July 17, 2011

AT&T Serious about Prepaid Smartphones

Prepaid smartphones present a lucrative market, which the cell phone companies have been slow to take notice of. Originally, the CEOs of cell phone companies thought that the only people who would be interested in prepaid service were cell-phone-hating elderly people. However, prepaid service turned out to be popular with all types of cell phone users. Finally, the prepaid market is beginning to get the type of respect it has long merited. It was the iPhone that drastically changed people's perception of smartphones. Pre-iPhone, smartphones were the toys of a rich business people. Post-iPhone, everybody wants a touchscreen smartphone. Even though it was the iPhone that generated all the interest in the first place, the entire smartphone market has benefited from the effect.

The LG Thrive: AT&T's First Official Prepaid Smartphones

With the exception of iPhones and Blackberry devices, smartphones have always worked well on AT&T's prepaid service. I personally use AT&T's prepaid service, and my SIM card has been in a Samsung Blackjack II for several years now. I don't know whether AT&T made it easy to use smart phones on their prepaid plans by design or by oversight, but, regardless of the reason, I've always liked this about AT&T's prepaid service.

However, AT&T never really catered too much to the smartphone market as far as their prepaid service was concerned. But it looks like this is all about to change as recently AT&T began selling the LG Thrive, which they actually package as prepaid smartphones. Even though the LG thrive sells for a fairly affordable price (usually in the neighborhood of between $150 and $180), they didn't skimp on the quality of the phone. It uses the android 2.2 operating system, it's got WiFi, and it sports a capacitive touchscreen just like the iPhone. It's also not a phone that I hear a lot of people having problems with, which is good. The main problem I have encountered is that people's Internet and MMS don't work, but that is because that, by default, the mobile data network is turned off, but it's easy enough to turn it on. Below is a video showing I made to show you how to turn the mobile data network on...

AT&T Makes Their Prepaid Plans Smartphone-Friendly

A problem that had long plagued smartphone users on AT&T's prepaid plans were expensive, unexpected (or unintentional) pay-per-use data charges. Smartphones are data-devouring beasts that could suck the balance right off of a prepaid account in minutes if there were no active data package on the account. Even if you had a data package, your smartphone could use up the data package and then silently switch to sucking your balance off your account once your data package was empty. Many smartphones have applications that access the Internet without your knowing it; so, it's not uncommon for large chunks of the smartphone users prepaid balance to suddenly disappear without them having done anything themselves.

Recently AT&T began addressing this issue. First they tried creating two special smartphone prepaid rate plans. These were identical to the then existing $.10 per minute rate plan and the $2 daily plan except that they would not allow data access at all unless there was an active data package on the account. This was okay, but it created some confusion. I mean, should a person choose the regular $2 daily plan or the smartphone $2 daily plan?

After a month or two, AT&T came up with an even better solution. Their prepaid service now can automatically detect whether your SIM card is in a smartphone or a non-smartphone. If your SIM card is in a smartphone, then you cannot access the Internet unless you have a data package. This does not affect WiFi. WiFi Internet service is not provided by the cell phone company, and, therefore, they cannot affect your ability to access wi-fi. Anyway this is great news because it prevents those expenses, unexpected data charges on prepaid service that smartphone users would sometimes encounter.

The one possible negative about this is that you must have a data package for your smartphone even on the $50 unlimited talk, text, and web plan. This is by design, however, as the $50 plan provides unlimited data access only to non-smartphones.

AT&T Improves Their Prepaid Data Packages

For a long time, AT&T offered only two data packages: (1) a small 1 MB package for $4.99 and (2) a medium-sized 100 MB data package for $19.99. AT&T has improved both the value and range are data packages. They now offer three prepaid data packages: (1) a 10 MB package for $5, (2) a 100 MB package for $15, and (3) a 500 MB package for $25.

You can mix and match the prepaid plans with the data packages however suits you best.

Conclusion: AT&T Is Taking Prepaid Smartphones Seriously

AT&T is diving into this with a great phone, the LG Thrive, smartphone-friendly prepaid rate plans, and a sensible offering of data packages. That's not to say that AT&T is perfect, but it does look like they're a serious contender in the prepaid smartphone arena.

Please note: iPhones, Blackberries, and 4G phones are not able to access the internet on AT&T's prepaid service (which usually means that MMS also won't work).

However, you can put your prepaid SIM into just about any other smartphone AT&T offers; so, for prepaid, I recommend going with the Android, Nokia Symbian, or Windows Mobile smartphones instead (as long as they're not 4G phones like the HTC Inspire or the Motorola Atrix).