Home Blog 2019 Roaming America With Prepaid | Eddie Hold
Apr 19, 2019

Roaming America With Prepaid

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By the time you read this, I should be somewhere in West Virginia, driving through states that are often referred to as “fly over states” by the tech industry and beyond. It’s a journey of discovery. No, I’m not trying to “find myself” (although I may get lost), but rather the trip is to gain a better understanding of regional differences within this country, particularly when it comes to broadband service, consumer tech, and mobile choices that consumers make. That’s a report that we’ll be publishing in July, assuming I’m not still lost in America’s Heartland.

At the same time, I thought it would be a great opportunity to test the wireless networks in a very qualitative, ad hoc manner, so I’m taking prepaid phones from the four main carriers with me. This means that my journey of discovery really started when I went smartphone shopping. The goal was simple: travel to each carrier’s store and request a combination of a cheap smartphone and enough prepaid service to keep me connected for about three weeks. What I quickly came to realize is that the era of The Wire’s burner phone is long gone, at least when it comes to a prepaid smartphone. This is no longer an off-the-shelf experience, but rather an activation process that takes time. Indeed, at Boost Mobile, the activation process took over 30 minutes and involved lots of concerted tapping on a computer, as well as a couple of phone calls, before I got my phone. By contrast, I was out of Verizon in ten minutes flat.

But more than that, prepaid is no longer a simple side-by-side comparison between the competitive services, especially when the need is a rather short-term one. Each carrier offers different plans and incentives, particularly if you are in the relatively unique position of looking for, essentially, that proverbial burner to use for just one month. Again, Boost Mobile scored the worst: I walked out of the store having spent over $150 to purchase one month of data and the cheapest smartphone they had. They even charged a $25 activation fee… on prepaid! The experience – and cost – does not bode well for the long-term survival of that brand if the T-Mobile/Sprint merger actually happens. By comparison, Verizon was the cheapest option at $100, AT&T was $118, and T-Mobile was $110 – and that included two months of unlimited data so that I could score a free phone (who says subsidies are dead?).

More interesting was the vibe of each store: Boost was the least energetic; AT&T and Verizon had the polished professionalism that we’ve all come to expect, and the T-Mobile team had an energy and enthusiasm that is often rare to find in any retail experience. These were people who had a passion (yes, real passion) about mobile (and TV these days) and it showed. 

Of course, the real fun has yet to begin. I suspect once I reach West Virginia, memories of the initial store experience will fade and the real priority will be seeing how well each carrier’s coverage map matches to the reality I encounter. To be continued…

The initial purchase

Carrier AT&T Boost T-Mobile Verizon
Phone LG Phoenix 4 Samsung
Galaxy J3
Motorola Moto e ZTE Blade Vantage
Phone Cost (after promo) $69.99 $50 $0 $50
Activation Fee - $25 - -
Service Price $35 $67 $100 $40
Data 1 GB Unlimited Unlimited 3 GB
Months of service 1 1 2 1
Total Price (including taxes) $114.98 $146.19 $110.78 $100

Based on requesting the cheapest price possible (phone and plan combined), with a minimum of 1GB of data.


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