Unlimited $20/mo Wireless: New Normal?

Cheap — even free — wireless internet and phone services seem to be popping up all over. New LTE service will soon be available from Sprint (at 1.9 and 2.6 GHz), T-Mobile (on AWS), and Verizon (on AWS). New virtual operators, which generally lease spectrum from the big four carriers, may be joined by new competitors in the coming months as even more spectrum comes on-line from Dish (at 2.1 GHz), AT&T (at 2.3 GHz) and Softbank (at 2.6 GHz), not to mention the 600 MHz band in 2014.

Big carriers benefit by letting mobile virtual network operators aggregate low margin users.

Walt Mossberg reviews cellphone service from Republic Wireless, which launched its $20/month unlimited wireless service in December. The upstart carrier uses the Sprint network, but charges just $19 a month for unlimited data, voice and texts — with no contract. The company is also offering a second pricing option for people who would rather pay less up front: $99 for the phone and then $29 a month, unlimited.

Motorola’s Defy XT and the LG Optimus S work with Republic’s network. The Motorola Android phone costs $249 — partly to help offset the low monthly price.

A typical smartphone costs around $200, but it’s usually shackled to a two-year contract that often costs $70 or more monthly and includes limits on data consumption, voice minutes and texts. Even prepaid smartphones, without a contract, can cost $30 to $50 a month and carry limits.

The phone and two service plans are only available online, at republicwireless.com. The company offers a 30-day money-back guarantee. And to sweeten the deal, Republic says Motorola will be offering customers a $50 credit at the Google Play online store, where Android owners can buy apps and content.

Republic is mostly able to offer such low monthly prices because it’s a Wi-Fi-centric carrier.

The Republic phone places a call over Wi-Fi rather than using a costlier cellular phone network. The same is true of texts.

You aren’t limited to Wi-Fi calling and texting — the phone can make calls, send texts and connect to the Internet over Sprint’s cellular network, at no extra charge. But Republic believes so many people connect their phones to Wi-Fi so often that most calls and other activity will be conducted over Wi-Fi, saving the company money on payments it makes to Sprint.

There’s no seamless handoff between Wi-Fi calls and cellular calls. If you leave a Wi-Fi coverage area, the call drops, and, after a brief but annoying delay, the phone will redial the call over Sprint. Republic has also developed a system that properly places 911 calls over Wi-Fi.

Sprint also owns and operates several prepaid companies, including Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile and Assurance Wireless brands.

T-Mobile this week launched GoSmart Mobile, the company’s latest foray into prepaid wireless service. It’s owned and operated by T-Mobile.

GoSmart offers unlimited voice and texting for $30 a month, unlimited voice, texting and 2G Web service for $35 a month, and unlimited voice, texting and 5 GB of 3G service (after which users are throttled). The service, which has been in beta mode in nine markets since December, is geared toward consumers more interested in voice and text services than high-speed Internet access.

Customers can use their own GSM phone on the service with a SIM kit or purchase a $49 Alcatel feature phone or $99 ZTE Android phone that runs Gingerbread. GoSmart starts at $30 a month for a package that includes unlimited talk and text but no mobile Internet access. The $35 plan includes mobile Internet access, while the $45 plan offers Internet access at 3G speeds.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile’s Unlimited Nationwide 4G Data plan is available with no annual contract, for $70 per month, online at prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com, and at T-Mobile retail stores or through select dealers and national retail stores.

T-Mobile’s prepaid plans don’t offer data-only but does offer a $30/mo 5GB HSPA+ prepaid service with 100 minutes of talk time.

Verizon’s new prepaid smartphone plan with 2 GB of data costs $70 per month. Verizon is also offering a new $60 per month prepaid smartphone plan with unlimited voice, texting and 500 MB of data. Customers can purchase an extra 1 GB of data for $20 when their data balance reaches 100 MB or lower.

