10 Alternative Carriers That Can Save You Serious Cash on Your Smartphone Bill

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When it comes time to choose a wireless carrier, most Americans just go with AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon. Recently, more and more people have been tempted by T-Mobile’s cost-slashing “Uncarrier” moves, but that's about where it ends: the four major carriers.

And that reluctance to look beyond the big guys could be costing you money.

Did you know there are a host of different carriers in the U.S. that use the same networks as the big companies but offer some serious discounts on your monthly bill? They’re called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and piggyback on the major carrier's networks.

If you’ve never heard of MVNOs, you soon will. Google reportedly wants to get in on the MVNO game and offer its own cell plans using the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile, paired with Wi-Fi. Beyond MVNOs, another report says Cablevision is planning a mobile carrier service called Freewheel that will depend entirely on Wi-Fi—including free access to the company’s more than one million public hotspots.

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But you don’t have to wait for Cablevision and Google to get in the cell phone service game. There are already numerous MVNOs running on networks from all four major carriers, and some that also offer Wi-Fi only plans. Many of the more interesting carriers run on Sprint, but there are also a number of options that use T-Mobile for anyone looking to use a GSM-based phone.

In no particular order, here's a look at 10 MVNOs that are well worth a look, at least on paper. We haven't been able to test these networks ourselves so you'll have to judge their quality on your own.

It should also go without saying, but if you plan to bring your own device (BYOD) to an MVNO—not all allow it—the device must be compatible with that MVNO’s underlying network, be it Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T.

1. Ting

  • Carrier: Sprint
  • BYOD: Yes (some restrictions)
  • Cost: $21 per month (monthly average)
  • LTE: Yes

Ting is one of the more interesting choices among MVNOs. The company offers what is more or less a pay-as-you-go model. Ting categorizes usage by buckets. The first 1-100 minutes, for example, cost $3, the next bucket $9, and the next $18. There are also buckets for SMS and MB of data usage, and you must pay a monthly per-device fee of $6 each. The company’s complete rates are on its site. Ting says the average monthly cost per device is $21.

A variety of phones are available with Ting, including the iPhone 5s, Nexus 5, and Galaxy S5. If you're thinking of moving to Ting, the company says it will pay 25 percent of the early termination fee (ETF) from your current carrier, up to $75.

2. Republic Wireless

  • Carrier: Sprint
  • BYOD: No
  • Cost: $5-$40 per month
  • LTE: Yes

Republic Wireless is one of several carriers that integrates Wi-Fi, reverting to a cellular connection only when Wi-Fi isn’t available. In fact, if you live in an urban environment and are daring enough, you can pay just $5 per month for a Wi-Fi-only plan. The bad news is that if you aren't connected to Wi-Fi your phone won't work. Nevertheless, this might be an ideal plan for a university student who lives on campus.

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You can't bring your own device to Republic Wireless, but the company does offer Motorola phones such as the Moto X.

After the Wi-Fi plan, how much you pay really depends on what you need. For $40 per month you can get unlimited talk, text, and data on 4G and Wi-Fi, though the data is throttled after 5GB/mo. There's also a $10 plan that's talk and text on cell and Wi-Fi, plus Wi-Fi only data. Whichever plan you choose, Republic phones default to Wi-Fi whenever possible.

3. FreedomPop

  • Carrier: Sprint
  • BYOD: Yes
  • Cost: Free to $80 per year
  • LTE: Yes

Another Wi-Fi centric carrier similar to Republic, FreedomPop offers a $5 Wi-Fi-only plan. You can also get unlimited voice, text, and 500MB of data for $11 per month, or you can pay $80 up-front for an entire year of the same plan. There's also a $20 monthly plan that offers unlimited everything over Sprint's 4G network, but data is downgraded to 3G speeds after the first gigabyte.

4. Scratch Wireless

  • Carrier: Sprint
  • BYOD: No
  • Cost: $2 to $4 per day, $25 to $40 per month
  • LTE: Yes

Scratch Wireless takes another interesting pay-as-you-go approach like Ting. Instead of buckets, Scratch uses a “passes” concept. You can get a daily pass for $2 offering unlimited voice, and pay another $2 for unlimited data for a day. If you need a monthly pass, Scratch offers $25 for unlimited data and another $15 gets you a month of unlimited voice. Scratch does not charge for SMS, which is free under all its plans.

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Like other MVNOs in this list, Scratch opts for Wi-Fi whenever possible.

5. MetroPCS

  • Carrier: T-Mobile
  • BYOD: Yes
  • Cost: $40-$60 per month
  • LTE: Yes

An actual part of T-Mobile, MetroPCS offers standard prepaid packages similar to the mainstream carriers. You can still save some money, however, as MetroPCS offers unlimited talk and text along with 2GB of LTE and unlimited data at “average MetroPCS network speeds” beyond that for $40 per month. Plans with 4GB of LTE and unlimited LTE cost $50 and $60 per month, respectively.

6. Brightspot

  • Carrier: T-Mobile
  • BYOD: Yes
  • Cost: $30-$55 per month
  • LTE: Yes

Target's MVNO Brightspot offers a number of basic plans. If you're not a big talker, you can get a $35 plan that includes unlimited text, up to 3GB of data at 4G speeds, and 300 minutes of voice.

7. UltraMobile

  • Carrier: T-Mobile
  • BYOD: Yes
  • Cost: $19-$59 per month
  • LTE: Yes

Ultra Mobile offers a number of standard plans that can meet your needs. The company also offers some international options for those who need to call overseas (as do a number of other MVNOs, including Brightspot). For $29 Ultra Mobile offers unlimited talk and text, and 1GB of LTE data.

5phones4 Michael Homnick

8. Net10

  • Carrier: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
  • BYOD: Yes
  • Cost: $25-$80 per month
  • LTE: Yes

Owned by TracFone, Net10 offers connections on all four networks depending on your preferences. For $40 per month you can get unlimited talk, text, and data. The downside is Net10 only offers the first 500MB of data at LTE speeds.

9. PTel

  • Carrier: T-Mobile
  • BYOD: Yes
  • Cost: $20-$65 per month
  • LTE: Yes

A T-Mobile-based MVNO, PTel is a little bit cheaper than Net10 with $35 per month for unlimited talk, text, and data. Like Net10, PTel only offers the first 500MB at LTE speeds.

10. RingPlus

  • Carrier: Sprint
  • BYOD: Yes
  • Cost: $2-$33 per month
  • LTE: Yes

If you can get past the cutesy names of its monthly plans (such as Kate, Hazel, and Bella,) RingPlus has a wide range of offerings. The most realistic plan for serious smartphone users is Data, priced at $30 per month. This plan gets you 300 voice minutes, unlimited text, 2GB of data, and unlimited Wi-Fi calling. RingPlus charges 6 cents extra per message for MMS.

Switch and save?

Switching to an MVNO is not for everybody, especially if you live somewhere with limited cellular connectivity options. But if you’re in an area where networks like Sprint and T-Mobile offer good service you could save yourself some serious cash.

This story, "10 Alternative Carriers That Can Save You Serious Cash on Your Smartphone Bill" was originally published by PCWorld.

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