Your Mileage May Vary

It’s common to see some consumers giving a cell phone carrier glowing reviews while other consumers publish long rants about the same carrier. When it comes to cell phone service, your mileage may vary.

Cell phone users differ from each other in a lot of ways. It should be unsurprising that a T-Mobile customer in New York City might feel differently about the quality of his T-Mobile’s service than another customer in rural Wisconsin feels about her T-Mobile service. Even within a single geographic region, the way people feel about the quality of a given carrier will vary substantially. People use different phones and do different things with their phones. People are also pretty different. Some people don’t mind if they occasionally don’t have service while traveling in sparsely populated areas. I hate it. Some people are frustrated if their video streaming is limited to 480p quality. That doesn’t bother me.

When choosing cell service, realizing that individual experiences with a carrier will be highly variable can prevent a lot of frustration. Taking advantage of the fact that people’s mileage may vary can allow frugal consumers to save a lot on wireless service.

The frugal strategy

I would guess that there are millions of consumers paying $50-$100 per line each month for postpaid Verizon service that could switch to Mint Mobile plans costing about $20 per line each month without experiencing a recognizable decrease in service quality. While Verizon’s postpaid service is going to generally be better than Mint’s service, many consumers have great experiences with Mint.

Even if you expect to have a good experience with a premium carrier, it may be worth trying low-cost carriers beforehand. There’s a chance the low-cost carriers are capable of providing you with good service. Let’s assume a low-cost, prepaid service would cost you $20 per month while a premium service would cost you $70 per month and require a two-year commitment. If you try the prepaid service first and end up liking it enough to choose it over the premium service, the upside is huge. You can save $50 per month on each line and don’t get locked into a long contract. Over a two-year period, the financial savings come out to $1,200 per line. If you try the prepaid service and disklike it, the downside is pretty low. You experience one month of mediocre service before upgrading to something better.

Strategy outline

  • Consider getting an unlocked phone with near-universal compatibility if you don’t already have one1
  • Try a cheap, prepaid carrier for one month
  • If you love the carrier, stick with it
  • If not, try a slightly more expensive carrier
  • Keep trying more expensive carriers until you find one you like

Most people don’t use anything like this strategy. Some of them are leaving a lot of money on the table.

Footnotes

  1. This step may not be strictly necessary. If your phone is compatible with only some low-cost operators, you could limit yourself to trying those carriers before trying more expensive options.

2 thoughts to “Your Mileage May Vary”

  1. Hey! I just came across your site after reading MMM’s recent post about mobile phone plans.

    I’ve recently switched off Verizon myself, and estimate I’ll save nearly $700 annually by making this move to Mint Mobile. Would highly recommend.

    Also, depending on your needs, I’d recommend staying away from the recently-released “unlimited” plan, or in general plans from any carrier that say they’re “unlimited.” 4G (even 5G data) is never unlimited. But, 3G failover typically is.

    I’d love to read about the different types of 3G (it seems some versions/types may be better than others?) and maybe see phone plans with failovers to better kinds of 3G than others. I could be wrong on this, but for instance, my T-Mobile hotspot fails over to 3G and I’m still able to browse normally, hold meetings over Hangouts. But, when Mint fails over, it’s pretty darn slow.

    1. Great to hear about your savings Brandon!

      So there are some 3G-era technologies that are better than others, but I don’t think that’s the reason you’re seeing different speeds from T-Mobile and Mint. A lot of carriers will advertise something along the lines of: “unlimited data at 2G speeds after you run out of full-speed data.” (e.g., Mint). Most often, carriers use 2G speeds to mean speeds throttled to 128Kbps (i.e., very slow). Customers experiencing these 128Kbps speeds are usually actually accessing a 4G network, but have their speeds artificially slowed so the connection feels sort of like 2G.

      T-Mobile has a handful of situations where it throttles subscribers to what T-Mobile calls “3G speeds.” In T-Mobile’s case, that usually means about 600Kbps. Again, most subscribers experiencing those 3G speeds will be on a 4G network.

      It’s all a little silly and confusing for consumers. The phrases “3G speeds” and “2G speeds” don’t have clean cut meanings. 2G and 3G both involved a wide range of technologies and possible speeds.

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