Update (2012-02-26): Apparently NET10 now sells SIMs for use with AT&T, T-Mobile, and unlocked GSM phones, if you’re willing to pay for the $50/month Unlimited Talk/Text/Data plan. Thanks to Anna for her comment.
Last summer I began using a prepaid cell phone (an LG 300G, the cheapest, most basic model available at my purchase location) from NET10 Wireless, supposedly the “high-usage division” of TracFone. NET10’s rates are flat: 10¢ per minute (even if it’s actually one second, like any other per-minute charge) and 5¢ per text message in or out.
The phone’s been very handy for some important calls and the 5¢ text messaging rate sure beats major carriers’ rates of 10¢–25¢ or more per message (on plans without a texting bundle), but I wonder how true the “No Evil” part of the company’s motto really is.
All of NET10’s airtime packages come with a fixed number of days after which users are required to reload, or face losing their accumulated minutes (and their number, though that’s not a concern for me because of Google Voice). I don’t use the phone that much, so I buy the relatively economical 300-minute package for $30+tax every time I need to re-up, making my effective “monthly bill” $15-and-change. The package gives me 60 days to use my 300 minutes, but—and here’s the kicker—whether I use them or not, I am forced to renew every sixty days. My low usage means I’ve accumulated over 1,000 extra minutes since last June—minutes that I would lose if I fail to renew. In order to not waste the money I’ve spent before, I must continue to renew my service. I suppose I should be thankful they let me keep all my minutes as long as I continue to renew, eh? :-/
The issue here is, the $30 package is the most economical one I could find. Analysis of the other available packages shows that paying every two months is probably the cheapest maintenance option available. There’s a $20 package of 200 minutes, but it only lasts for 30 days. Deal breaker. Similarly, there are packages that last much longer (4,000 minutes for $400, two years’ service) but with low usage, paying in two-month increments is actually cheaper in the long run:
- 1 yr. = $200
- 60 days × 6 ≈ 1 yr. & $30 × 6 = $180
- $200 − $180 = $20; 5 days can’t possibly equal $20
- Similarly: 2 yrs. = $400
- 60 days × 12 ≈ 2 yrs. & $30 × 12 = $360
- $400 − $360 = $40; 10 days can’t possibly equal $40
So it is truly cheaper to pay every two months, or use one of the other packages not exceeding 600 minutes. (At the 1,000-minute level, the number of service days earned for each dollar spent goes down due to the extra $10 price increase: $30 = 60 days, $45 = 90 days, $60 = 120 days, $100 = 180 days.)
I wonder about NET10’s stated motto: “No bills, no contracts, no evil”. Perhaps there are no bills or monthly contracts, but if you’re a low-usage customer you must continue to pay into the system even if you never use most of the airtime you’re buying. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that draws people along and keeps them paying so they don’t lose their previous airtime investments.
As annoying as the practice of placing an expiration date on minutes that users have paid for is, it’s a practice that seems to be matched by most prepaid carriers. I spent about two hours researching all the different options at a Wal-Mart store in Colorado Springs and came to the conclusion that NET10’s service was the least evil. Other carriers have no expiration but charge a daily access fee on days the phone is used. Others have ridiculous per-minute rates. So NET10 is not “no evil”, but I think “less evil” would be pretty accurate.
SMS Attempt Charges
On New Year’s Eve, just after the ball dropped on a rebroadcast segment from Times Square, I attempted to send out a New Year text message to Ping.fm for posting to Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Of course, because it was seconds after midnight (Central), the network was so congested that the message didn’t go through. My phone displayed “Sending failed” after spending about thirty seconds trying to send out the text. I tried three more times, to no avail. (I gave up and borrowed a few minutes’ access to a computer.)
It wasn’t a big deal that the message failed. I knew that the network would be busy. But it was a very big deal that my account balance was still debited for the 5¢ texting charge each time. Failed messages apparently counted. (It should be noted that friends using Verizon were texting with no problems. NET10 uses AT&T’s network, which often has coverage and service issues.)
I emailed NET10’s customer support. After a few days’ back-and-forth, they asked me to call their support center so something could be “verified” on my account. I posed my question to the operator. She informed me (through her thick foreign accent) that the software on NET10’s phones takes care of managing charges, and that it is the attempt to send a message that results in a charge; the outcome is irrelevant.
The Post Office charges for returned letters, I suppose, so that’s not really a violation of communications business practice. But for a company that claims “no evil”, I find that policy disturbing. Blowing 20¢ on failed text messages isn’t going to break the bank, but it is annoying in principle. I’ll just consider whether or not the network is likely to be busy before sending a message, and refrain from doing so if failure is probable.
The real question is, do other “normal” carriers like Verizon do this? With their much higher rates, I would think conventional monthly-contract providers would have significant user backlash if they attempted such a thing. Does that make NET10 more evil than “less evil”?
NET10 freely admits that their SIM cards and phones are specific to them. I received the following after emailing support to inquire about the possibility of using an unlocked GSM phone (such as the Nexus One) with their service:
If your phone is not manufactured as a NET10, we will not be
able to activate it using NET10 Wireless Prepaid Services. Hence, the
NET10 Wireless service will not be compatible with an unlocked phone.
Furthermore, NET10 SIM cards only work in the phones they were activated
with. Therefore, the SIM cards should not be switched between phones as
this may result in permanently disabling them.
