In my last article on LifeHack, I discussed a couple of options for getting a smartphone without high monthly fees, but I did not go into details about specific prepaid plans. In this post I'll quickly review a couple of cheap options, and mention some ways you can save on usage.
Verizon Network - Page Plus Cellular
T-Mobile and Sprint do not have the best coverage where I live, so I ended up using Page Plus. They're the only prepaid carrier that runs on the Verizon network and their coverage map seems to be the same as Verizon's. This should mean that they have the same voice quality as Verizon's own prepaid plans, though that may not be the case in practice. The company's website and operations leave a lot to be desired, but once you get everything setup, they seem to work fine. The big advantage of PagePlus is that you can buy almost any Verizon phone (or even some other CMDA phones) and then activate it on PagePlus. The other advantage is their cheap plans. If you don't use the phone service that often, you can pay as little as $12 /month for service and get 250 minutes and texts. If you need more minutes, you can get their $30 plan, which comes with 1200 Minutes, 3000 Text/Picture Messages and 100 MB Data.
Sprint Network - Virgin Mobile
Many prepaid carriers run on the Sprint network, and some are also owned by Sprint. I mentioned Platinum Tel as a very cheap option, but I do not know their smartphone policy. A Smartphone-friendly alternative is Virgin Mobile, which offers a number of possible smartphones (including the $550 iPhone 4S). You can also buy a phone on eBay, though it has to be a Virgin Mobile phone. Look for a bargain, but make sure to get a good phone. I made the mistake of getting a Samsung Intercept and it ran slowly and had a poor battery life. Also, make sure to get a phone with a good ESN. A phone with a bad ESN usually means the phone was stolen, and it won't be able to be activated with Virgin Mobile.
Of the four carriers, T-Mobile is the easiest to use a smartphone with. For one, they're a GSM network, so you can put their SIM card from a regular plan into a GSM smartphone and it should usually work OK. In addition, they offer some cheap prepaid plans and let you use a smartpone with them. If you live in an area where they have good coverage, they are definitely worth considering.
Ways to Save
Once you get your phone and carrier, you will want to find ways to save on usage when in a wifi area. I mentioned Google Voice to send and receive text messages, and you can use many other choices or even your email. It is more difficult to find a free Voip provider. There are many free services that let you speak to other people with the same app, but very few for calling other phones. Some services (such as Groove IP Light) allow free calls via Google Voice, but they are not the best quality. Recently Vonage announced they would be allowing free calls for a while, so there's a free option for now. It may also be worthwhile to pay a small amount for a Voip service.