Experiences with cell phone sub-carriers

I’m going to answer this two ways, the first is from the reverse of what you said - I went from a MVNO to a Primary carrier, and then as a former employee (Tech support) of a major carrier.

So first, going from a MVNO to a major carrier was a huge step forward (improvement) in customer service, specifically. In general, if something was wrong prior to that, it was reboot your phone, check the signal, sorry, must be the network. Done. I won’t say you get what you pay for, but if something was wrong on anything but the billing side, they had NO idea, and since they couldn’t/wouldn’t contact the bandwidth owner for any info, you were SOL for reasons and ETAs.

The second issue I had was already touched in the older portion of the thread. If I was at a Con or other major event with lots of people in a little area, everyone got crappy service, but I got nothing but ‘unable to send’ or ‘unable to connect’ the majority of the time. So yeah, there are problems on both the quality of service and customer service.

Okay, now answering as a former employee who knows the options. You don’t have to go all or nothing. The major carriers do have less expensive ‘pay as you go’ plans, that are less expensive and less feature rich than the primary plans. You WILL get less service, because the prepaid/pay-as-you-go plans are less attractive and get less support, but they are a lot cheaper with fewer of the issues of the MVNOs.

So, since I worked for T-Mobile, there info is easiest for me to find. This would be a good option for at least the 3 who don’t use a lot of data -


In short, $15 per month (before taxes and fees, and you BYO phone) for unlimited domestic calls and texts with 2.5G of high speed data. And then get a single line for your son with an extra 3G of data (5.5G total per month) for $25 per month.

Total bill before taxes and fees, 3x$15 (45) + 1x$25 (25) = $70 per month. And it’s still a major carrier, but it’s a hard cap on the data, and you will be in the ‘no frills’ category for flexibility. You’re not going to see phone trade-in offers, upgrades, perks or the like with this. But from your final line, I doubt you’d see a change in phone usage/quality of experience while still likely saving quite a lot of $$$.

Hope it helps.

Resurrecting this two-year old topic in lieu of starting a new topic:

What experiences have Dopers had switching from major carriers like AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile to sub-carriers/MVNOs like Mint or Cricket?

Is the general service of the budget carriers a good deal at the lower prices they offer? What do you compromise going with a budget carrier over a major carrier?

From the research I’ve done so far … it looks like budget carriers throttle their data speed at lower limits than the big carriers, even with otherwise comparable “unlimited data” plans. And there are apparently network prioritization issues as control-z’s post above describes. Otherwise, plans between the budget carriers and the major carriers seem comparable – especially on the no-frills basic stuff like calling and texting (where “unlimited” is the standard and has been for a while).

Our household is going from 3 to 4 phones as my son is getting a phone for Christmas. The three of us that have phones now … none of use up a ton of data, but my son might. My wife and daughter typically use the home WiFi when surfing on their phones at home – my son might, but he might not if I’m not checking on his use often. None of us view streaming movies or TV on our phones, though will be a lot of YouTube viewing, Instagram, and other sources of video.

If it makes a difference in the calculus – we are not in a rural area, but in a suburban area near New Orleans.

Trying to figure out if we can switch to a budget carrier and not notice a difference in phone usage and quality of experience. Thanks for any info or advice.


I’ve split this off from a GQ thread, because it was asking for personal experiences, hence IMHO. And apparently I botched the split: @bordelond 's post should be the OP, not @ParallelLines 's.

I’m on Boost Mobile. I haven’t been aware of any problems, but this happened today. My husband called me twice from his phone (also Boost Mobile) (I was supposed to pick him up) and the calls went direct to voicemail. So he got home another way, and then he tried again once he was home, and the call still went right to voicemail. So I called him, and that call went through. Then he called me again, and the call went through that time. It was almost as if I had to prime my phone to recognize a call from his phone by calling him first (I know that’s probably not it).

My phone’s on wi-fi when I’m at home, and I usually get about 4 bars for cell reception at home. It’s hard for me to understand why the phone would act that way. My husband’s phone is not set up for wi-fi, I wonder if that could have anything to do with it.

I switched to Xfinity, using the Verizon network. I always have a high end phone, because I use it heavily as GPS & camera for backpacking, and for reading e-books, but I use very little mobile data (less than 1GB per month). So this has been a great move for me - pay by the GB it costs me $15, instead of the cheapest $65 plan at Verizon, for service that is completely indistinguishable from what I was getting before.