The above was followed by a paragraph encouraging me to check out the selection of available phones at NET10’s website. I did so just on a whim, and my expectation of disappointment did not go unwarranted.
NET10’s website catalog lists only 16 phones at present, most of which fall into the “basic” category. Two devices have slide-out keyboards and a special text-messaging rate of 3¢ per message, but at $79.99 they are also the most expensive phones on the list. And of course, a lower text messaging rate would just mean I’d use even less of my balance than I do now. (I don’t care about a camera, so I won’t analyze that, but many of NET10’s phones do have cameras.)
I have seen forum threads about using devices like the iPhone with NET10, and I assume the company has also seen them and works to keep users from doing so. Why prevent use of smarter phones on NET10’s service? It comes back to software. Phones not manufactured as NET10 devices do not have the software to deduct minutes from a user’s account. People using non-NET10 devices with NET10 service get effectively unlimited usage of voice and text communication because the phone is not configured to manage the account balance.
My question then is, why not commission an Android application to enable smartphone compatibility with NET10 and capitalize on the market of users like myself who would want a smartphone without a data plan? I would certainly be happy to restrict my Internet usage to Wi-Fi–enabled areas; having the phone+SMS+Internet functionality on the same device would be awesome if I could do it without paying for an expensive monthly contract from Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile.
This doesn’t make NET10 evil or not, but it does show that they have lower regard for customer choice than one might think. By operating a no-contract cellular service, they are promoting consumer choice, but they limit consumer choice when they restrict the devices that can be used on their network to a tiny subset of the handsets available on the market. Of course, they’re not the only carrier to do this; most U.S. carriers have handsets that only work on their network, and have handsets that will not work on their network no matter how much you plead. But still, it’s a limiting factor.
Call & Text Spam
While it’s not specifically a NET10 problem, I question the company’s willingness—or lack thereof—to help me solve the problems. I received frequent and disruptive nuisance calls to my NET10 number from an underhanded collection agency for four months after activating my NET10 phone, and I continue to receive occasional calls from a second. I’ve never given out my NET10 number to anyone except my mother, and I made her promise never to call or share it; all communications to me come through Google Voice, and direct calls to my cell phone are by definition not for me. The calls also began the morning after I activated my phone.
Aside from the fact that there was no way a collection agency could have gotten my number that quickly, I also have no creditors that could possibly be seeking collection of old debts. I’m not old enough for that. So I was being woken up at 06:00 MDT by calls from Pennsylvania (placed at 08:00 EDT) intended for someone who had thrown away their prepaid phone number long ago. That sucked.
It did occur to me that I could just answer one of the calls and say the person the agency was looking for no longer owned the number, but even that would have cost ten or twenty cents that didn’t need to be used on scumbag sub-legal debt collection agencies. (I looked into the firm that called me all summer. My research indicated that they dredge up debts that have long passed any relevant statutes of limitations and attempt to collect on them for profit. Hence my usage of “sub-legal”.)
More recently, I’ve begun to receive spam SMS from various numbers, some of which are so much longer than 10 digits (or 11; senders are usually presented with the digit ‘1’ prepended for some reason) that I don’t think they even exist. Only opened messages are charged for, but NET10 is so focused on making money from text messaging (a trait they unfortunately share with all other U.S. cellular carriers) that the software on my phone displays only the first five characters of incoming messages. That limitation makes determining spam extremely difficult. If I could see more of the message—maybe display “Do you have more than $” instead of just “Do yo”, scrolled horizontally like the phone’s software does for contents of Notes—I could effectively avoid being charged for spam, but in my cynicism I have come to believe that NET10 doesn’t care about spam because it potentially makes them more money.
On multiple occasions I have investigated the possibilities for blocking calls from specific numbers (the collections calls are consistent), or filtering spam from my incoming text messages, to no avail. NET10 cannot block calls, but they would have changed my number for “convenience”. No guarantees that the new number wouldn’t have more nuisance calls than the old one, of course. And there are no provisions for blocking text messages. The kicker is that a “normal”, non-NET10 LG 300G would have the ability to block calls by itself, but that feature was removed from the NET10-compatible software. Grr…
My experience is admittedly limited (as I’ve only ever gotten one number from NET10) but I’ve heard from friends and classmates that it’s not uncommon for a number from any provider to have problems with calls and texts intended for previous owners. It’s not specifically part of NET10’s “bad”—rather a con universal to the telecommunications industry—but it was still annoying.
Despite the issues, I’ve been pretty happy with NET10 itself. Even if they charge for failed text messages, require renewals every few months, and refuse to help me block spam, they’re still a pretty good deal. At some point, once I establish a steady income, I plan to use up the minutes on my current phone and end its service to switch to something a little better. For now it serves the purpose of keeping me connected on the go when I need to be, and $15 a month isn’t bad for a U.S. carrier. I’d move to drop them much sooner if they were more expensive.
Of course, these are my experiences with one phone, a NET10-programmed LG 300G purchased in June 2009. Any of the problems I mentioned, especially those related to features of the software features, might not exist on other models or a later release of the 300G.
Update (06/07): Be sure to check out Speak No Evil’s comment below. It has some words of warning that I think are important.
Minor edit at 15:20 to correct erroneous usage of ≅ to ≈