Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Data and Voice Rate Plan Fragmentation

I find myself considering having two mobile companies provide mobile services for me. I've been with T-Mobile for years. If you recall their Get More campaign, they typically try to provide you with more minutes, better handsets, and a better experience than other mobile companies. At least, compared to other major carriers, they tend to give you more.

Lately, however, I'm starting to see that even T-Mobile is being outdone by some national prepaid mobile carriers, specifically Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. Oddly, both services are under Sprint/Nextel, which continue to lose market share and charge an arm and a leg and force you into a contract. The prepaid services are cheaper and have no contract.

What really attracts me to Boost are two things. First, they announced that their plans have shrinkage, meaning that their unlimited everything plan starts at $50 per month; but it goes down $5 every six months if you pay on time. So, the least you will pay on your unlimited account is $35 per month. The other attraction for me is the walkie-talkie feature. It's just cool to have. The downsides are that Boost only has the one badass deal, or pay-as-you-go; and, their iDEN network has lousy data throughput (or you can opt for slightly less sucky CDMA with no walkie-talkie).

Virgin Mobile, offers a little more variety in their plans with their regular rates and the Paylo service. They have more rate plan tiers for voice than Boost. The downside is that Virgin is on Sprint's CDMA network. So, if you're looking for breakneck data speeds, you won't find them.
There are other carriers that are also competitive in voice rate plans, like Cricket and other regional companies.

It seems to me that the major carriers are investing heavily in their data infrastructure to provide better download speeds. Obviously, they want to attract geeks like me who love that stuff. I can't wait for LTE to hit my market.

The thing is, data plans are a flat rate. Voice rate plans aren't. We're still being hosed when it comes to paying for minutes. Granted, things have improved over the years. Companies now offer unlimited talk minutes, which was unheard of a few years back. But, you'll see between a $30-$40 difference between the major carrier unlimited calling plans and those of the prepaid services.

I think the idea is that if you want to have great data speeds, you'll stick around and pay extra for voice minutes. They are also probably thinking that nobody wants to walk around with two phones.
They are right on that last count. However, nobody wants to be gouged either.

Running the numbers, it seems like I would be better off using my current carrier as a data-only provider. You may see a tablet in my future. Coupled with a low rate voice provider, I could save hundreds per year. Yes, you can get into debates about coverage and all that; but, it's not really an issue for most people.

Most low cost mobile providers have footprints in highly populated areas. Once you leave civilization, you lose service. This is a problem if you go out into the boonies often, which I don't. On those rare occasions that I do, I could simply buy a prepaid phone that does have service in those areas where I'm going.

My main phone number is a Google Voice number, so switching phones all willy-nilly has little impact on my ability to communicate.

To sum up, I can see the day when I'll walk around with a T-Mobile tablet and a plain Boost Mobile phone.
By extension, you may see fragmentation in the market between mobile data providers and voice service providers. They seem to either market towards talkers or geeks; but not both. 
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