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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: 2013 Cellphone Navigation Guide

Every year or so we like to take a fresh look at the cell phone landscape and reassess what makes the most sense for business, personal, and family use in terms of cost, functionality, and performance. Last year’s favorite based upon both cost and feature set was StraightTalk which offered unlimited talk, text, and data (sort of) on either the AT&T or T-Mobile network for $45 a month. Since that article was released, StraightTalk has quietly dropped the AT&T offering reportedly at AT&T’s request due to reported changes in the phone unlocking law. To date, existing StraightTalk users of the AT&T service have not been affected. Whether that will continue, of course, is anybody’s guess. Suffice it to say, when you could get identical or better functionality from StraightTalk for less than half the cost of buying directly from AT&T, customers were leaving AT&T in droves. So this may be nothing more than an attempt to stop the hemorrhaging. For those that may be interested, you still can buy an AT&T StraightTalk SIM on eBay for $30-$100.

What has also changed in the last year is the data plan landscape. Both of the Bell Sisters, AT&T and Verizon, have moved to shared data plans with unlimited talk and text. In the U.S. market, there are no more unlimited data plans except from the second tier providers, Sprint and T-Mobile. You basically pay a base fee for a bucket of data and then a per device fee for each cellphone or tablet you wish to use. It should come as no surprise that the costs are nearly identical whether you choose AT&T or Verizon. See this Engadget article for the details. If you’re a heavy consumer of data services or if you have kids that frequently stream music or movies, the pay-as-you-go shared data plans are bad news. Similarly, StraightTalk advertises unlimited data on their monthly plans but, in the fine print, bars use of any phone for tethering or any streaming services. We’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is deceptive advertising. Suffice it say, it hasn’t bothered the Federal Trade Commission thus far.

So what is a heavy cellphone data user to do? For the moment, there is a solution, but who knows what the future holds. Verizon has grandfathered in those customers who previously had $29.95 unlimited data plans, and this applies to 3G and 4G data services. For $30 more a month, you also can add tethering with unlimited data. For the record, if this sounds expensive to you, keep in mind that Verizon’s latest MiFi JetPack pricing for 10GB of data per month is a whopping $90. The only condition (thus far) for keeping an unlimited data plan is that customers cannot take advantage of new phone subsidies when renewing or extending a contract. But customers are free to purchase a new phone at full price and transfer an existing unlimited data plan account to the new phone. More importantly, for those of us not on a Verizon unlimited data plan, there is no restriction on transferring an existing account to someone else. It should come as no surprise that clever, long-time Verizon customers quickly started selling their unlimited data plan accounts on eBay. And we bought one to determine whether the transfer process actually works. It does!

Before we get to the details, we’ve got to share our latest Best Buy adventure to purchase the new Samsung Galaxy S4 which we will review in a few weeks. As with previous episodes, we continue to swear we’ll never again set foot in a Best Buy store. Here’s why. Thinking we’d save a little time, we ordered the GS4 on line at bestbuy.com with delivery to our local store. The site showed the store had the units in stock. Within minutes, we got an email confirmation that the order had been received. The original email noted that we would receive another email when the phone was ready for pickup but also included a link to actually schedule a pickup time. Certain times were blocked out, and we picked an available time slot which was roughly four hours after the phone had been purchased. So far, so good.

Silly us, we thought scheduling a pickup time might actually bear some relationship to the ordering procedure. It didn’t. When we arrived at the store, the customer service rep indignantly insisted that we had arrived too soon. The approval process had not been completed despite the fact that PayPal already had approved the transaction. The Best Buy web site actually showed that the order was awaiting confirmation (from the store) that the phone was in stock. The store employees claimed no knowledge of such a request. When would the process be completed? We were told it usually happened almost instantly, but this was "an expensive phone." Who knows? Four hours later, there still was no confirmation email. Because we were leaving town, the on line order was cancelled, and we returned to the Best Buy store to purchase the phone directly. The Verizon SIM card was an additional $20. The salesperson slipped it into the bag with the phone. Hours later, we discovered that Best Buy had taped a different SIM chip onto the credit-card sized card that usually contains both the SIM chip and the SIM card device ID. Because they didn’t match, we suspected that someone had returned a defective SIM card, and Best Buy had swapped out the bad SIM chip for the original one on the card. Guess where the bad one went? We’ll never know because we didn’t want to take a chance since we needed a working SIM card to complete the Verizon transfer procedure. Trip #3 to Best Buy plus an online order and a cancelled online order minus $823 for a phone, $290 to eBay, and $10 for gasoline, and we finally had all the pieces. Never again. Honest! In her usual sympathetic voice, my wife inquired, "How does Best Buy stay in business?" I responded that the stores were convenient. She reminded me that the process recounted above was anything but convenient. Amen.

