My Lumia 521 T-Mobile experiment and how AT&T's new Mobile Share Value plans have affected it

I am paying too much for AT&T service.

I have 2 lines, one with my Titan and my wife's feature phone. We have the 2GB mobile share plan, which includes unlimited talk and text, plus tethering. Even with a 15% corporate discount, it's over $136/mo. I imagine the 2GB mobile share plan is among the most common. For reference, here is how the plan breaks down:

AT&T 2GB Mobile Share
2GB data - $50 ($42.50 w/ 15% discount)
Smartphone - $45
Featurephone - $30
$125 ($117.50 w/ discount) (w/ tax+fees = $136.77)

More on this in a bit. Side note, notice how AT&T doesn't apply the 15% corporate discount to the whole bill. Nice.

Side note 2: I was on Sprint for 12 years before switching to AT&T 2 years ago. I was paying around $83 for 2 lines but we did not have unlimited talk or unlimited text. They would not allow me to get a new phone and keep that plan, so I said goodbye.

Needless to say, knowing my 2 year contract with AT&T was up 2 weeks ago, I began to look at my options. I explored the various MVNOs available in the US. I had successfully recommended the Lumia 520 on Straight Talk to someone at work, and my mother-in-law is also using a 520 on another AT&T MVNO. So initially I looked at Straight Talk. If you pre-pay the year it's $41.25/mo which is really pretty decent for unlimited minutes, unlimited text and "unlimited" data (various reports on the interwebz report canceled service at the ~2.5GB mark and possibly before). By the way, pretty much no MVNOs allow tethering (Ting does). Frankly I'm leery overall of MVNOs, for a multitude of reasons. I'm done with Sprint, pretty sure Verizon will be a rip-off for the foreseeable future. I've tried AT&T and it's OK.

However, a friend has had T-Mobile for a year or so with good results. The day before Thanksgiving, all in about an hour, I got it in me to try T-Mobile. How? I hatched this brilliant plan: buy a Lumia 521 from Walmart for $99 and the $30 prepaid SIM which has 100 minutes, unlimited text and 5GB data. Test for a month. If the service is good, I can give the 521 to my wife and get something for myself. I would be driving to my parents' and my in-laws over the holiday, so there would be lots of opportunity to test rural road signal plus multiple towns. I would stream Pandora (MetroRadio) as my test.

So how has the T-Mobile experiment gone? Surprisingly well. I've found that T-Mobile service is pretty true to their reputation: great in more populated areas, but down to 2G or no service out in rural areas. But what surprised me was I actually had better signal AND better speeds than AT&T in more areas that I commonly go, including my own house and work. T-Mobile does have LTE in my market and I figure that will just be a bonus. The speeds I am getting are already more than satisfactory. I went to a restaurant with a co-worker and challenged him to a speedtest (he has a Lumia 920 on AT&T w/ LTE). My cheapo 521 on T-Mo HSPA+ won at 10Mbps. And it was not a fluke.

And let me just take a moment to mention the incredible value of this phone + the $30 prepaid SIM combination. It's kind of blowing my mind, actually. The 520/521 twins are very competent. Hell, the call quality is better than my Titan (not that hard). Yeah the screen is kinda meh, as well as the camera. But the consistency of Windows Phone on this 1GHz S4 really shines at the low end.

Though I know I can't live with a phone this small anymore. But why someone would walk out of Walmart with a prepaid smartphone other than a 520 or 521, I'm not really sure. They are the most popular Windows Phone so there's that.

Anyway, back to the network stuff. I found out that MVNOs and prepaid accounts typically do not offer the same roaming privileges that the post-paid carrier plans do. So I am hopeful that those no signal rural areas would at least become AT&T roaming areas, in case I needed to make a call. I don't need LTE in the woods, and I'm willing to save some bucks as a result. Speaking of, the plan I had tentatively selected looks like this:

T-Mobile bring your own phone
Line 1: 2.5GB data (2G thereafter), unlimited talk and text, wifi calling, tethering
$60 ($51 w/ discount)
Line 2: 500MB data (2G thereafter), unlimited talk and text, wifi calling, tethering
$30 ($25.50 w/ discount)
$90 ($76.50) (w/ tax+fees = $88 est)

So like $49/mo cheaper than AT&T. And almost as cheap as what I was paying on Sprint, but for significantly more service. Plus, compared to AT&T, cheaper plan AND they apply the 15% discount to the whole bill. With an additional 1GB data, and a smartphone on both lines, which would incur another $15 on AT&T. So clearly a much better value.

One hitch is that I can't figure out what phone I will buy for T-Mobile. I was interested in the 1520 but I'd need the RM-938 variant which I have not seen anywhere yet. And I don't know if I want a 6" phone. So I felt like I would be wasting money on AT&T while I fiddle around finding a T-Mobile phone. Enter AT&T's new Mobile Share Value plan.

I had a lengthy chat with an AT&T rep this afternoon and was pretty surprised to find that I can save $30/mo by switching to the new Value plan. In short, it would break down like this (compare to above):

AT&T Mobile Share Value, no contract
2GB data - $55 ($46.75 w/ 15% discount)
Smartphone - $25
Featurephone: $20
$100 ($91.75 w/ discount) (w/ tax+fees = $107 est)

They apparently consider their smartphone subsidy to be worth $360, as under the new Value plan, a smartphone would normally have been $40. Along a similar vein, they consider their feature phone subsidy to be worth $240.

So we can hold onto our current phones, and save about $30/mo, starting tomorrow. And no contracts. This plan couldn't have come at a better time. I'm glad to see competition actually working, with pricing pressure from the various MVNOs and even T-Mobile themselves as the uncarrier, and it will also increase the relevance for off-contract phone prices in the US, whereas those prices were largely unknown by Americans.

In the end, I can save another $19/mo by going with T-Mobile, but since I've already saved $30/mo, I can take my time finding a T-Mobile phone to buy off contract.