Several new business models offer “free” or low-cost wireless broadband:

  • Wireless startup Karma is offering a hotspot that accesses Clearwire’s mobile WiMAX network but allows users to open it up to the public. Users pay $69 to buy a mobile hotspot and then pay $14 per GB of data. The hotspot is then opened up to the public. When a new user joins, that user is taken to a page where public users can then sign in with their Facebook account to get 100 MB of free browsing. For every new user who signs in, the owner of the hotspot also gets 100 MB of free data.
  • Solavei launched in September with a $49 unlimited voice, text and data plan. It rides on T-Mobile USA’s GSM network with a $49 startup fee. The 4G data bounty ends at 4GB, after which Solavei throttles you back to 2G-level service. You can bring your own unlocked GSM phone (like an AT&T iPhone), paying just $9 for a SIM card.
  • Ting, a Sprint Nextel MVNO run by Internet domain company Tucows, offers a shared data plan. Ting customers will be able to share data, as well as voice and texts, across unlimited devices on one account. Each active device will cost just $6 a month. Ting said it plans to release a number of LTE devices for Sprint’s LTE network. Ting currently offers a number of EV-DO Android smartphones, including the WiMAX-capable Samsung Galaxy S II 4G.
  • Republic Wireless pledged “unlimited” voice and data service for $19 per month, but only if most traffic was routed to Wi-Fi. Currently, customers pay $199 up front for their first month of service and for the LG Optimus smartphone running version 2.3 Android. If customers want to continue with the no-contract service, they can pay $19 a month plus taxes after that, but can cancel the service at any time without an early termination fee.
  • FreedomPop. FreedomPop’s $99 iPhone case promises free broadband. You can get up to 500 MB free every month using their mobile WiFi unit that uses a built-in WiMax radio.
  • Simple Mobile is a T-Mobile MVNO which offers a $25/mo (750MB) or $45/mo (2GB) data-only plan. All that’s needed is an AT&T or T-Mobile GSM phone or mobile hotspot like the ZTE MF61 Mobile Hotspot and a data-only SIM from Simple Mobile. No contract or long term commitments.
  • Ultra Mobile, a T-Mobile USA MVNO, offers a prepaid unlimited plan that includes up to 1,000 minutes of international calling. It operates on a bring-your-own-device, SIM-only model and has a $29 per month unlimited talk and text and $39 per month for unlimited talk, text and HSPA data. The $49 per month service features unlimited talk, text and 1 GB of unthrottled HSPA data (throttled thereafter) and a credit for around 1,000 minutes of international calling.
  • The $49 Clear HotSpot gets you unlimited data for $34.99/mo, with no contract, but limits speed to 1.5 Mbps. The $49.99 service package gets you true unlimited data from both Clear and Virgin Mobile, with no preset speed caps.

AT&T owns an average of 118 MHz of spectrum per market, and Verizon slightly less than 100 MHz per market, according to FCC filings. Gaining full access to Clearwire’s almost 140 MHz of nationwide spectrum would make it the spectrum king (pdf), argues Verizon.

If the FCC approves Sprint’s acquisition of Clearwire, Sprint will be the largest spectrum holder in the United States, with an average of just over 200 MHz of spectrum across the country. It will own roughly as much spectrum as AT&T and Verizon combined, while having a quarter of the subscribers.

The big four carriers may have a scorched earth strategy towards “free” public Wifi.

Instead of installing thousands of small femtocells (using their own licensed frequencies), carriers may take over the three 2.4 GHz channels on unlicensed WiFi — requiring you to be a paid subscriber to get “free” seamless WiFi roaming. It’s easy to take over the WiFi band — just use double wide channels with 802.11ac. They may pull the plug on these upstart MVNOs after their own WiFi network gets built-out.

Carriers aren’t excited about unlimited broadband for $20/month. They’re especially not excited about free broadband. Only advertising providers like Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft want free. Free access means more ad dollars for them.

Another good reason for more unlicensed frequencies. Maybe the Mobility Services Advertisement Protocol (pdf) will save the day on White Spaces and 3.5GHz.

Related Dailywireless articles include; Republic Wireless: Unlimited Everything for $19.95/mo?, T-Mobile Gets Another Virtual Operator, RadioShack No-Contract Wireless, T-Mobile: No Contract $99 Android Phone, Shared Data Plans Compared, FreedomPop Plans Tablet Clip-on LTE Modem, FreedomPop: 1 GB Free, T-Mobile: iPhone, LTE, Contract-free, Unlimited data, MiFi Clearance: $19.95, Netzero: Free Data for Facebook Users, Great Deals on Prepaid Wireless Broadband, “Free” Public WiFi with WiMAX Backhaul ,FreedomPop: Now 500MB free/month, Sprint Brings WiMAX to Virgin and Boost Mobile,

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

One thought on “Unlimited $20/mo Wireless: New Normal?

  1. Clear was taken over by Sprint and eliminated the unlimited data services, replaced them with limited, more expensive plans that don’t make sense to me for value.

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