All I know is I’ve been on MetroPCS (sub-carrier of T-Mobile) for maybe 5 years now and never had a problem with signals or speed or data or anything. I tend to usually be in wifi range, though. I haven’t had any reason to deal with customer support. I’m on $30/mo prepaid. I’m curious about switching toT-Mobile, myself. Almost ready for a new phone, as mine is 2 years old and is pretty much filled up.

I have a secondary phone on Mint Mobile, which is a sub-carrier of T-Mobile. (my primary phone on Verizon). It was a promo offer of $45 for 6 months (before taxes and fees), and then $120 per 6 months after the promo expires. Comes with 4 GB of data per month, and unlimited calls and texts.

I mainly got it for the cheap data, for use in a WiFi hotspot when I am traveling (in fact, at this very moment I am posting from a motel with my laptop connected to the Mint hotspot, and there hasn’t been a dropped connection in the ~2 hours that I have the hotspot turned on). I am in a somewhat urban area though, and Mint’s network coverage could get spotty if you venture outside densely populated regions.

I’ve heard cautionary tales on Reddit of the Mint / T-Mobile network reliability being not great, which is why I am only using it with a side phone. Calling and texting seems to work ok, but as this is not my primary phone, I’ve never given out this number to any of my close contacts, so I don’t know how the network would hold up under high call volume.

I would advise getting reviews of Mint from people local to your area for the most accurate info, and trialing it with a secondary phone before canceling your main provider and switching entirely to Mint.

I’ve used several of the sub-carriers over the years. Had ‘some’ issues with dropped calls but the big one for me was the fact that WiFi calling never worked right, even when the company ensured me over and over again that it would work.

I switched to the T-Mobile $15 a month plan ($17.55, including taxes) @ParallelLines mentioned and have had no issues at all ever since.

I have used Tello for about three years now and have never had any problems, but I don’t use my cell phone that much. The plan I’m on is 100 minutes and 500 MB of data per month for $6.00 and I have never used more than 25% of the limit.

Thanks for the input, everyone.

@ParallelLines , your response did indeed help. One thing that I’ve struggled with is figuring out exactly how much data our three phones are using each month.

My iPhone 6 does track data usage … BUT! It cannot track by a time period of your choice. It keeps a running tab of cellular usage from the first time you used your phone unless you know to press “Reset Statistics” in Settings. Which I didn’t until last night.

Still, maybe what I learned about my phone last night can be useful. It was showing something like 650 GB of cellular data used over 44 months – about 14.5 GB/month or thereabouts. That includes a period where my son was using my phone heavily for games and videos. Starting to think he won’t be able to get by on 5 GB/month, even if he used the home WiFi often.

And of course … all of that was about my one phone. My wife’s and my daughter’s? Black boxes to me.

Things to think about. Leaning away from MVNO use for now unless I can figure out a way to make it work flawlessly. I really, really, really want to avoid (1) something not working unexpectedly because we’re out of data, and (2) getting unexpectedly hit with a bunch of add-on charges for going over our data limits.

Happy to help bordelon! I think taking the time to noodle out your exact wants and needs makes good sense. A few pieces of info that may help you in the process.

  1. If you’re planning on switching, talk to your current carrier about unlocking your phones (generally phones purchased through a specific carrier, even most MVNOs are locked to that carrier, but if fully paid off, can be unlocked). This will put you in a better position to switch quickly when you’re ready and often triggers a retention contact from the carrier. Which may mean they offer you a more tailored plan than lose your business.

  2. Most phones, android and iPhone have cellular data tracking, and most Android phones can be set to notify you when you’re heading towards your limit. This older article gives you the basic steps, but depending on phone and exact Android flavor you’re running, it can be different. A search by exact model can probably give you better information.

  3. On a related note, you can go through your settings and decide which apps are important enough to be allowed to use cellular data, and which ones aren’t. A lot of social media apps check for information frequently, which uses more data. If they’re only allowed to work over wifi, then you can save that data for more important uses.

  4. On your concern on overages: most (by NO means all) carriers are pretty good about sending you a text when you’re close to your limit in a billing cycle, and many plans (like the one linked earlier) just stop if you hit the cap. This is advantage in some ways, because they can sell you an additional smidge of data at higher costs that tides you over for a week. In general, it’s like $5 to add a one time bonus of 1G for one week. BUT - check with whichever carrier you go with, there are several that still go whole-hog with the overage charges and fees.

Okay, that’s it off the top of my head. Have a great weekend.

I had forgotten this line, but it stuck in my back-brain and wanted to update one of my thoughts for the thread.

