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Unhappy about Verizon unlimited data plan? Ditch it for prepaid

Customers with unlimited data are not pleased that they must pay full price for phones to keep their unlimited service in the future. CNET's Marguerite Reardon lays out the alternatives.

To say that Verizon's unlimited data smartphone customers are unhappy about changes in the company's new pricing structure is putting it mildly. But what's a disgruntled subscriber to do?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer advice to a Verizon customer about the carrier's new service plans, which will require him to pay for a new smartphone at full price to keep his unlimited data plan. Should he ditch Verizon or suck it up? You'll find some alternatives below.

Also in this edition of the column, I explain why I think smartphone screens will only get bigger and bigger.

Can I really stick it to Verizon?

Hello Maggie-san,

I have a year left on my wireless contract, so I still have plenty of time to weigh my options before my contract is up. But I am one of those few customers still holding onto an unlimited 3G data plan from Verizon Wireless. And I'm really annoyed that the company has changed its policy about unlimited data.

I have the iPhone 4S and I plan on keeping my phone for a while. I'm pretty certain that Verizon isn't likely to do something consumer-friendly, like, say, continue to grandfather in the unlimited plan folks. So I am starting to weigh my options. Should I keep my unlimited plan and buy an unsubsidized phone from Verizon? Or should I give up the unlimited plan and just get a subsidized smartphone from Verizon with a tiered plan?

I'm really annoyed that Verizon is making it hard for me to keep the unlimited data plan, so I am tempted to leave them. If I do, I'm not sure if I should go to AT&T, Sprint, or maybe a prepaid provider that also offers the iPhone. I'd love to hear your thoughts, Maggie!




Dear Ike,

You're right that Verizon isn't likely to change its policy toward unlimited data plan users anytime soon. The reason is simple. Verizon gets absolutely no benefit by allowing people to keep their unlimited data plans. Users of such plans don't pay any more than the most basic data customer, and they have the potential to use a lot more network resources.

Verizon's 4G LTE network is now available to more than half the U.S. population.
Verizon's 4G LTE network Verizon Wireless

My guess is that Verizon is betting on the fact that it has one of the biggest, fastest, and most reliable networks in the market, so most subscribers will opt for the subsidized phone and move to a tiered plan.

To be honest, Verizon's bet is probably a good one. Network coverage and reliability are the two most important things in choosing a wireless provider. The fact is that if you can never finish a conversation because your calls are constantly dropped, or you can't get access to the data network to look up a location of a nearby restaurant when you're standing on a street corner in 32 degree temperatures, then what's the point of having a smartphone at all?

Sticking it to the man
But that doesn't mean you have to keep Verizon if you don't like how they treat their customers. If you're really fed up with Verizon and you want to teach Big Red a lesson, then by all means shop around for another service. As a consumer, I think the best way to let a company know you aren't happy with their service is to take your business elsewhere. If enough subscribers ditch the service, then the company is forced to make a change.

So where should you go if you leave Verizon? You can check out AT&T and Sprint to see what they offer. If it turns out you are a huge data user and you can't find ways to get usage below 2GB a month, then Sprint's unlimited data plan may be a good fit for you. Just keep in mind that Sprint's 4G LTE network is not as extensive as Verizon's network. And even though Sprint's 4G LTE network will be in more places a year from now, I still don't expect it to match Verizon's network.

The same is true of AT&T's network. The company is currently building out 4G LTE, but I expect Verizon to maintain its edge over the competition a year from now. That said, you won't even be in the market for a new smartphone and service for another 12 months. So you have plenty of time to evaluate network coverage.

What about Prepaid services?
If you'd like to continue using your iPhone 4S, you might want to consider a prepaid service called Page Plus Cellular, which uses Verizon's 3G network. But it offers its prepaid service plans at a fraction of the price Verizon charges.

The main drawback to this service is that it uses only Verizon's 3G network. So if you wanted the new iPhone, which is expected to operate on the faster 4G LTE network, you won't get those speeds on Page Plus's network. That said, 4G LTE devices will still operate on Page Plus's service, but only at Verizon's 3G speeds.

