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

When my wife got her first iPhone long ago and I went looking for wireless service to put on it, I was very particular. I sought value and simplicity.

Also, I avoided plans that involved contracts. Instead of getting locked into a wireless provider for a time, I wanted the freedom to jettison one whenever I wanted and embrace another — repeatedly, if needed — until I found the one that best fit my wife’s needs.

We ended up with Ting Mobile, which I’ll tell you about in a bit.

This year, when my wife upgraded to an iPhone 13 mini, I undertook another review of cellular service options. My crucial criteria, again, were affordability and ease of use.

Lock-in, fortunately, is much less of an issue nowadays because you can easily get a phone in an “unlocked” state — meaning you are free to install any service you want on it. Apple only sells unlocked iPhones, for instance.

I had a new criterion: speed. We have entered the 5G era, with blazingly fast wireless data speeds comparable to those of wired home Internet services, so I wanted to make sure my wife’s cellular service properly tapped into those.

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

But first, a bit of background …

LOTS OF CELL-SERVICE OPTIONS

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

And there are the off-brand options. You have seen them on the tube. Actor Ted Danson is pushing Consumer Cellular. Actor Ryan Reynolds, who is not only a Mint Mobile Spokesperson but part owner, hawks the service with cameos by the likes of his mother, his sister-in-law and one of his oldest customers, Waseem Iqnaibi.

Services like Ting Mobile, Mint and Consumer Cellular don’t exist apart from the big-three carriers but, in fact, use their cellular network infrastructures in rebranded form. Mint and Ting piggyback on T-Mobile, for instance. Consumer Cellular taps into AT&T and T-Mobile.

Such “mobile virtual network providers” are free to set their own pricing, and to run their own billing, marketing and customer-service operations. Reynolds and his team, for instance, are renowned for their Mint marketing campaigns, which have little to do with T-Mobile.

Some providers that behave like scrappy MVNOs are actually owned by the big-three carriers. Visible, for instance, is a part of Verizon — Its full name is Visible by Verizon.

Regardless, this is a consumer-friendly state of affairs because phone owners are not stuck with the few, stodgy options long offered by the major carriers but can shop around for services that better fit their budgets and lifestyles.

For instance, if you know based on your experience that Verizon works reliably in the locations you frequent — such as your St. Paul house and your cabin — then you can weigh a Verizon plan against the many from Verizon-associated MVNOs until you hit upon one that best meets your needs. Ditto with AT&T or T-Mobile.

FACTORING IN 5G TECHNOLOGY

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

But you have to pick your cellular-service provider with care because some 5G options are better than others in the Twin Cities.

T-Mobile, until recently, was the best option in the metro because it had the fastest service. Its wireless network did a nice job of balancing coverage and performance for an excellent experience.

Last year, AT&T and Verizon played catch-up when they switched on new spectrum (technically known as C-band) that largely nullified T-Mobile’s speed advantage.

The catch? While Verizon’s C-band service is widely available here, AT&T has yet to offer the service in Minnesota — except at Target Center and US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

So, if you’re shopping 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 (for the moment).

SERVICE FINALISTS FOR MY WIFE

After a ton of research, and based on our particular circumstances, I landed on Ting, Visible and Xfinity Mobile as my finalists for my wife’s iPhone.

Here’s what I like about each one.

Ting. I dig this option because it is easy to understand. It’s a “postpaid” service, meaning it tallies up your use for the month and it bills you accordingly.

My wife, for instance, has a Flex or “pay as you go” plan that starts at just $15 a month, and adds charges based on how she uses data, talk and text. My wife’s bills typically come in at $30 to $40 a month.

Ting provides a cool way to keep track of usage: It has a web dashboard with dials showing data, talk and text activity. You can set up alerts so you are flagged whenever you exceed certain thresholds.

Ting also has plans costing $25, $35, $45 and $55 a month, with varying amounts of data (5, 12, 22 and 35 gigabytes) allotted to you. Warning: you’ll be throttled if you exceed your data allowance, but you can rev your service back up for $5 per gigabyte.

All plans offer unlimited talk and text.

Ting makes fine use of T-Mobile’s 5G service. My wife routinely gets downloads of 100 and 150 megabits per second, and uploads in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 Mbps. For comparison, my Xfinity home broadband plan from Comcast has 50-Mbps downloads and uploads in the single digits.

Note: wireless-data performance can vary from place to place, so your mileage may vary.

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

Visible even lets you test-drive its service via eSIM for two weeks at no cost.

'What is an eSIM?'  ask this ad.

Ting, by comparison, only provides physical SIMs through the postal mail. That’s annoying.

Visible keeps things very simple. It has just one plan costing $40 a month. For that amount, you get unlimited data, talk and text.

If you add users to the account, the monthly bill goes down. It’s $25 a month per user for four users. This is something for me to think about if I decided I wanted to consolidate all members of my household on a single service.

Visible dubs such group usage “Party Pay” because any two, three or four people can join together to lower their monthly bills. They don’t have to be family members, or even know each other. Regardless, it’s a party!

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

The latter, called “By the Gig,” allots a certain amount of data a month for a standard price. If you don’t go over that data allotment, you just pay that amount. It’s $15 a month for 1 GB, $30 a month for 3 GB, and $60 a month for 10 GB. If you exceed your data allowance, you are charged an additional $15 that month.

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

Beware: Xfinity Mobile throttles your speed if you exceed 20 GB in one month.

Xfinity Mobile helps you save money in a clever way: Because it has a nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots, you can sign into one of those just about anywhere to message, surf and such at no cost.

Xfinity's mobile phones.

If we used Xfinity Mobile, it would come conveniently on the same bill as our broadband service, making Comcast our single point of contact. But this would be an issue if we switched broadband providers (we’re considering it) because we’d be rendered illegible to use Xfinity Mobile and would have to port our service over to another wireless provider.

Visible and Xfinity Mobile both piggyback on Verizon’s network, and my speed tests on that network are eyebrow-raising. I experienced downloads consistently exceeding 300 Gbps, though with uploads only in the low teens. (Again, your mileage might vary.)

TING WINS … BUT ALL ARE GOOD

Ting Mobile, Visible and Xfinity Mobile are all excellent options for my wife, but Ting has the home-court advantage. That is, I would have needed a good reason to ditch it for one of the others — and I didn’t have one.

On the contrary, Ting has been dependent, consumer-friendly and hassle-free. I’d recommend it almost without reservation — It would be nice to have an eSIM option, but that’s a quibble.

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

Beyond that, check out BestMVNO, a mammoth directory with lots of consumer-friendly information to help you make a choice.

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