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How to get access to Verizon's 3G network at big discounts

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon advises readers looking for inexpensive smartphone plans to consider prepaid services that use bigger carriers' nationwide 3G networks.

Looking to slash your smartphone bill? Prepaid services that resell service from the nationwide carriers at big discounts may be your answer.

There are now several prepaid services available that resell nationwide carriers' 3G wireless services. The benefits to these plans are huge. Customers can still get access to hot new smartphones and reliable networks with nationwide coverage at a fraction of the price that they'd pay subscribing to a service from AT&T or Verizon Wireless. Of course, there are a few downsides to these prepaid services. Still, as I explain in this edition of Ask Maggie, the cost savings may outweigh the possible shortcomings.

I also share some news of a sweet deal from Best Buy on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus for Verizon, as well as helpful advice on whether to subscribe to a family share plan on Verizon.

A prepaid alternative to Verizon Wireless

Dear Maggie,

Next month I am moving to Georgia for my freshman year of school, while the rest of my family remains in Alabama. As a college student, I would like a smartphone, but I agree with my mom that data plans are expensive. I am interested in Virgin Mobile, because of its low-cost plans. But I'm not sure about the service coverage and reliability. We are Verizon customers and are satisfied with the coverage and reliability of the network. But as you know, Verizon data plans are costly. My question is this: What's the best service for my situation that will give me adequate network coverage for the lowest overall price?




Dear Jason,

You are absolutely right that data service from some of the larger wireless carriers is expensive. And even though big carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon are offering more flexibility with their data plans that allow you to share data with other members of your family or among several devices, the cost of that service isn't really any cheaper than what they've offered in the past. In fact, you're likely to pay the same amount or maybe even a bit more under these new plans. You'll likely get access to less data, but you'll get more voice minutes and text messages.

Sadly this isn't always the best answer for every consumer. And my hunch is that it's probably not the best fit for you either. But the bigger carriers can get away with this because they tend to have the largest networks with the best service.

Verizon, in particular, is able to charge a premium for its service because it has a very solid network, as you mentioned in your question. The network footprint is large, so people all over the country can access it from almost anywhere.. And the service is generally reliable. Verizon has consistently gotten high marks from consumer groups for this reason.

But Verizon cellular service isn't cheap, as you mentioned. Under the new Share Everything plans that were recently put in place, you would pay a minimum of $90 a month for a smartphone plan that would give you access to 1GB of data per month. You'd also get unlimited voice and text messaging with this service, plus you'd also have the ability to turn your smartphone into a hot spot at no additional charge.

The problem for you and probably for many other wireless customers in a similar situation is that Verizon's base plan for new subscribers under the Share Everything plan will probably give you way more voice minutes and text messages than you actually need. If you're already a Verizon customer, you may be able to pick a plan with fewer voice minutes and messaging. But even this plan at a minimum would probably cost you $70 with the lowest number of voice minutes, which is 450 voice minutes for $40. You'd also get 2GB of data for $30. But you'd have to pay even more for a texting plan if you wanted that as well.

So what should you do? I think a prepaid service is definitely the best option for you. You can get a lot more bang for your buck under these plans.

Virgin Mobile is certainly one option. The $55 a month plan gives you unlimited voice and text messaging and up to 2.5GB of data at the full 3G speed of its network. Already that service is $35 cheaper than Verizon's service. But you are concerned about the coverage and quality of service. And that makes sense. Virgin Mobile uses Sprint's 3G network and it's not as extensive as Verizon's service. So if Sprint doesn't offer great service where you are attending school, then you're not likely to get good service with Virgin Mobile.

But don't lose hope. I have some great news for you. I have found another service that might offer you the best of both worlds.

There's a prepaid service called Page Plus Cellular that uses Verizon's 3G network, but it offers its service plans at a fraction of the price Verizon charges. To be clear, I have not yet used this service. So I can't tell you from personal experience how well it woks. But if what the company advertises is accurate, it's definitely a deal to consider. The one thing that caught my eye about this service is that it allows you to activate Verizon phones on its network. Not all prepaid services allow this. But I think it's a benefit because it allows you more flexibility in the types of devices you can use and also gives you the option to switch back to Verizon if you're not satisfied with the prepaid service, without being forced to buy a new phone.

One thing to note is that if you use a Verizon phone it has to be a "clean" phone, which means it's not already being used under a current Verizon contract. The phone also can't be reported stolen. If the phone is no longer under contract and is not stolen, you can use this phone and your existing cell phone number on the Page Plus service.

Like all other prepaid options, one of the benefits of this type of plan is that you don't have to sign a two-year contract. Similar to Virgin Mobile, Page Plus offers a $55 a month service that will provide you with unlimited voice and text messaging. And it comes with 2GB of data per month. In a straight comparison with Verizon's new share plan, you can get almost the same 3G service for $35 less per month. And you'd get 1GB more of data each month.