If you decide you want a Galaxy S4, do yourself and Nerd Vittles a favor. Use the link in the right column to head over to Amazon. You’ll not only avoid the Best Buy aggravation, but you’ll save over $170 in the process while providing a little financial support to the Nerd Vittles project. If you’re a Prime member, you even get free 2-day shipping. Don’t forget to purchase a Verizon 4G SIM card. They’re $4 at Amazon instead of $20 at Best Buy. 🙄

When we purchased the grandfathered data plan on eBay, the seller had indicated that the plan would not be available for transfer for a couple of days. What we were told we needed was the IMEI of the phone plus the SIM card ID. Actually, you need a few more things unless you have an existing Verizon account. Remember, you have to pass a credit check to get Verizon service. And this requires your name, social security number, date of birth, home address, and phone number. In short, it’s everything anybody would want that was interested in identity theft. We have credit monitoring services so we weren’t too worried. If you don’t, you probably shouldn’t repeat the procedure we used since you’ll be on the phone with both the eBay seller AND the Verizon rep that’s handling the account transfer. Ideally, a seller should be able to provide you the cellphone number associated with the account, and you could provide the IMEI and SIM card ID to the seller for relaying to Verizon. Then you could call Verizon directly, plug in the cell phone number, and complete the transfer and credit check. This avoids the potential man-in-the-middle problem. In any case, the process was effortless. Changing the phone device and phone number on the account was a breeze. We chose a Calling Plan and Messaging Plan to go with the Unlimited Data Plan, and we were off to the races. Available plan pricing is shown above.

Still wondering why unlimited data with 4G LTE service matters? Take a gander at the performance numbers above from one of the most remote areas in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, and the answer should be obvious. Waynesville is a town with a population of under 10,000 people. Impressive indeed, Verizon!

Pioneer Alert. We’re pleased to announce the release of the new PIAF-Green Virtual Machine with PBX in a Flash, Asterisk 11, and FreePBX 2.11. This version incorporates important security updates including a new Linux kernel and patches to protect against the Apache SSL attacks plus the latest Google Voice Motif additions for Asterisk and FreePBX. Grab a copy to play with on your Windows, Mac, or Linux desktop. You can download it now from SourceForge and provide feedback in the PIAF Forum. Documentation is provided both in the SourceForge readme and in the Nerd Vittles article covering the previous release. We’ll have a new tutorial available next week on Nerd Vittles.

Deals of the Week. There are a couple of amazing deals still on the street, but you’d better hurry. First, for new customers, Sangoma is offering a board of your choice from a very impressive list at 75% off. For details, see this thread on the PIAF Forum. Second, a new company called Copy.com is offering 20GB of free cloud storage with no restrictions on file size uploads (which are all too common with other free offers). Copy.com has free sync apps for Windows, Macs, and Linux systems. To take advantage of the offer, just click on our referral link here. We get 5GB of extra storage, too, which will help avoid another PIAF Forum disaster.

Originally published: Thursday, June 6, 2013

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  1. I went through a comical route getting my S4 as well, but via T-Mobile. They wouldn’t sell me a phone for my pre-paid plan even if I paid the full price up front … I found out the new post paid plans with unlimited everything (500 meg 4G, then slows down) could be had for 2 phones for $80 / month and can add 3 more phones for only $10 / month each. Not too shabby. For those that want more data, its pretty cheap add-on. The phone is now your responsibility and they sold me mine and financed it over 2 years for 0% interest. But all in all – Get an S4 – This phone is INCREDIBLE !!

  2. If currently have a grandfathered plan, you can purchase (with an upgrade) online through Best Buy, or Amazon, or whatever third party and select to keep your plan. When you go to activate your device, you must do it through the verizon website (don’t EVER let any representatives touch your plan), and voila, you have a new, subsidized phone with unlimited data. I now have a grandfathered plan that goes until Nov. 2014. check out the article I wrote about my experience here: http://screwverizon.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/how-you-can-outsmart-verizon/

  3. If you happen to live near a Best Buy and don’t mind paying sales tax, be advised that Best Buy is currently matching Amazon.com pricing as long as the items are in stock. It saved us $125 on our previous Best Buy purchase. Just be sure to ask for the Low Price Guarantee at checkout or before your 14-day return period expires.

  4. Ward,
    Waynesville NC may be in the middle of nowhere, but it is close to some of the best motorcycling roads in all of the USA. Are you by chance a rider? Thanks as always for your insightful research and comments — the piece on justice and the national security apparatus was fascinating.

    [WM: Not a biker, but couldn’t agree more. Not a prettier spot in the country than the Waynesville area.]

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