Featured in the Wall Street Journal 04-01-09   Also GPS units, Laptops, Satellite phones, Radios and more! I was recently informed that my current cell phone, a Nokia 5165, will cease to work in a few months.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and their replacement plan isn’t as good.
I’d been spoiled by my current phone, which works just about everywhere in the United States. What follows is a roundup of some of the current prepaid cell phone plans and their associated coverage maps. With T-Mobile’s prepaid plan, your minutes expire in 30 days to 365 days, depending on the cost of the refill. STi Mobile uses a subset of the Sprint CDMA network, and their coverage is mainly limited to urban areas and major interstates. Unfortunately, they only offer this plan to people residing in their native service areas, which does NOT include Austin, Texas. I believe the two best choices for prepaid wireless plans, if coverage is important to you, are the Alltel U Prepaid or the Page Plus Cellular plans. You did not include net10 which is a flat .10 cents a minute with number of days depended on card. The one-year, no hassle plans look good to me… but the coverage area is worrisome, if traveling.
But Tracfone stopped all AMPS a long time back, forcing us to switch to an all digital phone. This cell phone uses the old TDMA network which is being phased out in favor of the newer CDMA and GSM networks. I set out to research the prepaid cell phone plans that use the newer CDMA or GSM networks.

I was looking forward to getting a better phone, maybe one with a real email client, a web browser, and even GPS navigation. But what really surprised me was that in almost all cases, I would find plans that cost a lot more but offered far less in terms of coverage.
It looks like there are a few New England states with no coverage at all, along with the western half of Kansas, the northern half of Iowa, and most of Oregon. This may be because they resell from a variety of different networks (GSM, CDMA, and TDMA) and the network they give you depends on where you live. Their cheapest plan for low volume users is $20 every 90 days, and air time costs $0.18 per minute. They support both CDMA and analog (AMPS) service, and they have reciprocal agreements with Verizon Wireless and Sprint-Nextel to provide their customers with roaming access to those networks. If you don’t use a lot of minutes and if you can make a point to use your phone every month, this plan can be extremely inexpensive once you get past the $35 activation charge. You’re required to add at at least $15 in air time every 90 days, which results in a minimum annual cost of $60.
They support both CDMA and analog (AMPS) networks, resulting in excellent coverage – again, as long as you make sure that your phone works on both of those networks.
The smallest refill is $10 and it expires after 120 days, giving a minimum annual cost of $40.
Alltel’s plan is the better of the two, but it is not available in all areas (including mine, sadly). This has resulted in better (?) phones, and service plane, (Double and even some triple minute plans) but, sadly, NOT their coverage. My current service provider is Beyond Wireless, and I couldn’t be happier with their TDMA prepaid plan. My quest changed from looking for the best value on new features, to looking for a plan that would just match the coverage I have now, without costing a lot more.

When I entered a zip code for Austin, Texas, I got a selection of GSM phones with the below coverage.
If you use just a few minutes on the days that you use the phone, the flat rate plan will save you money. In the states where they have coverage, it’s often limited to populated areas and highways. However, the minutes don’t expire for 365 days, regardless of the refill cost, so you could theoretically use their smallest refill card ($25) once a year. Their web site doesn’t offer a national coverage map, so I obtained the following map from one of their dealers. My older daughter has a Straight Talk phone, which is a subsidiary of Tracfone, and has NO troubles with either voice or text.
Only Verizon will work, which I find odd, since Tracfones here use Verizon’s towers, or indeed, any tower available. So call me paranoid, I WANT the kids to have a phone with them at ALL times they are out of my sight!
By the time we get as little as 4 miles away from our current location, we CAN get service, although texts may arrive anywhere from right away to tomorrow, or even later. I have an actual desk phone for SKYPE, (Also, sadly, discontinued) which works quite well, once you get the right drivers.
Voice, is like talking underwater much of the time, and it doesn’t matter WHAT model phone we are using. Some even cater to those older folks who may not hear so well, or see as good as they once did.

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