Friday, March 08, 2013

StraightTalk Overview

Imagine that your service provider just offered to cut your annual bill by about $1,000, while still giving you (mostly) unlimited data, and then throwing in unlimited text and talk just for good measure? Too good to be true? Not if you have a Nexus 4 and move from a contract, to pre-paid on Straight Talk.
How do I save $1,000 per year?
For the uninitiated, Straight Talk is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). An MVNO buys capacity on someone else's network (e.g. AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.). They negotiate wholesale rates, and then they chop up that capacity and resell it to consumers. In other word's they're a middle man... they don't own a network, or towers... they don't build infrastructure. They just repackage the capacity, and pass cost savings on to end-users. And yes... believe it or not, it's actually a thing.
And this saves me money?
You've probably seen the ads for pre-paid wireless... be it Straight Talk, or Virgin Mobile, or one of dozens of different MVNOs that offer $45-$50 per month for unlimited everything... that can't possibly be true, right? There's got to be some catch... because who in their right mind would pay double that for their AT&T contract? Well, by the numbers the vast majority do. In fact, despite trailing Verizon by 20 million wireless subscribers in Q1, 2013... AT&T is expected to add another 475,000 new customers this quarter! What's that worth? Well, it's worth more than $38 million per month in new revenue to them! Why? simply because most people won't consider a pre-paid option, like Straight Talk. (And now you also know how Verizon and AT&T can afford to pay such high dividends to their stockholders).
Yes, but is it really unlimited everything?
Good question - and there are some caveat's if you read Straight Talk's terms and conditions. The one that has the potential to impact most folks is the "unlimited" web-browsing... which is in fact, different from unlimited data. "So what's the distinction?" Well, you can check the link for the details but the short of it is that you shouldn't stream video (much), and you should pay attention to your data usage. At the risk of oversimplifying... unlimited web-browsing translates into "don't abuse your data plan"... which if you're looking for a real-world guideline actually means... keep it to 2GB per month, or not much more than 100mb on any given day. So the next question many folks ask, is "Is that alot", or"What's typical?". Most customers on either AT&T or T-Mobile don't reach a 2GB per month. And only 4% of AT&T customers use more than 3GB. The story might be a little dated, so I also conduced an unscientific survey of folks working in a technology company... all had Smart Phones, and all were in the age range of 28- 40 years of age. Guess what they used? The average range was between 700MB - 1.2GB per month.
What does this have to do with an unlocked Android phone (like, say... a Nexus 4)?
Google's Nexus 4 is a carrier unlocked GSM phone. You probably already know that. And if you don't, Brian over at Anandtech does a good job of explaining why it's a great phone. Of particular note is the zerogap LCD display. In case you weren't aware, unlike the Galaxy SIII, the Nexus 4 does not have a Super AMOLED display. Since the Nexus 4 is manufactured by the king of LCD production, LG has managed to squeeze every lost drop of LCD goodness out of the aging technology (while yields are still ramping up on the OLED manufacturing). For those unfamiliar with GSM it means that the phone will work darn near anywhere on earth that has a cell phone carrier, and all you need to do is grab a prepaid SIM card on a local carrier's network. Prepaid SIM cards are common just about everywhere in the world, expect for the US (though via MVNO's, they're becoming more common). So in the United States, why does this matter.. For starters, it's now illegal to unlock a locked phone without the carrier's permission. Crazy, right? AT&T and T-Mobile are the two major GSM-based networks in the United States. So, with a Nexus 4 -available at the Google Play store you can buy a $300 phone without a carrier subsidy, a phone nearly identical to the unlocked $750 (retail) LG Optimus G. Why the difference? Long story short... the Nexus 4 doesn't have 4G LTE coverage capability anymore ;)... it's limited to 3G (but can do HSPA+). There are rumors that Google is selling the phone at cost, or perhaps at a loss, but it may just be that the margins are higher on phones than what some folks thought. Whatever the case, it's a great phone for only $100 more than what would be the typical carrier subsidy.
What does YOUR contract cost?
