Sunday, September 02, 2012

The US iPhone scene: Options and trends

The American iPhone scene is at once bewildering and stone cold simple.

The bewildering part is the long list of MVNO options to the big 1.5 (VerizATT and Sprint). The simple part is that most of those options are gone or going.

So if you're an iPhone users the list is relatively short:

Notice i'm not going into many details here. The relative simplicity of the list is based on these assumptions:

  • Verizon and AT&T are a duopoly that increasingly functions like a coordinated monopoly (VerizATT). They expect every iPhone customer will eventually send them $100 to $150 a month - one way or another. To that end they will methodically eliminate all other options.
  • Sprint is desperate and eager to please. They or Sprint/Virgin are therefore the best deal if they work for you.
  • Walmart is one of the few corporations that can lean on VerizATT and operate an MVNO
  • T-mobile data is very weak and their future is comparable bleak, so I omitted them for the moment. Might be a Straight Talk alternative.
  • I omitted AT&T paygo because I assume H2O Wireless is a tad better, but some like them.
  • My family's experience with H2O wireless, even though I expect their future is bleak.

Based on the above options list my recommendations for individuals are:

Sprint network ok, don't travel, good at mathVirgin - Buy a $650 16GB iPhone 4S and pay $35/month on Vig - but be warned, no contract cuts two ways. Virgin can change their rates at any time, and you're stuck with a Sprint-only phone. 
Sprint network ok, don't travel, don't have $650Sprint 2 year contract.
Business user, some family users, corporate discountVerizATT, new phone every 18 months.
Sprint not ok, have unlocked GSM iPhone, personal useStraight Talk GSM, BYOD
Want iPhone w/o data, very very cheapH2O Wireless, maybe AT&T Paygo. BYOD.

I expect the options to get worse over the next decade unless one of these four miracles occurs:

  • Apple or Google or both buy Sprint.
  • Apple or Google or both buys T-mobile.
  • Google Fiber rolls out and Google starts building a companion mobile network.
  • Al Franken becomes President and breaks up ATT again.

See also:

Update 9/4/2012. 

Harold Zeh, posting via Macintouch, came to similar conclusions about Straight Talk. It's competitive if you bring your own device (BYOD) and for personal non-business use.

...The difference between a two year subsidized iPhone and factory unlocked (no carrier commitment) is $500. Divided by 24 months is about $21 per month. Add that to the $45 per month of Straight Talk unlimited talk, text and data (yeah, right) and the price is actually $66, if you want the new iPhone.

Now, for Straight Talk, subtract the ability to use AT&T WiFi hotspots and the prospect of unceremoniously being terminated for going over 2GB of data. Subtract also, no unlimited mobile to mobile minutes (your friends on AT&T regular plans will not like you anymore!)

Three iPhones, fully subsidized, on the new AT&T Mobile Share plan with a bucket of 6 GB will cost $195, or $65 per iPhone - a buck cheaper than (the true cost of) Straight Talk and you do not have to cough up the entire price of the new iPhone up front. Four iPhones on the 10GB share drops the per unit to $60 a month. Two phones on the 4GB, cost is $75 per phone. For two smart phones, it might be better to stay on a regular family plan and deal with limited minutes (or Straight Talk.) But there is more to factor.

Now, for AT&T, add no messing with APN settings. No unlocking to get MMS to work. No tower drops in favor of "real AT&T customers." Additionally, you may not have to wait the entire two years to have another fully subsidized upgrade available, I never had to.

The only time it makes sense to go with second tier carriers is when you already own a non-new older phone outright, like a two year old (and getting older,) iPhone 4, for example...

Also, the Babbage Blog featured a fascinating post on the spectrum wars, including a telling point in Virgin's recent acquisition that suggests MVNOs may have some future (thank you Obama FTC!) ...

Verizon Wireless ...  a swathe of unused frequencies from a consortium of cable-television companies that includes Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks. Apart from receiving a large sum of money, the deal allows these cable companies to repackage Verizon’s mobile-phone service under their own brands. Verizon has also struck a similar deal to acquire spectrum from Cox Communications, another cable and wireless provider.

Update 9/5/2012: Via Slashdot, announcing that Sprint was unleashing their MVNOs to compete, I learned about Ting. It bills in stepped usage intervals for voice, text and data. We pay about $160 from AT&T; at Ting the same services would be about $110. Of course you have to bring your own phone, but Ting is a nice alternative to Virgin Mobile for the same network. Tethering/Hotspot is included. Alas, Ting is Android only. No iPhone. So it doesn't go on the list, but I like their business model.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon bought Sprint or T-Mobile instead. Everyone forgets about or underestimates Amazon.

JGF said...

You are right.

I'm going to start an 'A' Rule -- whenever I think Apple think Amazon too.

It might take a coalition of all the tech companies, Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft to stand up against VerizATT.