But there are a couple of downsides to consider. First, because this is a prepaid service, you have to buy a smartphone at full price. But as I mentioned before, you can buy a used Verizon phone or even use a hand-me-down Verizon smartphone from one of your parents, siblings, or friends.

The other downside is that you won't get access to Verizon's 4G LTE network with this service. It uses Verizon's older 3G network.

And finally, if you go over 2GB of data in a month, your data privileges are simply cut off until the next billing cycle. There is no going over your allotted data. To be honest, this won't likely be a problem, since 2GB is likely more than enough data for you.

Taking that all into consideration, I still think Page Plus is a great deal and is likely a great option for you if you're trying to keep your costs as low as possible. I'd even recommend that you consider some of Page Plus' less-expensive plans. For $29 a month you can get 1,200 voice minutes, 3,000 text messages and 100MB of data.

Since you're going to be a college student, it's very likely you won't need a big bucket of data since you will be surrounded by Wi-Fi most of the time you are on campus. Whether you are in your dorm room, attending class, eating in the dining hall, or just wandering around campus, chances are you will have access to the university's Wi-Fi network. And when you're in Wi-Fi, you aren't using the data in your carrier data plan.

So for you, living on 100MB of data per month even with a smartphone is very doable. Even if you have to ration your data usage a little bit when you go home over holiday and summer breaks, it might be worth it considering you'd be saving $60 a month compared with the Verizon Share Everything Plan.

Of course, you won't get the hot spot service included in Verizon's share plan or the 4G LTE access. But if you have access to Wi-Fi most of the time, you won't really need hot spot functionality or 4G LTE speeds. The university Wi-Fi services will offer connectivity for all your other Wi-Fi-enabled devices, and the speeds of the campus Wi-Fi may be as fast or faster than Verizon's LTE service.

Page Plus operates over Verizon's network, but there are other MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) or wireless resellers, that offer similar services on other major carrier networks. Beigephone.com is a Web site that acts as a middleman for these services. You can go to this site to get access to Page Plus as well as other resellers, such as H2O Wireless, which uses AT&T's 3G wireless network. Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile use Sprint's network. And Simple Mobile uses T-Mobile's network. Beigephone.com can provide access to each of these services.

The beauty of these low-cost prepaid services is that they use national carriers' networks but offer service at a reduced price without a contract. I know it sounds too good to be true. And it may in fact be too good to be true. As I mentioned earlier, there are some caveats to consider. While all the major nationwide carriers are starting to roll out their 4G LTE networks, none of the resellers offer service over these LTE networks. Simple Mobile does claim to offer 4G service over T-Mobile's network, but it's T-Mobile's version of 4G, which is really HSPA+. Also most of these carriers do not offer international roaming. But this may not be a problem if you are using a phone with GSM service. You can simply unlock the phone and pop in a local SIM card while traveling for access overseas.

The other drawback is that you need to buy a new phone at full price or you can buy a used phone to use on these networks. Still, as I've described in other columns, you would actually save money over the life of a standard two-year contract by buying your phone yourself without a contract and using a low-cost prepaid provider.

As I mentioned previously, I haven't personally used this service. So if any readers out there have used Page Plus, please leave comments at the end of this story and let us know what you think of the service. Given the advertised cost savings and the fact that it uses Verizon's 3G network, it sounds like a great deal.

Another low-cost option you may want to consider is a service called Republic Wireless. This service costs only $19 a month and it offers unlimited voice, text messaging, and data. Again, I haven't tried this service yet, but it sounds like a good deal. It uses Wi-Fi when available to make calls and send data. So this service might work well for people who will be surrounded by Wi-Fi on campus.

But when the Republic Wireless phone is not in a Wi-Fi zone, it uses Sprint's 3G network, which means that if you don't get great Sprint coverage, then you won't get great Republic Wireless service when you're in those areas.

Republic announced its service last year but then quickly closed its beta test to new customers. Now it has re-opened the beta test to attract new customers. And it's added another phone to its lineup, the Motorola Defy XT, which costs $249.

This service is definitely inexpensive, but to be honest, I am still leaning toward the Page Plus plan for you. And the reason is that it uses Verizon's network, which means you should get great coverage and reliability in terms of the network. And it also means you will be able to use any Verizon-compatible phone. Not only will you have access to a wider variety of devices than you would on Republic Wireless but also, if you decide you don't like the Page Plus service, you can always subscribe to Verizon. And you won't need to buy a new phone.

I hope this information was helpful to you. Good luck with your decision. And good luck with school. Study hard!

Now playing: Watch this: The frenzy over shared data plans

What's the most affordable way to add a smartphone to a family plan?

