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Prepaid carriers save you money, but may sacrifice speed

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The big four national carriers aren't exactly known for helping you trim your monthly spending. So budget-minded consumers often turn to prepaid carriers like MetroPCS, Straight Talk, Cricket, Virgin Mobile, and Boost to find a cellphone plan that isn't murder on their wallet. Picking one of the smaller companies over Verizon or AT&T can result in significant savings, but as Tom's Guide recently discovered, more affordable plans often come at the cost of speed. In a test that factored in multiple US cities, Tom's Guide found that prepaid carriers and MVNOs were often slower than the big four — even when sharing the same network.

MetroPCS, which T-Mobile acquired in 2013, saw average download and upload speeds of 8.1 Mbps and 5.2 Mbps. The Uncarrier posted figures of 22.7 Mbps and 13.2 Mbps in the same six cities. But the slower speeds weren't universal; both carriers hit similar numbers in New York, though Tom's Guide believes its test was conducted at a time when T-Mobile wasn't dealing with heavy congestion. If that were the case, MetroPCS performance would've been handcuffed to give T-Mobile customers priority. T-Mobile doesn't try to hide this, with a representative saying the company gives its own customers "data precedence over non-T-Mobile-branded services (including MetroPCS) when our network is presented with competing demands."

Apps can take longer to download

Cricket is actually limited to a hard download cap of 8Mbps on AT&T's network, so the difference is a bit more cut and dry there. Obviously AT&T's network is capable of blowing past that limit, but getting better speeds means leaving attractive monthly plans behind. Cricket is at least open about the data performance you can expect on its network. Virgin and Boost were praised in Tom's Guide's report for offering data rates similar to Sprint — but that may be more reflective of Sprint's current network woes than anything else.

For many of these customers, typical speeds between 3.20 Mbps and 7.80 Mbps could be more than sufficient. But the drop still makes for a noticeable difference during common smartphone tasks like downloading apps. Ultimately, if cost is your paramount concern, there could be significant tradeoffs when moving outside the big four.