I hate spending money on things that I don't need, especially things with a monthly recurring cost. Going back and looking at my cell phone bill from 2001 (because, yes... I do keep cell phone bills from a decade ago - doesn't everyone?), I was amazed... my bill was about $45 a month through Sprint. Given inflation, it must have gone up... so factoring 3% annual inflation, my bill should on the order of $61 a month. But no, my bill was about $90 per month, and when I add a second line, data, text ... I was paying $167 a month ... so about $2,000 a year for my mobile communication "needs". Now, I don't know where you live, or what you do for a living but $2k a year for a couple of cell phones is kind of a lot, right? 20 years ago the things barley existed, and in the intervening decades I've stacked up monthly-recurring cost upon cost... cable, ISPs, cell phones, text messaging, Netflix, and maybe even a plain-old phone line... when you add it all up, you're looking at the cost of a BMW 3-Series lease ($310 per month) spent solely on communication needs! So could I actually have been consuming a luxury German sports sedan worth of communication needs every month? Probably not. But make no mistake... I was certainly paying for it.
So what's the plan?
As you may have figured out by now, my plan was to buy a pair of Nexus 4 phones, and then port my numbers from AT&T to Straight Talk. My goal was to save on the order of $1,000 per year by doing so. With both of those steps having been completed, and a month or two having passed, I've started to get a sense of what it's like being on a pre-paid plan.
So how does Straight Talk work, and how's the coverage?
Remember how I said Straight Talk is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), that resells the big carrier's infrastructure? Well, that means that the coverage is just about the same on whichever parent network that you use. What I mean by that is this... if you have a Nexus 4 already, then you have an unlocked GSM phone already. And that means you just need to pick-up a Straight Talk SIM card... either an AT&T Compatible SIM Card, or a T-Mobile Compatible SIM card - either will work in your Nexus 4. For me, I know I have good AT&T coverage - because I was an AT&T customer for more than 5 years. When I went over to Straight Talk, I chose an AT&T Compatible Card. In other words, my Straight Talk coverage is the same coverage I'd get on AT&T. So when I'm on the road, I have the same great coverage in most places (and the exact same dead spots as I did before). Oh, and if you've researched this in the past, you might have read that there's no roaming. Which is true, and might be problematic if you were using a CDMA phone on Straight Talk. But you're not... you're using the Nexus 4, and you're using either AT&T or T-Mobile... and in the case of the former, the network is massive. So unless you're out of the country you really don't need to worry about roaming if AT&T has descent coverage where you live and work.
This sounds complicated.
You know what, I thought the exact same thing before I switched. In fact, I started looking into pre-paid options in 2010 before re-upping with AT&T. Do you want to know why I didn't switch to a pre-paid plan then? I thought it was too complicated... and simply not worth my time for what I thought would be a meager savings. It's not that there weren't enough cell phone network options, or that I couldn't afford an unsubsidized new phone. I just thought it wasn't worth the irritation. The reality? I'm saving at least $829 per year on Straight Talk over my prior AT&T plan, and I use my phone more than I used to.
Okay fine - maybe it's not too complicated, but isn't it only for phone geeks?
No... in fact, it's probably better for you if you're not a phone geek. Why is that? Because many phone geeks spend way too much time on their phones, and as a result they tend to use way too much data. Remember how I talked about the limits up in the above sections? Well, there are penalties for being irresponsible with your data usage, but as I mentioned... the vast majority of folks don't use even 2GB of data per month. If you don't know how much data you're using, and have a Nexus 4... click Settings>Data Usage... and check your data usage and the break-down by application. Go back a few months as well... more than 2GB per month? Probably not. If you're on AT&T or T-Mobile, you can also check the web-site and see what you've been using.
Where are the correct APN settings?
Straight Talk keeps the APN settings here. But here's a quick-reference:
Name: Straight Talk, APN: att.mvno, Proxy: Not Set, Port: 80, Username: Not set, Password: Not set, Server: Not Set, MMSC:, MMS Proxy:, MMS port: 80, MCC: 310, MNC: 410, Authentication Type: Not Set, APN Protocol: IPv4, APN roaming protocol: IPv4, Bearer: Unspecified).
What's the verdit?
I'm a couple months into the switch to Straight Talk on my Nexus 4, and am on track to save over $829 this year. It's not painful, and it's not a scam. Knowing the above helps... and knowing even more can help save you time and hassle. If you're still worried about your data usage, coverage, or are just looking for a quick-start read-

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