Affordable, Accessible Cell Phone Plans

"Accessibility has to do with price, and if the technology is not affordable then it really isn't accessible," said Executive Director Steve O'Keefe during the October 19 broadcast of SML Live! by Staunton Media Lab. Steve was talking about cell phone plans that would fit particularly well the budget of a family with kids who also need a phone.

"One of the things people complain about most is the cost of cell phones and cell phone plans, particular for children and the underage," Steve said. "It can add up if you have a large family."

The April 2016 Consumer Reports noted:

"The Big Four carriers' shell-game-like pricing practices have become so convoluted, you need an accounting degree to decipher them. They continually shift prices up or down according to the number of phone lines you need and the amount of data you're purchasing. They further complicate matters with 'special' short-term offers to lure customers from rivals."

The deals, the article points out, have a short life span and "often vaporize when a customer buys a new phone or makes other changes." Still, comparison-shopping, perhaps due to the sheer number of options, has become a "tiny bit less onerous."

Republic Wireless

Steve's first choice was Republic Wireless, which he uses with his Motorola Moto X phone. He was paying $30 per month for unlimited voice, text, and data -- for wireless and cell and roaming. Republic no longer offers that plan. Steve recently reduced his cost by going to a 1 gig data plan for $20/month. Steve pointed out that this new-generation smartphone has a great camera and reliable accessibility apps and features.

He recommended Google Translate in particular (from Google Play and Apple). "The deaf can use it to get text from ambient sound in the room and the blind can use it to verbally express their thoughts into text and then manipulate the text for things like documents and papers and schoolwork," he notes. (You can check out SML's Google Translate accessibility tutorial on SoundCloud.)

The no-contract monthly plans start at $15 and go up to $90 (for unlimited talk, text and wifi data); you can get up to 10GB in cell data. Republic Wireless uses cell towers for calling and texting, but also employs something called Adaptive Coverage technology with Bonded Calling that uses cellular data networks and available wifi for coverage where cell doesn't always work. Steve also noted that Republic Wireless uses Sprint network for cell coverage, so if it's strong in your area for roaming, this plan may work especially well for you.

Republic wireless plans

Steve added:

"I know many parents who are spending as much as a $100 a month per child per cell phone, for an iPhone, and it would cost maybe as little as one-tenth of the price per child if they were using a Republic Wireless plan. And I doubt the kids would notice any difference in the quality, honestly."

PC Magazine's Sascha Segan also praised Republic Wireless in his October 5 article because "it does very well in our Readers' Choice awards not just because of its low prices, but also because of its high-quality customer service."

"Over the summer, Republic went from offering only a small selection of phones with specialized firmware to being able to run on a wider variety of Android devices," Segan wrote. "Republic confirmed that its service will work with the new Pixel and Pixel XL phones."

Verizon's Straight Talk

Straight Talk by Verizon is also a pay-as-you plan, no long-term contract necessary. Plans starts at $30, $45 for unlimited coverage, with 30-day contracts and international plans available (here's a chart of its plans for comparison). Walmart offers many phones with Straight Talk coverage, which you can find here.

"Either one of these two plans is remarkably less expensive than the dominant cell phone plans and they partly achieve those cost savings by using wifi whenever it's available," Steve said.

Straight talk plans

Project Fi by Google

Project Fi a wireless service from Google that shifts among multiple networks, automatically connecting you to the best available signal, whether it's coming from wifi or one of Google's three 4G LTE partner networks.

Segan's take was positive:

"Project Fi's advantages are that it rebates you for unused data, which can save you money if you use varying amounts of data; it also taps into the T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular networks for the best possible coverage. If you move between urban areas covered by T-Mobile and rural areas where US Cellular is strong, that can bring some major benefits."

Eric Rosenberg, writing about the best and cheapest smartphone plans for Living on the Cheap, says he was "thrilled to have made the switch" from Verizon to Project Fi. He explains:

"Billing is simple. You pay $20 per month for unlimited calling and text and $10 per 1GB of data used. If you use 500MB (half of 1GB), you pay about $5. If you use 3.5GB, you pay $35.

So far, I have noticed that the network is not quite as good as I had it with Verizon, but it works well in most cities and, like with T-Mobile, there are no extra charges for data and text messaging internationally, which I took advantage of earlier this year."

Project Fi doesn't offer family plans yet, as each phone runs via its individual Google account. It also supports Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X handsets only, so Rosenberg wouldn't recommend it for iPhone users.

On a final note, if you are disabled, you can quality for the free government Lifeline Assistance program, which will provide a free cell phone. Also consider looking into AT&T Accessibility Plans that could offer, say, more texting or video calling than an average plan.

Image by Visualhunt.


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