Cell phones and carrier plans

UPDATES: see below

My contract with AT&T recently expired, and in preparation, I’d like to take a look at other options to see if we could save some money and possibly get some cooler phones (we currently both have iPhone 4 – that’s 4, without an ‘s’ after it).

We are big into budgeting, and to say that this topic has consumed our conversations and thoughts would be a huge understatement.

Our AT&T contract is for unlimited data (grandfathered in) at $125 per month after taxes with AT&T, and after looking at various plans that totaled $100, we decided to stick with AT&T. The other plans would save us $25 per month ($600/2yr contract), but we knew it was reliable in the areas we traveled. With 3 kids, and me not always working in the city I live, this is important.

The wife uses about 2.1G per month, and I use around 1.5G per month, so having “unlimited” data is not a huge need. She sits in line to pick kids up from school, and waits on them for various activities, so she will almost always use more data than I will. We also discussed how we will need to be more cognizant of asking to use people’s wifi when at their homes, which we already do for the most part.

We wanted to branch out and try the Samsung Galaxy S5, but AT&T’s 2-year contract for this phone cost $200 each. $400 for our phone investment with a contract is a little steep. With some simple searches at the usual suspects, we were able to find a Galaxy s5 through Amazon for $100 each.

When ordering the phones, the checkout process required you to select a plan, but there was no option to keep the plan you currently have. So to be sure, I confirmed with AT&T tech support that I would still be able to keep my unlimited data plan, then ordered the phones. Their tech support informed me that I would need to simply call them to setup my phone instead of using the provided default configuration sent with the phone.

The phones came in short order (Yeah for Amazon Prime!). I called tech support, got everything confirmed and ready, and all looked good to go until support told me my new monthly total would be $150. When I asked why, they stated that some of the discounts I had received were no longer available.

This new monthly total comes to a total of $3820 for the 2-year contract (including phones). That is more money than my truck is worth.

I promptly sent back the phones, let my AT&T contract expire, and went to a month-to-month contract while I looked at options.

Phones

We (my wife and I) are inherently cheap, and do not require the latest and greatest in our personal tech, but we do want something close. We have found multiple sites that sell used tech at good prices if you are willing to take a little pain up-front, and take care of your investment, then you definitely save money in the long run.

We found used Samsung Galaxy s5’s on ebay for $400 each plus shipping. Some of our friends think we are crazy for spending $800+ on phones, but they just spent $400+ on their new iPhone 6’s. Now, do you think that their carriers are not going to somehow recoup the difference over the 2-year contract?

Plans

We knew that we wanted to get rid of a two-year contract unless it was overwhelmingly obvious that was the cheapest route. We also knew that many of the pre-paid carriers use the big name’s networks (e.g. Cricket runs on AT&T infrastructure), so while some of their brick and mortar stores are in shady areas of town, I really don’t care, as long as the service is comparable.

The plans below include unlimited text, talk, and data for all except AT&T. They are also priced for 2 lines, and include estimated taxes and fees.

AT&T– new contract

monthly fees: 150
24 month total for service: 3600
phone cost: 220
Total 24 month cost: 3820
Notes: way too expensive. We also do not have unlimited texting on this plan, and since we no longer have an iPhone, we cannot use the iMessage app. This means that we need to increase our text messages or switch plans.

Republic Wireless – 4G network

monthly fees: 90
24 month total for service: 2160
phone cost: 600
Total 24 month cost: 2760
2-year savings over ATT: 1060
Notes: The Moto X is a good phone, and the Moto X 2nd generation seems like a great phone. If they offered the 2nd gen of this phone, I would likely have jumped on this bandwagon; however, the 1st gen does not have a good enough camera for my wife’s needs, which is one of her top requirements for a phone switch.

Republic Wireless – 3G network

monthly fees: 60
24 month total for service: 1440
phone cost: 600
Total 24 month cost: 2040
2-year savings over ATT: 1780
Notes: see above, but will add that we would have started with 3G since that is all we currently have with no real issues

T-Mobile

monthly fees: 100
24 month total for service: 2400
phone cost – ebay s5: 843
Total 24 month cost: 3243
2-year savings over ATT: 577
Notes: various plans with 1G and 3G of data at 4G-LTE speeds, then throttled back. T-Mobile also provides Pandora, which I use a ton at work, and a few other services that do not count against your 4G/LTE speed total. They also have multiple stores in my area, as opposed to Cricket who has one store 35 minutes away. The above numbers assume the 3G total per phone.

Sprint

monthly fees: 115
24 month total for service: 2760
phone cost – new iphone 6: 400
Total 24 month cost: 3160
2-year savings over ATT: 660
Notes: coverage is sketchy in our area

Cricket – w/ 1G of data monthly

monthly fees: 80
24 month total for service: 1920
phone cost: 823
Total 24 month cost: 2743
2-year savings over ATT: 1077
Notes: various plans with 1G and 3G of data at 4G-LTE speeds, then throttled back

Cricket– w/ 3G of data monthly

monthly fees: 100
24 month total for service: 2400
phone cost: 823
Total 24 month cost: 3223
2-year savings over ATT: 597
Notes: see above

What’s next

I plan to try one of our phones on Cricket, and one on T-Mobile to see if there are any significant performance issues, as well as see if group text messages resolves itself on their respective network. I will add updates as I get further along in the process.

The good thing about being a cell phone free agent is that if I do not like a specific service, all I have to do is change carriers.

Update 1

The first Samsung Galaxy s5 proved that Apple is quite the Hotel California in the sense that they make it incredibly hard to leave their ecosystem. We disabled iMessage like we had read, which works fine for texts to individuals, but group texting is extremely unreliable. There are lots of different troubleshooting ideas across the internet, but none worked. Even calling AT&T’s tech support did not fix the problem.

Update 2

After getting our ebay phones, we took my wife’s to the Cricket store, and had them set her up with a completely new number to hopefully alleviate the group text messaging issues. This made the situation better, but she was still not consistently getting group texts. We also had the issue with the original s5 we received from Amazon, but we thought that was possibly due to Apple’s evil iMessage issues. Now that we are having issues with a second phone, new number, and with a different carrier, we may have to reconsider using Cricket.

To their credit, the Cricket Wireless technical support staff has been tremendous. My wife has handled every one of their phone calls, and while she is not the most technical savvy person, she has been thoroughly impressed with their dedication to help her fix the problem to have the best experience possible on their network.

Update 3

I finally had time to run over to the local T-Mobile store to see if I can use the unlocked Cricket phone from ebay on their network. Luckily all worked, and I had them switch my AT&T number over to T-Mobile. So far all of my group texts are coming through, but some of them arrive but do not “download” the content of the MMS message. This is odd behavior that I am still researching, but it only happens in about 10% of the messages. They usually download fine after a little bit of time, but this is annoying. I also plan to try and use GO SMS Pro as my text messaging app of choice to see if that has the same issue.

We still have my wife’s original iPhone 4 on AT&T with her original number. Assuming no other huge issues present themselves with my T-Mobile plan, we will probably port over her phone and original number to T-Mobile in the near future.

Update 4

The text message issues seem to have subsided, and GO SMS Pro works nice enough. The most recent hurdle was that texts from my wife’s Cricket phone were arriving shortly after being sent, but their timestamps were about 28 hours late. After altering a few settings on the Galaxy s5, I found the right combination: Settings > System > Date and time: unselect “Automatic date and time” and “Automatic time zone”. This does mean that you will have to keep a closer eye on the time and date just in case they get off, but it’s not like the system time was accurate anyway.