Other prepaid providers,such as Virgin Mobile, or some regional carriers, like Mississippi's C Spire, may also get the new iPhone. And these providers could also be good alternatives for you. The new iPhone is expected to have 4G LTE, and these other providers may offer 4G LTE connectivity on their own networks. But just as I mentioned with AT&T and Sprint, these carriers won't likely have the same extensive network coverage as Verizon has with its 4G LTE network.

The main benefit of going with a prepaid service is that it's cheaper than the conventional postpaid service plans over the life of a traditional two-year cellular contract. I also have written about this in the Ask Maggie column. In some cases, you can save nearly $1,000 over a two-year period by buying your smartphone at full price and paying for a low-cost prepaid offering.

Moment of truth
So what should you do? It all depends on how angry you are at Verizon and what you're willing to give up. As I mentioned, Verizon has the largest and most reliable wireless network in the market. It also has the largest next-generation 4G LTE network in the U.S. Even though other players are building their own 4G LTE networks, I expect Verizon to stay ahead of competitors for awhile.

If you can't live with these sacrifices in network coverage, reliability, and 4G speeds, then you should probably just suck it up and get a tiered service plan when your unlimited contract expires. I don't know what kind of data user you are. But chances are you're not using enough to really justify the cost of buying a phone at full price just to hang onto your unlimited data plan. It's very likely that you use less than 2G of data, and if you're an average customer, you're probably using less than 1GB of data each month.

The first thing you need to do is figure out how much data you think you actually need. Since your contract isn't up for a year, you have plenty of time to track your data usage and even play around with apps that can compress some of the data your device is consuming. You might also want to fiddle with different settings on your phone in an effort to see how much data you can conserve each month. For example, maybe you can seek out Wi-Fi more often or only update apps when you're in a Wi-Fi location instead of updating anywhere you are.

If you figure out how much data you actually need, then you can choose a tiered plan that offers the most value for your usage patterns.

I hope this advice is helpful. Good luck!

Bigger isn't always better

Dear Maggie,

Thanks for all the mobile advice in your columns. I am pretty up to date on new phone specs and designs, but I have one question about the direction of smartphones. Are we destined to be forced to buy larger smartphones from now on? I bought an HTC One S not too long ago, mainly because I felt the One X was too big in my hand. Now I am still finding myself annoyed with the One S when multitasking. And by multitasking I mean holding my phone in one hand and a Starbucks coffee in the other while walking down Michigan Avenue. First world problems!

Do you think new smartphones introduced in the market will just continue to be bigger? Have we seen the last of the high-end 4-inch phone? I honestly wish HTC would just make a second-gen Nexus One with an LCD2 display and the latest Snapdragon or Qualcomm processor. Wishful thinking?




Dear Peter,

I'm with you on the screen size issue. I prefer smaller screen sizes too. But I'm sorry to report that I think the bigger screen trend is here to stay, at least for a while. Rumor has it that the new iPhone 5, which is expected to be released next month, will have a screen size closer to that of the Samsung Galaxy S3, which has a massive 4.8 inch display.

According to the blog 9to5Mac, Apple has been testing a taller display for its next handset. The new version of iOS, which is now in beta, allows developers to simulate a 640x1,136-pixel-resolution screen. This could give the new iPhone five rows of icons stacked vertically above the dock, instead of the current four.

Of course, just because the next iPhone will get a bigger screen doesn't mean every high-end phone will now be bigger too. But as you mentioned in your question, there has been a trend toward larger screens for a while now. And if Apple moves in this direction, then it's less likely that high-end phones from other manufacturers will be introduced with the smaller screens.

One of the things fueling the bigger screen size trend is the fact that smartphones are being used more for connecting to the Internet and using apps than they are for talking. If people are watching videos, accessing navigation tools, or playing games on their devices, then it makes sense to have bigger screens.

But some manufacturers have suggested that screen size can still be increased without adding more bulk to the devices. What this amounts to is better and more efficient design to make the screens really go from edge to edge on these devices. This could result in bigger screens, but not necessarily bigger devices.

That said, the big screens seem to be selling well. The Samsung Galaxy S3, sporting a 4.8-inch screen, has been a big hit. And the even bigger Samsung Galaxy Note, which has a 5.3 inch display, has also gotten some decent traction in the market.

Sorry I couldn't provide better news for you. Thanks for reading the column.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.