Bye-bye Carrier!

I gave up my smartphone contract the other day and I'm only too glad I did.  Wait, this is the library blog - what am I doing writing an opinion piece about cellphone carriers here?  Library patrons come to me on a weekly, sometimes daily basis with questions about their smartphones.  These little devices we carry around in our pockets and purses like so much loose change represent some of the greatest advancements in computing, telecommunications, and miniaturization technologies ever.  It should come as no surprise that a lot of people are having difficulties figuring them out, which is where I and a several of my colleagues come into play.  And as an unofficial smartphone tech support guy and consumer advocate, I'm telling you now, if you can settle for a little less, and I do mean very little, you can save boatloads of money and even more hassle.  

I bought my first smartphone, a Blackberry Curve, just prior to the launch of the first iPhone in 2007.  Although it couldn't touch the technological prowess and user-friendliness of the iPhone, I loved my little Blackberry.  Having access to email, the web, my music, and much more anywhere I went all in one device was groundbreaking.  I stuck with that little piece of plastic for close to four years and finally made the jump to an Android smartphone in 2011 with the purchase of a Motorola Atrix 4G.  I love it even more!  

But the one thing I don't love is the way mobile phone carriers keep raising their prices.  It is absolutely ridiculous. We're told this is because the explosive growth of mobile data use is eating up what little available bandwidth is left and so the carriers have to charge higher prices for less bandwidth . . . for some reason I don't quite understand, I'll admit the economics of it are a bit beyond me.  While there may be a frantically shrinking amount of wireless bandwidth, there isn't any practical reason I can think of for carriers to be charging more unless this is just an excuse to milk us all for more money.  Think about it: if you're paying more, aren't you going to be darned certain that you're going to use every last bit of data that they've allotted you, and maybe then some?  I don't think that's going to do anything to alleviate the growing bandwidth deficit and even if it did, we've still got more than half the country to add to mobile data plans, and that's definitely going to have an impact.  It's a money-grab, pure and simple.  But it's not our job as consumers to sympathize with the poor multi-billionaire telecoms and their woes; our job is to find the cheapest prices! 

If you haven't jumped on the smartphone bandwagon yet, consider going with a prepaid carrier like Virgin MobileBoost Mobile, or Cricket.  They offer voice and data plans that most people can comfortably afford and still not feel like they're being taken advantage of.  Prepaid carriers have a reputation for offering cheapie phones, but they are increasingly bringing in quality Android smartphones, and now Virgin Mobile and Cricket will soon be offering the iPhone 4S!  There are a few downsides to going prepaid.  The first is that you generally pay full price for your phone, rather than paying a reduced price subsidized by your mobile contract.  If you consider, however, the long-term savings, you'll be paying a lot more for a "free" contract phone than for a full-priced prepaid phone.  The other thing to consider is that since you're not entering into a contract with prepaid carriers the way you do with the likes of AT&T and Verizon, you're not going to be guaranteed the same terms of service over a two-year period.  That might frighten some people, but I've been watching: prepaid carriers have kept their prices consistently low while contract carriers have been jacking them up by tens of dollars every year.  Put it this way: if you're paying MORE for your monthly smartphone bill than you do for basic utilities like power, water, and gas, you may want to examine your priorities and look for alternatives.  

If you've got a GSM smartphone you really like from a carrier like AT&T or T-Mobile and you're at the end of your contract, consider unlocking your phone and buying a prepaid SIM card from Straight Talk.  I'll explain.  First, SIM cards: "subscriber identity modules" are small memory chips that are used to program some cell phones with their phone number and other identifying information; they can be swapped between unlocked phones.  Speaking of unlocked phones, in the United States carriers are legally allowed to lock specific cellphone models into their carrier; this ensures customer retention, as we may hate the carrier, but we sure do love our phones!  You can, however, unlock your phone from your carrier.  (Note this won't work for CDMA carriers like Verizon and Sprint who do not use SIM cards with their phones, sorry).  If you're at the end of your contract, you might call or visit your provider and ask them if they'll unlock your phone, but there's a good chance they'll laugh at you.  My preferred method is buying an unlock code from sellers on eBay; I had a very good experience with a seller called UnlockUSA who sold me an unlock code for my Atrix 4G for $1.  After unlocking my phone, I purchased a prepaid SIM from Straight Talk's website, popped it in my phone, and off I went: I'm getting unlimited talk, text, and data for about $30 less than what I was paying AT&T.  

Please note that unlocking your phone is not always a straight-forward process and I would not recommend it for the faint-of-technological-heart.  You may be better off going on and purchasing a phone that's already been unlocked and using a prepaid SIM - just search for "unlocked smartphones" or take a look at their guide here.  As with prepaid carrier phones, you'll be paying more up front, but the long-term savings are substantial.  

I'm tired of being preyed upon by cellular carriers and I would expect you are too.  We have more choices than you'd think, however.  I hope this helps you get started.  If you're looking for more help, you might search Google for your phone model and add the word "unlocking" at the end; there is usually a plethora of information out there from other consumers who have been down this path before.  Good luck!

UPDATE 6/26/2012

Mea Culpa.  After spending two months with Straight Talk it is apparent that their data plan is very restrictive and not recommended for people who use a lot of data on the go.  They are no longer my service provider.