Is Prepaid Cell Coverage Good Enough to Make the Money-Saving Switch?

By , dealnews Media Editor

A few weeks back, everyone was all aflutter when the New York Times reported that you can save $1,000 by switching to a pay-as-you-go plan. Many of our readers then discussed whether this would be the right option for their talk, text, and web needs.

We began to wonder, though, what the nationwide cell and data coverage is like for these super-cheap networks. It seemed like a pretty big plot-hole to us, so we decided to fill it. Armed with a screenshot tool, we found the coverage maps for Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, and Cricket — the three per-month companies that are / will be getting the iPhone — and put them all in one place for you to compare, so you can make up your own mind about the relative value of the purported $1,000 in savings. Just to note: Boost Mobile is currently rumored to be getting the iPhone in September. But we included their coverage map just in case this rumors turns true!

Virgin Mobile's Coverage Map

Boost Mobile's Coverage Map

Cricket Wireless' Coverage Map

Verizon Wireless' Data Coverage Map (for comparison purposes)

(Assuming you're getting an iPhone, this is the important map, right?)

As you can see, you're getting about the same coverage with each of the three best pay-as-you-go options. That is to say: Some parts of the country can certainly benefit from switching to prepaid options, but others are left out in the cold.

What do you think, Montana? Is $1,000 extra in your pocket worth no coverage? Now that you've seen the kind of service you'll get, is prepaid cell service more or less of a consideration for you? Let us know in the comments, below!

Jeff Somogyi is the dealnews Media Editor. He loves maps, yet always gets lost. Go figure! See more of his wayward thoughts on Google+, Twitter or on his blog.

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DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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This article did not mention Straight Talk available at Walmart. If you purchase the smart phone with the RED map on the front of the box it will piggyback off the Verizon network. I have been using one for about a year now and for unlimited service it is 45.00 per month plus sales tax which is 48 and change per month. I travel a lot between NJ, Fl and California and have not had a problem as of yet. I used to use boost which was a little less expensive (after the drop down was complete) 40 per month plus tax. But it piggybacks off the sprint network and it just did not have the coverage in Fl that I was looking for, it did fair in NJ before they started "upgrading" their towers and now the coverage is less than fair and they do not plan to finish the work for the next two years. I paid 149 for my phone which is a LGL75C. it is ok certainly not an apple. I was also able to purchase the replacement service contract for 11.99 for 2 years
I brought my own IPhone to this Verizon network with no contract, no credit check at $70/month.
I get unlimited talk, text and 1 GB of data.

If you buy the smart phone $160 to $499 from them you get Unlimited talk, text and data at 59$

I use a new no-contract carrier, Solavei, who provides unlimited 4G voice, text and data service for $49 a month. They use the T-Mobile network, whose service map is comparible to the no-contract maps above, plus unlimited wi-fi. You can purchase a phone thru them (at a discount), or bring your own unlocked gsm Andriod or iPhone and purchase a Solavei SIM Card for $29 to run on their network. I bought a phone on eBay and the SIM card. Works Great !!  However, Solavei is a community, so you must enroll thru a currently active community member. This allows Solavei to reward you for enrolling new members. For as long as you and your enrolled members are active, you will receive $20 a month for every three members you enrolled. And then some...

Details(including coverage map, and compensation plan), and an opportunity to join,

 can be found at ://[/ur

This is sooo... way better than free !!!
Check out Lightyear Wireless by typing:

MYFREECELLS.COM in you tool bar (ww.not[ needed just ttp://[) They are in the process of revolutioning the prepaid wireless industry by offer $59.99 UNLIMITED TALK-TEXT-WEB. No Contract, Credit Check, Deposit and includes Caller ID, Voicemail, Call Waiting, 3 Way calling and MORE.!!!  Learn how to get FREE WIRELESS SERVICE WIth our Refer 3 Program!!!        

