Why unlocked smartphones and no-contract plans are a much better deal

I am so, so sick of the way U.S. wireless carriers totally rip off smartphone users by locking them into expensive 2-year contracts — with the lure of getting a high-end smartphone for only a couple hundred bucks up front. For most customers, the math just doesn’t work.

So I’m casting off the financial and technological shackles, to be a mobile consumer on my own terms. I will never again buy a subsidized phone or sign another long-term carrier contract.

This month I bought an unlocked Nexus 5 smartphone direct from Google, and I’m now switching to my first no-contract plan. Yes, I paid more up front for the phone, Plus I’ll have to pay a hefty “screw you” early termination fee to ditch my Verizon contract. It’s still so worth it.

Why? Here’s the short version: Considering all costs to make this switch, and the savings I’ll get, I’ll see about a 4-month payback plus savings of nearly $70/month thereafter! Plus I’ll have tons more flexibility in devices, carriers and plans from here out.

Hell yeah! Here’s the math behind this choice… Continue reading

Free Kindles, local mobile news, and pissed off fanboys: My recent CNN.com Tech mobile stories

It’s been a very busy month and a half for me. I spent a week in Los Angeles as a featured presenter for the Mobile News Week at the journalism school there, and now I’m finishing preparations to travel to two other journalism schools next week for the Knight Digital Media Center’s Mobile Symposium. So I haven’t been letting Contentious.com readers know what I’ve been writing elsewhere.

But I’ve been logging a lot of cool mobile stuff for CNN.com Tech. So here’s a quick list of what I’ve been covering there…

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Mobile users team up to map wireless network coverage, quality

If you’re shopping for a wireless carrier, one of your first questions is (or should be): Which carriers offer the best coverage in the locations where you spend most of your time?

You could try to figure that out by looking at the coverage maps the carriers all provide, but take that information with a big grain of salt. Those maps often overstate the reach, strength, and quality of their coverage, and they don’t give detail down to the block level.

On CNN.com Tech today, I wrote about two projects where mobile users are creating their own maps of carrier coverage:

Crowdsourced maps help mobile users compare network reliability

These efforts are handled via iPhone and Android apps — which means that BlackBerry, Palm, and feature phone users can’t participate in making these maps. But the maps (which you can view on Open Signal Maps and RootMetrics) are potentially useful to anyone.

…Well, at least, to anyone in a major metro area, so far. There’s sparse reporting from other regions, but the more people who use these apps, the better these maps will get.

I really like these projects, not least because they’re an important way to hold wireless carriers accountable for delivering the speed and coverage they advertise. They’re also useful if you want to figure out whether your carrier is throttling your data.

MetroPCS takes leapfrog approach to wireless network technology

Last week on CNN.com Tech I wrote a story about an interesting new offer from MetroPCS: No-contract smartphone may lure first-time users. In a nutshell, this discount carrier (which is one of the most popular carriers here in Oakland, CA), which previously has offered only feature phones and low-end BlackBerries, is starting to offer an unlocked smartphone running Android 2.2 under an affordable no-contract plan: $50/month for 1GB data, and $60/month unlimited data. (Plus unlimited talk, text, etc. on both plans.)

This is not the first discount wireless carrier to offer a no-contract smartphone. But it is the first such offering from a carrier that has already rolled out its high-speed LTE network in 13 metro areas.  And here’s why that’s interesting in terms of business strategy, and for consumers…

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Verizon reserves right to throttle data for high-consumption users: Is that you?

As of today, Verizon Wireless says it may start “throttling” service to the 5% of its customers who consume the most data over its network.

Today is also the first day that people can pre-order the new Verizon iPhone. A Verizon spokesman told the Wall St. Journal that this is just a coincidence.

Yeah. Right.

A move like this indicates that Verizon is concerned about growing network congestion, which affects service to all customers. And they should be. But the way they’re going about it is pretty frustrating…

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Why unlimited smartphone data plans will probably vanish

In my latest CNN Tech mobile blog post, I riffed on the recent mixed signals Verizon and AT&T have been sending about whether they would offer unlimited data plans for the iPhone. But unlimited data plans may not be around long for any smartphone (or tablet, or mifi device, etc.), simply because of the difficulty of managing a growing proliferation of data-hungry mobile devices on wireless broadband networks.

See: Unlimited data for the iPhone? Don’t bet on it long term

Just after I filed that story, I noticed a relevant Jan. 25 post by Kevin Fitchard on Connected Planet:

Will bill shock be the death of tiered data plans, or the other way around?

Some key exerpts… Continue reading