minute with number of days depended on card. 100 min is good for 60 days for $30 and your excess mins rollover. Which comes to $15 a month and worked great for me here in Portland,Or.

For $40 I got a motorola c139 and 100 mins at office depot.

Comment from Baxter1
Time: March 30, 2007, 10:01 am

….very good information here on prepaid wireless — Thanks !

There are always tradeoffs on price & quality of service.

The one-year, no hassle plans look good to me… but the coverage area is worrisome, if traveling.

I’d like an inexpensive cell phone/service for infrequent use –
a phone I can toss in my car glove-compartment and forget about — until I need it for an occasional call, or emergency.

Comment from Morton
Time: May 15, 2009, 2:41 am

I’ve been searching for days on plans and coverage areas. Your information is very helpful. Thanks

Comment from C
Time: May 19, 2009, 3:13 pm

Thank you. this is great information. What do you know about US Cellular?

Comment from Mick
Time: February 1, 2010, 8:04 pm

Your mis-information about TracFone can be forgiven due to dated report. A TracFone Motorola flip phone/camera phone can be had at Dollar General today for $20 and is a double-minute phone. Their so called “best deal” right now is actually 450 min. + a 250 min. free bonus card good for 1 year costing $99. That actually gets you 1150 minutes, not the 250 you mention. Average cost for TracFone is .09 or less and coverage in most areas is great. You of course, can buy cards for most any time amount (which double on this phone) and minutes carry over. Wouldn’t trade it and never had a dead zone yet.

Comment from C. Mills
Time: December 26, 2012, 2:37 pm

Tracfone has responded over recent years to competition. This has resulted in better (?) phones, and service plane, (Double and even some triple minute plans) but, sadly, NOT their coverage. It’s actually WORSE now than it was in 2005, when we moved to a rather rural area. Tracfones were about the ONLY ones that would work… in most areas around town… And on the way to the only major city nearby, where everyone works…
But Tracfone stopped all AMPS a long time back, forcing us to switch to an all digital phone. (Which they shipped us, a refurb that never was much good, so we bought the exact same phone new, and IT worked as well as any ever has) Tracfones worked, more or less, about as well as any, and I had the HAM radios, which covered the areas the cells didn’t, so we didn’t worry about it too much. Even after I was divorced, and couldn’t talk to the kids, while she had them. (I did have Skype, which worked as well as any land-line phone did)
But all that changed in Nov. 2012, when we moved just 8 miles, to an even more rural town. And Tracfones do NOT work, period. Not here. My older daughter has a Straight Talk phone, which is a subsidiary of Tracfone, and has NO troubles with either voice or text. (Being a teen, she uses text more than voice) All our other phones are Tracfones, and are worthless. Only Verizon will work, which I find odd, since Tracfones here use Verizon’s towers, or indeed, any tower available. (The cells we have are multiple frequency and protocol capable) If I want to get a message out to the rest of the world, I have to go upstairs, find a window facing west, and when I hit ‘SEND’, stand as high and hold the phone over my head as high as I possibly can, and I MIGHT get the message out, but more often, I get “message failed, resend from outbox”, although they deduct the time anyway, and will again if I DO try resending. Thus, I’m looking to dump Tracfones, but I’m not in love with the $50.00 a month, EVERY month for Straight Talk either. (With taxes and ‘other’ fees, it’s $49.89… close enough) I have three daughters, and am a disabled Vet raising them alone as a single father, (their mother refuses to pay child support) and I NEED to know where they are at all times, their mother has kidnapped them TWICE already… And it took me a YEAR the first time to get them back home! So call me paranoid, I WANT the kids to have a phone with them at ALL times they are out of my sight! But if it won’t work, it’s not a phone, it’s an expensive brick of plastic and silicon. By the time we get as little as 4 miles away from our current location, we CAN get service, although texts may arrive anywhere from right away to tomorrow, or even later. Voice, is like talking underwater much of the time, and it doesn’t matter WHAT model phone we are using. They ALL act that way. We have Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, and other top names. (I keep trying to find one that WILL work. My OLD Nokia had a place to connect an external antenna… Which I had. The new ones have one too, if you know where to look, but I can’t find any connector that will work/fit) As a HAM, I know how radio waves propagate, the effect frequency has, and how to make an antenna for any frequency. Nothing works with these pieces of junk. That’s what brought me to this review, thanks for the info, although dated by now, it’s still worthwhile to read. There are even more players now than ever in the prepaid market segment. Some even cater to those older folks who may not hear so well, or see as good as they once did. (MY hand is up!) During Vietnam, I was a Small Arms Instructor… My hearing sucks! And as I age, I can’t see the tiny buttons and icons without glasses. (I started a family late in life) and will be well into my 60′s before I have finished raising them. Thus, I still have teen daughters at home.
And after the kidnappings, I don’t ever want to relive that. I’m not sure I COULD.
For my family, cell phones aren’t luxuries, not anymore. They are literally lifelines, especially as I have MS. (Hence, the ‘disabled’ label, and why I’ve been the primary caregiver ever since I got sick over 14 years ago)
Thanks again for the information. I’m still looking. Verizon doesn’t offer a prepaid plan that I know of in my area of northwestern Iowa. And even so, there are a LOT of ‘holes’ in the coverage, even today. And being on a Veteran’s Pension, I can’t afford an expensive contract. My pension was never intended for raising a family of teen daughters! Virgin, and the other newcomers, often do not even show a map of their coverage, so it’s safe to assume they, like everyone else, are looking to grab market share from everyone else… the heavily populated and well traveled areas. IE: The most bang for the buck. But out here in the sticks, we can’t even call the nearest town on a land-line without paying for a pricey long distance ‘plan’… Whether you use it or not. I use SKYPE Pro, (No longer offered, I’m grandfathered in, though they offer other plans that are similar… and almost as cheap, just with fewer features) at $3.00/mo for ‘reasonable’ usage, (10,000 minutes a month) To ANY phone number in the USA and Canada. Be it a Mobile, land-line, it doesn’t matter. If it has a phone number, I can call it. I have an actual desk phone for SKYPE, (Also, sadly, discontinued) which works quite well, once you get the right drivers. For now, that’s my only option, but of course, it only works one-way, from home. Not from anywhere else TO home. You can, in theory, buy a Skype-in number, but not knowing where the call may come from, and at $50.00 ea., (for 90 days) it’s not a good deal for my needs. Skype has no nationwide toll free numbers, or emergency 911 calls either. So, a real land-line is still needed, especially as our ONLY option for ‘broadband’, (if you want to call 2.2 to 2.6Mb/s ‘broadband’) is DSL, so we have to have the phone line anyway. I’m still looking. If anyone knows of a better phone service, please do tell! I can’t get the kids to carry around a 10 meter HAM band radio!

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