How the Latest Wireless Plans from U.S. Carriers Stack Up

AT&T and Verizon both cut the prices of wireless family plans, while T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular slashed the costs of entry-level plans. CIO.com blogger Bill Snyder breaks down each option and exposes the "gotchas."

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly wireless plan that includes a decent amount of high-speed data, both U.S. Cellular and T-Mobile now offer plans that cost $50 a month or less.  Verizon and AT&T recently did some similar price cutting on plans for single users and families using multiple devices.

T-Mobile on Wednesday introduced the Simple Starter option, a $40-per-month plan that includes unlimited talk and text along with 500MB of high-speed data.

Yes, there's a catch. Most data plans automatically bump customers up to the next usage tier when they hit their monthly allotment or slow down access to speeds well below what's expected from 4G LTE. T-Mobile's Simple Starter plan cuts users off once they hit the 500MB limit; a message pops up offering the ability to pay for additional data. A customer can pay $5 for an additional 500MB for the day, or $10 for 1GB to be used over the next week.

That’s not too bad if the message comes at the end of the month, but if you’ve mistakenly streamed a bunch of music or video over cellular (as opposed to Wi-Fi) and you have a few weeks to go, your $40 a month payment will jump to $50 or $60 or even $70. That's a real possibility because 500MB really isn't a lot of monthly data. So if you opt for this plan, you need to pay close attention to usage.

T-Mobile Simple Starter will be available on Saturday, April 12.

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A few days ago, U.S. Cellular unveiled its "Simple Connect" plan (available now) that provides customers with unlimited talk, text and data, without a contract. Smartphone users have two options to choose from: $50 per month for 500MB of data; or $60 per month for 2GB data. Crossing either threshold gets you "throttled" for the rest of the billing period, which means your connection speeds will be quite slow.

Last week, the "Verizon More Everything" plan got cheaper; customers who purchase 10GB or more of monthly data can now add an additional smartphone to a plan for $15 a month, instead of $20. Verizon also cut the cost of its monthly access fee for such customers from $40 to $15 a month. For a family of four, that breaks down to $160 per month for 10GB of data and unlimited talk and text. There is a single line plan for $60 for 1GB of data and unlimited talk and text if you're on a standard, two-year contract. But you save $10 a month if you opt for the Edge plan that allows you to pay for your device at full retail over installments and upgrade more frequently.  

Verizon's move on the shared plans matched priced AT&T's recent price cuts, where a family plan for four with 10GB of data also costs $160 a month. AT&T now has a good basic plan as well, it’s called Mobile Share Value. For $50 a month (plus taxes and fees) you get 1GB of data plus unlimited talk and text if you choose AT&T Next; if you opt for a standard two-year contract the price goes up to $65 a month. AT&T also lets customers upgrade more frequently if they're willing to pay full retail price for phones, either all at once or via monthly installments that carry no interest charges.

This is all fairly confusing, and I wish the carriers would offer simpler choices and Web pages with all of the information you need to make an informed purchase decision. Still, wireless customers are reaping the benefits of more competition, and the extra effort needed to parse the offers really is worth it.

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