In general, and I mean 95+% of the time, the MVNOs are going to be equivalent in service. The other 4% of the time, it’s a problem I already mentioned, generally the lack of network based info and tech support because they aren’t in charge of the lines.

The 1% can be a stickler, and that’s the one where you’re in congested/low-bandwidth situations where the primary carrier’s traffic gets priority. Now, at a Con, sporting event, or concert, that’s an irritation, but since you live outside of Nawlins, there is another edge case to consider: major disasters. In a case where you absolutely need to be able to make contact due to flooding, hurricanes, or other dramatic circumstances, it could be a deciding factor.

This is an edge case, but it was worrying me. Okay, resume your normal non-doomscrolling life.

More of a pain than it needed to be … but I figured out how to get reasonably accurate reads of our phones’ cellular data usage via AT&T’s customer website. Over the past 90 days:

My phone: 17.1 GB
Wife’s phone: 61.4 GB (!)
Daughter’s phone: 22.4 GB

Welp. I could trim down below 5 GB/month if I were conscious of staying below that limit – I was at 4.6 GB for all of November without trying. It would be tough for my daughter, but seemingly impossible for my wife to get by with 5 GB/month.

The weird thing is … my wife and daughter supposedly surf on our WiFi when at home. I only infrequently use the home WiFi on my phone (long story short: phone won’t stay on WiFi more than a few minutes). Because of that … I assumed MY phone would be the one that blew the data budget.

Then again, I do relatively little on my phone that’s graphics-intensive. My wife and daughter use Instagram and view lots of videos. Additionally, my wife frequently uses Facebook Messenger and a Kindle app (the latter for hours at a stretch).

Okay then, you guys are average to verging on Power users. 61G a month is on the high side, so yeah, you’re not going to want to do a budget plan.

I’d check some settings if I was still a tech, but their incidental use is probably a lot higher than they think. Still, make sure the wifi is actually enabled and that they’re connecting.

As for the usage, it’s the video that’s killing you. Kindle is negligible outside of some weird edge cases, but Facebook, if updating regularly can get noticeable, but video, especially HD drinks the bandwidth:

This will give you an idea of where the data is going. Let’s go for average-ish quality, 720p at 60fps. That’s going to be just shy of 2G PER HOUR. Let’s say she checks out 3 20 minute videos per day - before work, after work, and on lunch break. That alone would run half her 60G in the average month. 50% more if she’s doing 1080p.

So rejoice (?), you guys using an unlimited plan was the correct option all along.

I just wanted to get by more cheaply if at all possible. Seems like most people spend a lot less than we do on their phone service. But I guess our data usage is off the charts.

Mmmmm. Not off the charts, I’ve seen a lot (!) worse. But on the high end. To put it in perspective, I have 7 lines (myself, wife, mother and father in law, family friend and his mom, and a tablet line).

We all use wifi most of the time (work and home), and 6 of us use 2G or less a month. We’re on the low end. But again, it’s the video that eats bandwidth. And I don’t watch video on my phone. :slight_smile: Every time you click on a cute 2-3 minute clip from facebook, or a fun mini-vid on youtube, it’s like you take the plug out of a full tub. Streaming audio from spotify and the like adds up after a while, but only a fraction of the video use.

I’d still shop around though - and unlock the phones as you may be offered a promo. I’m not going to ask what you pay, but most companies offer something like T-Mobile’s Magenta Plan where the first line is expensive, the second less so, and lines after that tend to be cheap, even for unlimited.


I’d guess $140/month for 4 lines (slightly cheaper if your wife trims a bit of data and you went with the Essential plan). But that would also be a full plan, with perks like netflix and eligibility for trade-in deals and the like. If you want to save money, you still have options, but it then become a Quality of Life issue where your family may or may not want to change their current patterns of use to save $20-40 per month.

We’re with AT&T now and they have a similar plan where you save money on each phone you add.

I’m looking at the page you linked, except I bumped it up to four lines (my son is getting a phone for Xmas). What does 100 GB of “Premium Data” mean? Why isn’t it just described as “data” or “cellular data”?

Never mind – got this figured out.

@ParallelLines , got any insight into why it’s practically impossible to get eligible phones unlocked? Never financed though AT&T, been in service for three years, no issues like that. Cannot get them unlocked for anything.

I use Consumer Cellular. It works well and reasonably priced. There’s several data plan levels.

There’s no penalty for going over the data limit. CC just moves the customer to the next data plan level.

I’ve had that happen a couple times. I use their web site to move back to my normal data plan. There’s no extra fees for changing data plans.

CC leases bandwidth from AT&T in my area. I get very good coverage.