Whether we realize it or not, every almost every decision we make is a compromise. Shortly before I retired from State service, knowing I might start a business that would require me to be responsive to clients no matter where I was, I enrolled for Verizon cell service, paying a high monthly price for service and committing myself to a two-year contract, but receiving in return a free Android phone, unlimited data, virtually unlimited texts, and an adequate allowance of weekday talk minutes (nights and weekends, as well as calls to other Verizon phones, do not count against the monthly allocation of talk minutes). I also received a small discount for being a State employee.
As documented in earlier posts on this blog, things changed, especially for people like me who wanted to keep their unlimited data plans. The option of a new phone, heavily subsidized, was out. I also learned that Verizon service uses a system (CDMA) that is not widely used, especially outside the US and Canada (in the US, Sprint also uses it), which means that you almost certainly will need to purchase a new phone, or go on a contract plan, if you wish to switch carriers. I had less than stellar experiences with Verizon customer service, especially before I went to Europe. On the other hand, Verizon coverage, for both voice and data, is among the best, if not the best, especially in this area.
The final straw came when, some three years after I left State service, Verizon sent me several e-mails requesting that I verify my employment to continue receiving my employee discount. Having received this discount for some three years after I left State employment, I assumed that the State was not paying Verizon the amount of the discount on behalf of its employees. I called, explained that while I was not a State employee, I was a State retiree, and asked if that was enough to allow me to continue to receive a discount. I was told it was not, but was offered a plan similar to what I was on at a similar price – but with unlimited talk and text instead of unlimited data – if I agreed to a one-year commitment.
I considered that offer an invitation to re-think my cell phone service. I was paying top dollar for Verizon service with unlimited data, but my $75 used phone was starting to act up and would need replacing soon. In addition, I did not relish paying $7.60 more per month without the discount, or losing the unlimited data (I didn’t care about unlimited talk and texting, since I use little of each). Two alternatives especially caught my eye: Straight Talk from Wal-Mart, for its unlimited $45/month plan, and the possibility of using my present phone, and Consumer Cellular, for its low prices and reputation for stellar customer service, though it does not offer unlimited plans.
In a recent article on cell service, Consumer Reports noted that Straight Talk had received high ratings, though I had read elsewhere that its customer service was terrible. Its unlimited talk, text and data for $45 a month (like most unlimited plans, the data slows down from 4G to 2G after you use 2.5 G in a month) was very attractive, and I decided to take a chance on it if I could continue to use my own phone, knowing that I would be free to switch to another carrier if I didn’t like it. Straight Talk is one of the few services that uses CDMA (it also uses the other standard, GSM), and its website advertises that one can use some Verizon phones on its CDMA network. However, I was unable to verify on the web site that my phone would work, so I went to my local Wal-Mart and spoke with someone there. She checked a web site on her phone, which indicated I could use my phone. I bought a starter kit for $60 which included all I needed to register my phone, plus payment for the first month of service. Skeptical because of my own earlier inability to get the web site to accept my phone, I also obtained assurance that I could return the kit for a refund if I could not register my phone. As I feared, I could not register my phone. I returned to the Wal-Mart phone department, received an apology (with some comments that mine was not the first CDMA phone that could not be registered for the service) and was told to go to customer service. There, I was told that I could not return the kit for a refund, since it had been opened. I went ballistic and ultimately was given a refund, thus ending my experiment with Straight Talk.
I resigned myself to getting a new unlocked GSM phone, which would give me access to just about every US carrier except for Verizon and Sprint, and which, at least in theory, I could use anywhere in the world with an appropriate SIM card. I found a Samsung Galaxy S3 new on E-bay for $320, and ordered it.
My decision to try Consumer Cellular required a real paradigm shift on my part. Having unlimited data, I was used to leaving my wi-fi off and always using the cellular, even when I was home and in other places where secure wi-fi was available. I also freely streamed music from my phone in the car and elsewhere, and spoke freely on nights and weekends and with other Verizon customers. I had my e-mail and various other apps set to poll for updates almost constantly. I certainly personified the adage that one does not conserve what one does not pay for. Consumer Cellular does not offer unlimited plans, preferring to have you pay for only what you use. They do allow you to switch between various plans at will and without penalty which, in connection with usage alerts that warn when you are approaching the limits of your current plan, facilitate that goal. With that promise in mind, I committed to a 200 minute voice plan ($15/mo.), with every call on the meter, regardless of time and day, and a 500 mb data plan with 5000 texts ($20/mo.). Consumer Cellular provided a SIM card for free, and does not charge an activation fee, so I felt I was taking little risk.
I had a good experience with customer service setting up my phone, and I configured the settings to use wi-fi when possible and to only update things like e-mail upon command. So far, I have used a small fraction of my data allowance, and I anticipate being able to drop to an even less expensive plan if my usage continues to be this low. Even on my current data and voice plans, however, my new phone will be paid off in a matter of months (based on the difference between what I was paying Verizon and what I will be paying Consumer Cellular). So far, I am happy, though I haven’t yet received my first bill, and therefore don’t know how much in fees will be tacked on to the nominal rates (I should have asked, but neglected to). Coverage is not as complete as Verizon in this area, but doesn’t work only in very sparsely populated regions. And, if things don’t work out, I now have a myriad of other options.