Straight Talk: It could let you dump AT&T or T-Mobile

Earlier this month, I took a look at Straight Talk, a TracFone-owned mobile virtual operator that resells service on both AT&T(s t) and T-Mobile in the U.S. I personally bought a T-Mobile compatible Straight Talk SIM card for my Galaxy Nexus(s goog) because the deal for unlimited everything at $45 per month and no contract sounded too good to be true. For the most part, Straight Talk delivers on its promise with two small exceptions that I’ll point out shortly. The company calls its product a “BYOP” or Bring Your Own Phone prepaid service.
Since trying the service, I’ve received a number of questions about it and the company noticed. So in order to help me answer them intelligently, Straight Talk sent me a loaner unlocked iPhone 4(s aapl), two AT&T SIMs (regular sized and micro SIM) and some pre-paid monthly service cards.
Unlimited isn’t quite unlimited, except for voice and messages
So here are some follow up experiences I’ve had with both my phone and the loaner iPhone 4, which hopefully helps you decide if Straight Talk’s $45 month to month service is an option for you. First, let me point out the two key exceptions that I’ve found.

  1. Apple’s Visual Voicemail isn’t supported by Straight Talk, so if you go this route, you’ll be calling in to hear your messages. I don’t think that’s a huge issue, at least not for me personally as I use Google Voice for all communications. However, some folks may not be happy with the feature loss.
  2. For $45, Straight Talk advertises unlimited voice minutes, messages and HSPA+ data (There’s no LTE support, even if your phone is capable of using AT&T’s LTE service). Based on user-reported experiences, Straight Talk won’t cut you off provided you keep your monthly usage to 2 GB or about 100 MB per day. Hit either of these and you might get a message about excessive use, along with the threat of service termination. History shows that I use about 1 to 1.5 GB of mobile broadband a month on my phones (I use Wi-Fi a ton), so this works well for me. If you want truly unlimited data or use more than 2 GB per month on your phone, this isn’t the plan for you. Don’t even try it, would be my recommendation.

Note: I asked Straight Talk about the limit and was told that company is trying to “focus on trust and communication with customers.” It’s likely that TracFone has no way to throttle after any limits, since it doesn’t operate the networks. As a result, the company will warn folks for excessive use and potentially disrupt service if you don’t limit your usage.
Good value or no?
If you can live with those two caveats, I think the service is a great value. I was using a $30 data-only T-Mobile SIM in my Galaxy Nexus paired with low-cost VoIP calling but due to coverage issues with dropped or missed calls, I’m much happier with the Straight Talk SIM. My first month of service ends next week and I’ve already added 3 months to my account for $130 thanks to a $5 bundle savings. And because my kids have T-Mobile Sidekick 4G handset and share 1,000 minutes, I ordered a pair of Straight Talk SIMs for them as well. They use very little data but tons of minutes and messages. Now I’ll save on their service and not worry about voice minute overages.
Some questions people have asked me along with answers:

  • How hard is it to set up a Straight Talk SIM on an iPhone? Great question since you can’t directly access the network or APN settings on an iPhone without jailbreaking it. It’s quite easy to set up the new SIM. Just pop it in your iPhone and hit this site in mobile Safari over Wi-Fi: Here you’ll get a small file to download after choosing Straight Talk as your provider. This file will set up the phone to work with the new SIM and the process takes all of two minutes.
  • Is it difficult to set up the service on an Android or other phone? Nope, this is super easy as you can access the APN settings directly on most smartphones. You simply enter the settings provided with your SIM card. It takes a minute or two at most to type the data in.
  • What about MMS on the iPhone? The above setup solution doesn’t enable MMS, so there are several manual methods to enable both data and MMS. First, back up your iPhone in iTunes with its current SIM. Then swap SIM cards and restore your iPhone backup with the Straight Talk SIM in the handset. Again, this isn’t an issue for me personally as I use Google Voice for messages. There’s plenty of information on Straight Talk setup in this wiki page if you need it. If you have a cut-down T-Mobile SIM, you can follow these simple instructions as well. Or you could jailbreak your phone to get access to the settings.
  • Are the network speeds the same? According to my testing: Yes. I’ve used my Galaxy Nexus with both a T-Mobile SIM and Straight Talk SIM for T-Mobile’s network and found the speeds to be equal. On T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network where I live, I routinely see between 6 and 8 Mbps down, 2 Mbps up and ping times around 120 milliseconds. The same test on my iPhone 4S with a SIM from AT&T and then from Straight Talk showed no difference either.
  • How’s the coverage? Since Straight Talk is paying AT&T and T-Mobile for their networks, the coverage is the same as if you were paying those operators directly. I haven’t seen any coverage differences at all. If you get good coverage now from one of the two carriers, you should get the same with a Straight Talk SIM.
  • If I can save money with this SIM, why wouldn’t I do it? First, if you’re a heavy data user, I wouldn’t recommend this option, as stated above. Second, you’re bringing your own phone. That means you either pay full price for your phone — which can be anything from $400 to $700, if not more — or you keep your current phone and close out your contract with an early termination fee. You’ll have to check with your carrier to see how much that will cost. I’ll be closing my T-Mobile contract on the two Sidekicks, for example, so my break-even point is a few months out. Lastly, if you use a CDMA phone (such one from Sprint(s s) or Verizon(s vz)(s vod)) or you want LTE service, this plan won’t work for you.
  • What about tethering or using the phone as a mobile hotspot? That’s expressly forbidden in the terms of service. You might get away with it for a short bit here and there, but once you bump up against some heavy usage in a single day, you’re raising the red flag to Straight Talk’s systems.
  • Can I port a number to Straight Talk? Yup, not a problem. You do this when you activate your SIM card online. I didn’t do this for my account. Although I now have another new phone number, nobody knows it because of Google Voice. I will, however, port my kids’ phone numbers next week.

No, this service isn’t for everyone. Heavy-duty data users, folks that want LTE, use a CDMA phone or don’t want to pay full price for their handset are unlikely candidates. But for someone like myself that buys unsubsidized hardware, doesn’t want a long term contract and can supplement mobile broadband with Wi-Fi usage, the BYOP plan at Straight Talk offers solid savings and the same level of service found from national carriers.
Disclosure: The free 30-day service provided by Straight Talk was for testing purposes, not for my personal use, and the iPhone will be returned, per our editorial policy. I pay for my own phone service and provided my own Galaxy Nexus and iPhone 4S  smartphones, which I bought out of pocket last year.