Dear Maggie,

I have a smartphone on Verizon Wireless. My wife, who stays home with our 1-year-old daughter, still has a "dumb" flip phone. She doesn't really need a smartphone. But lately she says it would be nice to access e-mail or the Internet when she's out with the baby. So we are thinking about getting her a smartphone too.

The problem is that we don't want to spend too much either on a new phone or a data plan. I generally give her my old phones when I upgrade to a new device, but my HTC Droid Incredible is almost two years old. And ever since the last software update, it gets into these rebooting loops. (I'm not sure what's going on there, so if you could offer some advice on that too, it would be helpful.)

At any rate, because of the problems with that phone, I don't want to give it to her to use. Do you have any recommendations in terms of inexpensive, but good smartphones for us on Verizon? And do you think the new Family Share Plan would be a good fit for us? She probably won't use that much data each month. And I don't use that much myself. Any advice or tips you could give us on this would be greatly appreciated.




Dear J,

Unfortunately, I don't have any advice for you about stopping the rebooting loop that's been happening to your HTC Droid Incredible. You might want to try removing the battery to see if that helps. But unfortunately, these smartphones aren't necessarily meant to last more than a few years. So if your device is already a couple of years old, you may want to get a new one. Perhaps other readers can leave comments here that might provide you with better advice on that.

As for the new phones and the service plans, I do have some advice. If your wife isn't likely to use a lot of data and has access to Wi-Fi on a regular basis, then I think the two of you may be fine with Verizon's lowest tier of service. This plan offers you 1GB of data to share for $50 a month. To connect two smartphones, it will cost you another $80. The total bill will be $130 a month.

That's likely more than what you're paying now for cell phone service, since your wife doesn't have a data plan for her basic flip phone. But it's likely cheaper than if you subscribed to two data plans under the old Verizon family plan model. In that scenario you'd likely pay about $90 for voice service with 1,400 minutes of talk time, two data plans at $30 each, 1,000 text messages to share at $20, for a grand total of $170 a month.

Since you're already an HTC Droid Incredible user, you may be interested in the new Droid Incredible 4G LTE. It costs $150 with a two-year contract on Verizon's Web site, and it comes with the updated version of HTC Sense software and Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system. You should check with Verizon to see if the company is running any special promotions where you can buy one and get one free. They run those offers often. So that's something to consider as well.

I think the better deal for you right now might be to upgrade to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus 4G LTE. Best Buy is running a three-week promotion that started July 29 and will end August 25. This promotion will allow you to get the Samsung Galaxy Nexus 4G LTE for free with a two-year contract on Verizon. This phone is currently being sold by Verizon for $100 with a two-year contract and online discount.The offer for a free Galaxy Nexus 4G is available only if you buy your smartphones from Best Buy.

This device is a "pure" Google-experience smartphone, which means it doesn't have Samsung's TouchWiz software running on it. TouchWiz, like HTC Sense, is a software overlay to Android.

The biggest advantage to buying a "pure" Google smartphone such as the Galaxy Nexus is that it will be among the first devices to get the latest Android software upgrade Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Verizon hasn't said when Jelly Bean updates will be distributed over the air for the Nexus 4G, but it should be coming fairly soon.

If the Verizon data plans are still too expensive for you, the other option you should consider is leaving Verizon and subscribing to a prepaid service, such as the one I talked about in the previous answer. Page Plus uses Verizon's 3G network, so you'd be getting access to essentially the same network that you are using today.

You'd be able to continue to use your HTC Incredible on that service, if your contract with Verizon has ended. You'd have to buy a new device for your wife at full price, but you could find a used one that might not set you back too badly. At that point you could either select the $55 plan if you want 2GB of data or you could try the $29 plan that will give you far less data. Either way, your combined bill will be far less than it would be with Verizon. Two plans offering a total of 2GB of data will cost you $110 compared with $140 under Verizon's Share Plan. And if you think you can live on a lot less data, you can pay a total of $60 a month for 200MB of data for you and your wife with Page Plus. That's a huge savings if you think you can do much of your Web surfing and Internet access in Wi-Fi.

The big drawback to Page Plus is that you won't get access to Verizon's 4G LTE network. So if speedy, broadband-like access on your smartphone is important to you, then Page Plus would not be the service to choose. As someone who gets to play with these 4G LTE devices on a regular basis, I have to say that I love the fast access. And it would be hard for me to give it up. It makes accessing apps like Facebook or looking up something on the Internet when you're out and about so much faster than the old 3G, where it feels like you have to wait forever for a page to load.

But if your budget is tight and you are in Wi-Fi anyway most of the time, you could probably live with the slower cellular speeds. Good luck with your decision. I hope this advice was helpful.

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.