Updated 8/25/14: T-Mobile recently became more generous. Its Simple Starter plan, a bare-bones package with unlimited talk and text, now gives you 2GB of data for $45 a month, rather than 500MB of LTE data for $40 a month. The new plan is a pretty good deal compared to what T-Mobile charges its Simple Choice customers: $50 for 1GB of data.
But beware. Simple Starter is a bargain only if you have a single phone. The benefit disappears if you have two or more lines. As the table below shows, with T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan, you can get 3GB of data per phone for the same $90 per month that it would cost you to get 2GB per phone on the Simple Starter Plan. Also, with the Simple Starter, you won’t get the unlimited international data and text or unlimited music streaming that’s available to Simple Choice customers.
Updated 8/19/14: Sprint is quietly abandoning the “Framily” plans it introduced just last January in favor of a complicated data-sharing scheme similar to the ones offered by AT&T and Verizon.
The new Family Share Pack presents data-sharing pricing scenarios that compete more favorably with the other carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon, even beating bargain king T-Mobile in several cases. But subscribers will need sharper math skills to calculate their optimal level of service. For example, besides determining how much data will be enough to meet the needs of all the phones in their household, Family Share Pack subscribers will have to compute the access fee for each phone tapping into it.
Consider these three points if you're contemplating the new plan.
1. Skip the traditional two-year phone downpayment plan and buy the phones using Sprint's Easy Pay plan, which has you pay off the phone in 24 monthly interest-free payments. Not only will your phone bill shrink once you've paid off the phones, but the monthy access fees are significantly lower for Easy Pay phones than they are for the downpayment phones ($25 or $15 per line vs. $40 per line)
2. If your household has four to five phones, consider buying 20GB of data because the access fee per phone drops from $25 to $15. For example, as the table below shows, it costs $10 less a month ($160) for four phones to share a 20GB bucket of data than it does for them to share an 8GB bucket of data.
3. You can add a tablet computer for $10 or a mobile HotSpot (a hockey-pucklike device that allows up to 10 devices to wirelessly connect to your data connection) for $20 a month.
Sprint says it will continue offering its Framily Plans for the time being, but declined to comment for how long or if there will be pricing changes. In the meantime, use the table below to see how Sprint’s new plan stacks up against the others.
Updated 4/8/14: Verizon radically reduced its Edge Share Everything service plans to bring its offerings more in line with the other recently reduced plans from other carriers—particularly chief rival AT&T. So, how did it do? As the revised table below shows, both carriers now often tie or beat each other by a few dollars, depending on the amount of data purchased and the number of phones tapping into it. Verizon's new pricing formula is a bit convoluted: When you purchase 10 or more gigabytes of sharable data per month, it charges you an additional $15 a month for each smart-phone line tapping into it. But if you buy less data, it charges you $30 for every smart phone using it.
Updated 3/11/14: The carrier wars continue, as AT&T revamped its phone plans over the past weekend, slashing rates for data and making its early-phone-upgrade Next plans more enticing. The new plans could appeal even to people not interested in upgrading early, since they make it possible to purchase the phone over time via an interest-free loan.
The net result is significantly lower service costs that approach and sometimes beat archrival T-Mobile, the reigning king of bargains among Telecom's Big Four. As our updated tables show, AT&T plan prices actually tie with T-Mobile in some instances. And that may be more than enough to draw smart-phone shoppers to AT&T, which in our consumer surveys was rated better for 4G data service than the other major carriers.
AT&T data charges have dropped significantly. For example, AT&T used to charge $45 for 1GB of data. Now it offers 2GB for only $40. But the big savings come with a no-contract plan. You can either pay full price for a phone up front, or make 20 or 26 interest-free monthly payments. For example, on the Next plan, a $650 iPhone 5s can be yours after 20 monthly payments of $32.50 or 26 monthly payments of $25, essentially an interest-free loan. AT&T also cuts the monthly charge for every phone tapping into its data plan from $40 to $25 each when the data bucket you share is less than 10GB. If you're divying up 10GB of data or more, the charge per phone drops to $15. In addition, for a limited time, all subscribers, current and new, who sign up for a Next plan also get a $100 per line credit for any phone they add (up to 10).
Of course, comparison shopping between carriers isn't easy. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—the Big Four—have done their best to complicate apples-to-apples comparisons. They charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competitions', and provide differing discounts for multiple phones.
To help you find the best deal, we’ve figured out the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy. data service. (Read "How Much Service Do You Need?") As the tables below show, each carrier stands out for different reasons:
- T-Mobile offers the best prices, and it was a solid performer in our recent cell-service survey of 58,000 subscribers in 23 metro areas.
- In our survey, Verizon was the most satisfying among the Big Four, and it was a standout for data service and resolving customer-support issues.
- Also according to survey, respondents, AT&T offered the most problem-free high-speed 4G data service, something to consider if you're a heavy data user.