A couple of months ago I posted a query in my 411 column about prepaid GSM Android phones and the lack thereof. What I failed to mention was that you can of course use any GSM phone as a prepaid handset, as long as you're willing to pay full price for the phone up front. All you have to do is pop in a SIM card and you're good to go. After you do so, however, AT&T continues to charge you the usual high monthly rates, and even though T-Mobile does offer a cheaper Even More Plus plan, we want to see more carriers offer alternatives.
Enter Simple Mobile, an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that I confess I have not heard of until this month. This relatively young carrier alternative (it started business in 2009) offers even cheaper monthly rates, aimed primarily at those who have unlocked GSM phones. This MVNO runs on T-Mobile's network, meaning it uses T-Mobile's existing infrastructure for its service. Simple Mobile offers no phones of its own and relies on its customers to come up with their own hardware.
Exactly how cheap are we talking about? Simple Mobile offers unlimited talk and text for $40 a month, unlimited talk, text, and 100MB of data for $50 a month, and unlimited everything for $60 a month. This is not as cheap as other MVNOs like Boost Mobile, which offers unlimited everything for around $50 a month. But as far as GSM carriers go, Simple Mobile's rates are pretty competitive.
I met with Tim Garrett and Steve Price, the senior vice president of Marketing and director of Digital Strategy for Simple Mobile, at CTIA 2011. They were keen to spread the word about the service, especially as it has garnered over a million customers early this year, according to them. Price said they were influenced by the European model of the cell phone business, in which customers are encouraged to pay more for a phone, but end up paying less over time due to a cheaper monthly rate. Simple Mobile requires no contracts, and the unlimited text messaging offered includes unlimited international texting. As for international calls, you can treat the plan a little bit like a calling card--simply add around $10 or so a month to the usual plan, and that extra money will be used toward the international calls. There's no expiry date on that; it'll remain on the account until you tap out.
Interestingly, Simple Mobile recently started releasing Micro-SIM cards in addition to the usual SIM cards. The company said they're meant for tablets, as the tablet market seems to have exploded in recent months. The company is working out a way to start a data-only plan that is geared specifically for the tablet customer. I asked Garrett and Price if the Micro-SIM will work with the iPhone 4, and while they said it's not officially supported, they didn't say it wouldn't work.
As the news of the AT&T and T-Mobile merger was still fresh in our minds, I also asked them if they were concerned at all about their business, as they depend on T-Mobile's infrastructure. They seemed pretty positive overall. From their perspective, it helps more than it hurts, as it means additional spectrum, wider coverage, a bigger selection of handsets due to an additional 3G band, and a better chance to reach more customers.
I do think Simple Mobile is a pretty great GSM carrier alternative, even if it's really just using T-Mobile's network. The prepaid angle is smart, and we like that there's at least one more option for the GSM customer. It's an especially appealing option if you're one of those customers who don't mind shelling out the big bucks for an unlocked GSM phone. Sure, you pay more up front, but you might end up paying less over time.