Cricket Wireless, the AT&T-owned prepaid carrier, has announced that it's offering an unlimited data, text, and voice plan for $70 per month. That's the all-in price, including taxes and fees, and for people who sign up for automated billing the price drops to $65 per month.
There's fine print, and as you might expect it's related to the unlimited data (any time you see a carrier offer "unlimited data," your lie detector should start beeping). Cricket's download speeds on LTE are throttled to 8Mbps, and on 4G it's throttled to 4Mpbs. That's not exactly slow, but AT&T's network is obviously capable of a whole lot more.
Look out for the fine print
The other thing to note is that Cricket will block normal attempts to use your phone as a mobile hotspot — and presumably find ways to slap you down if you try to use a workaround to tether or otherwise use an unseemly amount of data. That's basically normal for any "unlimited" plan. A Cricket representative tells us that Cricket doesn't currently penalize heavy data users, but that "in the future, Cricket may consider reasonable network management practices."
So those are the details, and if you're happy with the throttled data and phone selection on Cricket, it seems like a pretty good deal. But for people who have watched AT&T struggle to counter the wacky hijinks of T-Mobile CEO John Legere, there's something deeper going on here. Cricket explicitly points out that it's offering a cheaper deal than what you can get on a similar T-Mobile plan. In fact, its press release mentions T-Mobile almost as many times as it mentions Cricket, and it's offering a $100 bonus to switchers.
Coming after T-Mobile
Cricket is even taking on a winking, needling approach to challenging T-Mobile with the new plan, saying that its prices are "Very Uncool." So, like Verizon, AT&T is trying to stay above the fray and instead it's dispatching its Cricket brand to take on T-Mobile. Instead of trying to compete directly on price, it's using Cricket prepaid to do it instead. Which makes sense, at least from AT&T's perspective: it gets to have a competitive offering and indirectly paint T-Mobile as a "budget" carrier instead of a flagship carrier.
But what might make even more sense is this: if prepaid carriers are using the same networks as the big, stodgy carriers and offering significantly reduced prices, why not switch to prepaid? There is still a weird stigma surrounding these cheaper alternatives (at least in the US), and that stigma is really starting to look silly.