Need low-cost wireless service for your phone? Go beyond the big three carriers – Twin Cities

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When my wife got her first iPhone a few years ago and I went looking for wireless service to use it, I was very particular.

I was looking for value and simplicity.

Also, I avoided service plans that involved contracts. Instead of being locked into one wireless service provider for months or years, I wanted the freedom to drop one and switch to another – repeatedly, if necessary – until I find the one that best suited my wife’s needs.

We ended up Ting-Mobilewhich I will tell you about in a moment.

This year, when my wife switched to a iPhone 13 mini, I launched another review of cellular service options. My criteria, again, were affordability, ease of use, and no lockouts.

I had a new criterion: speed. We’ve entered the 5G era, with blazingly fast wireless data speeds on par with wired home internet service. So I wanted to make sure my wife’s cell service was getting it right.

I finally narrowed my search to Ting, with Visible and Xfinity Mobile. Read on to find out which one I ended up choosing for my wife.

But first, a little background…

MANY OPTIONS

So many choices of cellular services are available. The big three carriers – AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile – all want your business.

And there are the off-brand options. You saw them on the tube. Actor Ted Danson is pushing Consumer Cellular. Actor Ryan Reynolds, who is not only a spokesperson for Mint Mobile but co-ownerpeddles service with cameos by the likes of his mother, his sister-in-law and one of his oldest clients, Waseem Iqnaibi.

Services like Ting Mobile, Mint and Consumer Cellular do not exist outside of the big three carriers but, in fact, use their cellular network infrastructures in a name-brand form. Mint and Ting piggyback on T-Mobile, for example. Consumer Cellular taps into AT&T and T-Mobile.

These “mobile virtual network providers” are free to set their own prices and manage their own billing, marketing and customer service operations. Reynolds and his team, for example, are known for their Mint marketing campaigns, which have little to do with T-Mobile.

Some providers that behave like disjointed MVNOs actually belong to the big three. Visible, for example, is part of Verizon — its full name is Visible by Verizon.

Either way, it’s a consumer-friendly situation, as phone owners aren’t stuck with the few tedious options long offered by major carriers, but can seek out services better suited to their budget and lifestyle.

For example, if you know, based on your experience, that Verizon works reliably in the places you frequent — like your St. Paul home and cabin — you can weigh a Verizon plan against the many associated MVNOs. at Verizon until you find the one that best suits your needs. Same with AT&T or T-Mobile.

THE 5G FACTOR

Wireless data service has become extremely fast. In many cases, 5G service on your phone can be as fast or faster than your home broadband service.

But you should choose your cellular service provider carefully, as some 5G options are better than others in the Twin Cities.

T-Mobile, until recently, was the best option on the subway because it offered the fastest service. Its wireless network did a good job balancing coverage and performance for a great experience.

Last year, AT&T and Verizon caught up when they activated new spectrum (technically known as C-band) that largely negated T-Mobile’s speed advantage.

The problem? Although Verizon’s C-band service is widely available here, AT&T has not yet offered service in Minnesota – except at Target Center and US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

So if you’re looking for wireless service with 5G in mind, AT&T and its associated MVNOs aren’t bad options, but are far from the best in the Twin Cities (yet).

SERVICE FINALISTS

After a ton of research and based on my particular situation, I landed on Ting, Visible, and Xfinity Mobile as finalists for my wife’s iPhone. None have a contract, which is my big dealbreaker.

Here’s what I like about each.

Ting. I dig this option because it is easy to understand. It’s a ‘postpaid’ service, which means it counts your usage for the month and charges you accordingly.

My wife, for example, has a Flex or “pay as you go” plan that starts at just $15 per month and adds charges depending on how she uses data, calls, and texts. My wife’s bills are usually $30-$40 a month.

Ting offers a cool way to track usage: it has a web-based dashboard with dials showing data, conversations, and text activity. You can configure alerts so that you are notified whenever you exceed certain thresholds.

Ting also has plans that cost $25, $35, $45, and $55 per month, with different amounts of data (5, 12, 22, and 35 gigabytes) allocated to you. Warning: you will be limited if you exceed your data allowance, but you can reactivate your service for $5 per gigabyte.

All plans offer unlimited calls and texts.

Ting makes good use of T-Mobile’s 5G service. My wife regularly receives downloads of 100 and 150 megabits per second and uploads around 30-40 Mbps. For comparison, my Xfinity home broadband plan from Comcast offers single-digit 50 Mbps uploads and downloads.

Note: Wireless data performance may vary from location to location, so your mileage may vary.

Visible. This service caught my attention because of its “eSIM” support, which means you don’t need a physical SIM card to activate the service. Instead, everything is handled as software (assuming you have an iPhone or late-model Android phone with the circuitry to support the feature) that a Visible representative helps a user install over the Internet.

Visible even allows you to test its service via eSIM for free for two weeks.

'What is eSIM?'  request this ad.

Ting, by comparison, only provides physical SIM cards via postal mail. It’s boring.

Visible keeps things very simple. It only has one plan which costs $40 per month. For this amount you get unlimited data, calls and texts.

If you add users to the account, the monthly bill decreases. It’s $25 per month per user for four users. This is something I would have to think about if I decided to put all the members of my household on one service.

Visible dubs such group usage “Party Pay” because two, three, or four people can get together to lower their monthly bills. They don’t need to be family members, or even know each other. It doesn’t matter, it’s party time!

Xfinity Mobile. Comcast’s service offering, similar to Ting, offers unlimited plans as well as pay-as-you-go options.

The latter, called “By the Gig”, allocates a certain amount of data per month for a standard price. If you do not exceed this data allowance, you only pay this amount. It’s $15 per month for 1GB, $30 per month for 3GB, and $60 per month for 10GB. If you go over your data allowance, you’ll be charged an additional $15 that month.

If you want to stick with a traditional plan that offers unlimited data, it will cost you $45 per month as a single user. The cost decreases as you add users. With four people, it’s $30 per month per user.

Warning: Xfinity Mobile limits your speed if you exceed 20 GB in a month.

Xfinity Mobile helps you save money the smart way: Because it has a nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots, you can connect to any of these pretty much anywhere to message, surf and more at no cost.

Xfinity mobile phones.

If we were using Xfinity Mobile, it would come on the same bill as our broadband service, making Comcast our single point of contact. But it would be a problem if we changed broadband providers (we’re considering it) because we’d be unreadable to use Xfinity Mobile and would have to transfer our service to another wireless provider.

Visible and Xfinity Mobile both piggyback on Verizon’s network, and my speed tests on that network raise eyebrows. I’ve experienced downloads consistently exceeding 300Gbps, but with only teenage downloads. (Again, your mileage may vary.)

TING IS THE WINNER

Ting Mobile, Visible, and Xfinity Mobile are all great options for my wife, but Ting has the home court advantage. In other words, I needed a good reason to give it up for one of the others – and I didn’t have one.

On the contrary, Ting was reliable, friendly and hassle-free. I would recommend it almost wholeheartedly – It would be nice to have an eSIM option, but that’s a hassle.

Which is good for you? I can’t answer this because every user has different needs and because there are many MVNOs. But Ting Mobile, Visible, and Xfinity Mobile are good places to start.

Beyond, see BestMVNOa gigantic directory containing a lot of user-friendly information to help you make your choice.

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