We have gone with Solavei  no contract $49 a month unlimited talk text data(4g)  Great coverage.  p:// [/url have had no problems with coverage. changed the chip in our phones and kept our numbers. 
What do you think of MetroPCS? They seem to get bigger everyday. Why weren't they included in your report? I have been with them for the past three years and I am pretty much satisfied with my service.
My tracfones use T-Mobile.
yes same network, Sprint's primary towers.
I'm in Montana. I use a tracfone. I buy 2 years of coverage and always have minutes leftover. 
I use clearwire 4G mobile wifi to get all you can eat 4G data. I then use either a Skype-only wifi phone, an Android phone (running Skype, not running on any carrier's tower - other than Clear's), or my tablet (again running Skype) depending on what I feel like carrying with me. For $30 a month I get all my phone needs as well as all you can eat 4G data. Downside is coverage, you'll need to look at their 4G coverage map to see if this suits you. Oh, and battery life on the portable wifi device is pretty slim, so carry an extra battery or one of those external USB battery boosters if you need to be somewhere without a wall outlet.
Good to read about these other options. I'm in the worst zone of all, Nevada, and have learned to take all coverage maps with a grain of salt as I even lose voice coverage with my work Verizon phone throughout the state even in supposed covered areas and yet sometimes still get my virgin mobile personal phone to work. If you can put up with 400 voice minutes a month (I barely hit 200, not a phone talker), my $25 Virgin plan with unlimited data wins hands down...also the work phone/personal phone setup gives me plenty of emergency coverage leeway if you can have that possible arrangement.  If you're an interstate driver you can also take advantage of rest stop wifi that most states out here now offer...I've even used my Magicjack on one occasion. It's like satellite radio, a much better option out here but not so when I lived in the NYC/Philly area, figure out what you can put up with and then get the best price especially if being free from contracts will let you put up with small inconveniences .  
Recently did a X-country trip across the Western US (including Montana!) and found my Simple/T-Mobile unlocked iPhone mostly useless through the entire venture. GF's ATT iphone worked 95% of the time. In the SF Bay Area, T-Mobile is great, but wow, was I disappointed on that road trip.

We happened to have no less than 3 WiFi hotspots with us on that same road trip: ATT and Verizon 3G MiFi hotpsots worked 80-90% of the time, Clear/Sprint 4G hotspot was almost entirely useless. Again, back in the Bay Area the Sprint/4G hotspot is pretty good, but I won't travel with it again.
My solution: when traveling I buy a month on H20 Wireless which uses ATT for a flat $60.
Coverage maps don't show the whole story.  Most carriers limit prepaid plans to frequencies that may not be broadcast from every tower and your phone must support those frequencies.  I found this out when I was having coverage issues with T-Mo.  Searching on different web sites I read about them segmenting prepaid frequencies from contract.  True with most carriers.  And a carrier saying "we use Brand X towers"  doesn't guarantee that all Brand X towers support the prepaid plan phones.  I should have researched more, lesson learned.  I have since changed to US Cellular contract and love it.

There are other trade-offs.  T-Mobile prepaid support comes from India, contract plans get support from US centers.  Data caps vary.  So prepaid is OK and cheaper if you are willing to accept compromises.
Aren't the Virgin and Boost maps shown above identical? Do they share a network?
I made the switch a few years ago from Verizon to Virgin and I have saved about $1200 in two years from what I was paying.  I didn't even have data on Verizon, now I have unlimited data.  Sure the cover isn't great when I leave the city, but I'm in the city at least 90% of the time.
You are correct. For those who must have data plan (2GB or more), contract is a better choice. For those who can live with only WiFi (like me), prepaid might be a good thing to consider.

The author has to consider those virtual carriers when talking about prepaid phone service. For example, H2O and AirVoice don't have better quality than AT&T (they use AT&T network) but they might be much cheaper (based on what and how much you use).

I am not saying prepaid is definitely cheaper but it is absolutely worth your consideration.

I considered prepaid when my contract was going to expire on Aug. I finally chose to share a family plan of 5, for about $20/mon with 500 individual anytime min (plus night, weekend, same company min for free) and unlimited text(I don't use text much though). For $20 prepaid service can offer 500 min or $25 offers 1000 min.
My wife and I have Att, with iphone of course, for the last maybe 4-5 years. And i pay average about $110 for both of us, she has the unlimted gig, I have 2 gb/ month. Basically thats about $55/month, for the last 4-5 years. I never understand how people pay so much. Yes, i can save $10 a month with prepaid or no contract phone but, i rather have iphone 5 coming next week for extra $10 a month and about $200.
Yet another option - Straight Talk pre-paid SIM program.  Bring your own unlocked GSM or AT&T phone and use it on AT&T towers for $45/month.  They have a similar program for T-Mobile phones/towers.  
Page Plus is pay as you go and uses Verizon towers. lower price without the drawbacks in coverage. They even offer a 2gb data plan for $55. I believe this is the drawback, data speed. I wouldnt know I dont use data other then on wifi.
We switched from a T-Mobile contract to a no-contract deal with Virgin.  The connection is definitely worse (we are in South Florida), but liveable.  It was worth it to escape from T-Mobile, although we had to pay a penalty to do so.  For us, T-Mobile became a nightmare in "non-customer service"....they are arrogant and simply don't care.  Not that Virgin is much better....trying to get someone just to pick up the phone is a bad experience in itself.  But, at least we can go elsewhere if we want to without a penalty, and at least we're not locked in for years at a time. 

We decided that we'd suffer most any frustration to avoid being locked into a long-term contract again with T-Mobile.  They have made driving customers away an art form.  With Virgin, not only are we avoiding a binding, long-term contract, we're saving on the monthly payment as well. 

The "get a phone for free" deals are a scam considering you'll be paying high monthly fees for years to get it for "free."  If you can manage to do so, buy your phone (unlocked) outright.  You'll be buying your freedom to switch service providers at the same time.