Ultra-cheap mobile service providers appeal to anyone eager to escape the burden of costly phone bills. Some plans even start at $0.00 (yes, that's zero) per month. Oh, and there are no contracts or early termination fees to worry about. Compare that to the mobile phone fees at the big four carriers and you'll find hundreds, if not thousands, in savings to be had. (While these budget-friendly carriers don't tack on vague "administrative" fees, the taxman always cometh.)
How can a company offer free, or very cheap, cell phone service? By being a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). MVNOs buy the right to transmit data, text, and calls from larger carriers at wholesale prices and then sell the services to customers. This means users get the same coverage and service as they would from the primary provider, but because the MVNOs don't have to build and maintain the network infrastructure, the savings are passed on to customers. New technology has also allowed MVNOs to experiment with further cost-cutting measures, and advertising and overhead budgets are kept to a minimum.
Larger MVNOs, such as Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, enjoy some name recognition, but the smaller MVNOs offer the cheapest cell phone service.
*1 cent/MB for customers with paid plans.
FreedomPop. FreedomPop may best suit people who rarely use their mobile phone. The lowest-tier plan, which includes 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500MB of data, is free and subscribers only pay for usage that exceeds these limits. For frequent mobile phone users, an $8 monthly upgrade provides unlimited texts and 500 minutes and $11 buys unlimited texts and minutes; both deals include only 500MB of data. Data overages cost either 1 cent per MB with the paid plans or 2 cents per MB with the free plan. If you run out of minutes or texts during the month, you're out of luck -- you need to wait until the next cycle for them to refill, and media and group text messages are only supported in some circumstances. Additional data can be earned by inviting friends to sign on or by completing promotional offers. Alternatively, data can be shared with friends in the FreedomPop network.
All FreedomPop services run over data lines -- the company's technology can distinguish texts, calls, and Internet use -- so customers need an Internet connection to dial out and receive calls, send and receive text messages, browse the web, and use email. Service quality depends on the strength of the connection, and some users have reported static or delays even with a 3G signal. FreedomPop buys coverage from Sprint and Clearwire; Clearwire was recently acquired by Sprint and eventually will be shut down and replaced completely by Sprint.
Currently, users must purchase a cell phone directly from FreedomPop. Four models are available -- the Samsung Victory 4G LTE, Samsung Galaxy SIII, Samsung Galaxy S4, and Apple iPhone 5 -- and priced between $119 and $399. FreedomPop also lets customers use their own compatible Sprint phones. People who live near strong 4G signals or don't mind seeking out Wi-Fi in order to make calls will enjoy the savings.
Republic Wireless. All four Republic Wireless plans come with unlimited talk, text, and data; the wording may be a bit misleading, however. Republic Wireless requires customers to select one of three phones -- Moto E, Moto G, or Moto X ($99-$299) -- which have been specially modified to let users make calls and send texts through an Internet connection. The cheapest, a $5 monthly plan, allows unlimited text, calls, as well as data, but only if you're connected to a Wi-Fi signal -- it's like having a slightly smarter iPod touch.
The next tier up, $10 per month, unlocks the ability to make unlimited calls or send unlimited texts via Sprint's network. The third plan includes 3G data from Sprint, and the priciest plan kicks the data speed up to 4G (again using Sprint's towers). These latter two plans include unlimited data but Republic Wireless may throttle the speed if usage exceeds 5GB in one month. The carrier also limits roaming data to 25MB per billing cycle but allows voice and texts while roaming (on Verizon and Sprint partner towers) at no extra charge.
Besides free roaming, Republic Wireless offers several other stand-out features. It gives subscribers the option to switch between plans up to two times during a billing cycle, which lets you save money by moving to a lower-cost plan if you don't need the phone for a week, say, and then reverting when the week is over. The Republic Wireless monthly plans starting at $10 also support MMS (multimedia messaging service; i.e., iPhone group chats and picture or video texts) at no extra charge.
RingPlus. RingPlus is another MVNO that purchases network coverage from Sprint, but this low-cost carrier is distinctive because its members receive three unique apps along with monthly service. The first is an in-call translator that translates nearly 30 languages. The second is an option to record and transcribe conversations (both sides on the call are notified); voicemails are always transcribed and emailed to the customer. The third is Ringback Tones, a radio app that lets users listen to music or the news instead of a ring when making calls. RingPlus also lets subscribers unlock roaming on their phones, which increases the coverage area but at a steep cost -- 14 cents per minute or 55 cents per MB of data used.
RingPlus is limited to subscribers who already have an unlocked Sprint device -- including but not limited to the iPhone 4, 4s, or 5 and Galaxy S II, S III, and S 4 -- and offers nine monthly plans ranging in price from $1.99 to $33. The least expensive provides the bare minimum 50 minutes and 10 texts per month, with overages costing 4 cents per minute or text; this plan is really just for emergencies. The high-end plan comes with unlimited minutes and texts as well as 2.5GB of data. There's a mid-range option for $17.99 per month which offers unlimited minutes and texts but just 400 MB of data. For all but the two least costly packages, overage for data costs 2 cents per MB. Prospective customers should note that MMS cost an extra 6 to 9 cents per message, depending on the plan.