I am now 2 months into my new cell phone plan with Virgin Mobile. There have been a few setbacks, but for the most part, I couldn’t be happier to have dropped AT&T in favor of a no-contract plan.
I wouldn’t be willing to claim that no-contract mobile phone plans are for everyone. There are some cons that may be considered deal breakers for some.
But if you can live with the negative features common to no-contract plans, then when your cell contract is up, it is probably time to ditch your current provider and go no-contract.
Pros of no-contract cell phone plans
No contract: This seems like it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Traditional cell phone providers lock you into an agreement of up to three years, although the standard length is two. The cost of breaking this agreement is up to $200.
The no-contract cell providers have none. Combined with number portability laws, the limiting factor I’d only how often you can afford a new phone.
Price: This was the real reason for my switch was price. When I had AT&T, I opted out of a data plan for my dumb-phone. To add unlimited data to their lowest voice plan and unlimited text, the plan would have cost $70 per month, plus taxes. When my wife switched to Virgin Mobile, she got the same number of minutes (300), plus unlimited text and data. Basically, the same plan as I would have gotten for $70 on AT&T. Her cost: $35. That’s right, for the same plan, she paid exactly half of what I would have.
Cons of no-contract cell phone plans
Limited Selection: Virgin Mobile offers 12 phones on their no-contract plans. AT&T has 50. No contract providers tend to get slightly older technology, also. Virgin Mobile has 2 4G phones available. Two out of twelve works out to almost 17%. AT&T has 38 4G phones; that is over 3/4ths!
Now that the iPhone is pretty much available on every carrier on the planet (or so it seems), Virgin offers two: the iPhone 4 and the 4S, both 3G. AT&T has the 4, the 4S (in 4G) and the 5.
How about the latest version of the Android operating system. Ice Cream Sandwich? Virgin Mobile has 4. Really they have three, because they have both the 3G and 4G version of the HTC One V. AT&T doesn’t give up that information easily, but a Best Buy circular from 3 months ago listed more ICS phones than that for AT&T.
2nd tier status on networks: No contract phone providers don’t actually have their own networks. In the US, only AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile actually own cell infrastructure. No contract providers simply rent bandwidth off of other companies, usually Sprint. A lot of people don’t particularly like Spring (I’m one of them) and are unwilling to go with a provider that utilizes them. I don’t have any such compunction and haven’t had any Sprint-related issues with Virgin Mobile.
That said, the main players aren’t going to place their tenants customers on equal footing as their own. So if bandwidth starts getting tight, service will degrade for me before the guy next door with Sprint. How big of a deal is this? My wife has been on Virgin Mobile for a year now and the issue has been noticeable exactly once. Actually, that’s when we first found out about it, because we were out at the time and stopped at Best Buy because we thought it was the phone.
Fewer locations for service: That brings me to my next point. Locations to service your phone aren’t going to be as easy to come by. Cricket is probably the largest no contract provider out there and stores for them are starting to pop up, but the other companies rely on phone support. Virgin Mobile’s phone support is pretty good, but nothing beats being able to go in and talk to a person.
My wife’s last AT&T phone once started having problems and would randomly shut off. We had to drive 30 miles to the nearest AT&T store with a repair center, but in 10 minutes, they had determined that the battery was swollen and replaced it.
If I had a similar problem with my new no-contract phone, I would probably take it into Best Buy and they would ship it into Virgin Mobile, or even LG for diagnosis and repair or replacement.
Pay full price for phones: The carrot that the Big 4 use to get you to sign up for a multi-year contract is reduced price for most cellphones. Back in the days before smart phones, most phones were free and the most expensive one I ever saw was $50. If you had to replace a phone mid-contract, it could get expensive. But at new-contract time, it was back to free phone land.
Nowadays, free phones are mostly behind us, but there are still some pretty good discounts on phone prices. $400 phones become $100 phones. The previous model of iPhone becomes affordable.
But no-contract cell plans don’t have this carrot. That makes sense, because they also don’t have the stick! A budget Android smartphone is going to start around $100 and work its way up from there. The most expensive Android phone on Virgin Mobile’s website is $299
No free nights and weekends:My biggest disappointment with Virgin Mobile and no-contract plans in general has been no free nights and weekends and no free mobile-to-mobile calls. When I was one AT&T, and Verizon before that, I used those two features to keep my cell phone plan low. I could afford to have the 300 minute plan because I only averaged 200 “anytime” minutes each month. My longer phone calls have always been on the weekends anyway because that is when most people are available to talk.
Without free nights and weekends, my cell phone usage is over 300 minutes. It works out to just under 500 minutes last month. Doing the math, it seems that I spend about 5 hours per month talking on the weekends! So I have to utilize a larger plan. Luckily, an extra $10 gets me an extra 900 minutes. If I find myself bumping up against the upper level of a 20 hour rate plan, just shoot me. Because I will have been replaced by a pod person.
I realize this list seems awfully slanted toward the cons, making them seem like a bad deal. But the paying half price for the same plan is an incredibly large pro in my book! If I had to rank the above points, I would say they are: contract price (60%), nights & weekends (15%), phone price (10%), selection (8%), contract (5%), service (1%), and then network status (1%). So the pros get weighted at 65% (almost two-thirds) of my overall decision and the cons only 35%.
Do you have a no-contract cell phone plan? Would you give a different weighting to these factors?