AT&T boosts data, adds Mexico calling to GoPhone plans

Customers on AT&T’s GoPhone plans will see a substantial increase in their monthly data allotments starting Friday, and those who subscribe to the $60 prepaid plan can also start making calls to Mexico for free.

On February 20, the $45 GoPhone plan’s data bucket will increase from 1GB to 1.5GB a month, and the $60 plan’s bucket will grow from 2.5GB to 4GB. Customers on both plans already get unlimited texting to Mexico and other countries, but starting Friday $60 plan subscribers will also get unlimited calls to landline and mobile numbers in Mexico.

[company]AT&T[/company] has been upping the benefits offer by both its prepaid service brands recently. In January, Cricket Wireless boosted data allotments across its cheaper service tiers and began offering a limited-time 20GB plan for $60 a month. It also made unrestricted voice calls to Mexico standard on Cricket plans of $50 or more.

Ma Bell’s addition of cross-border calling to the mix is a direct result of its acquisition spree in Mexico and its subsequent promise to create a unified North American mobile footprint. AT&T still hasn’t made Mexico features standard on its regular contract and family plans, though it does offer a $5 a month add-on that will give unlimited voice calls to that country.

Ting gets the iPhone 6 as it prepares to launch its GSM service

Customers who subscribe to virtual operator Ting can now tap its unique pay-for-what-you-use plans with an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus. On Wednesday Ting will began activating unlocked iPhones on its network as long as they’re optimized for Sprint network.

Ting is getting access to the iPhone 6 much sooner than it has previous generation Apple devices, but in a few weeks it won’t matter. Ting VP of Marketing Michael Goldstein said that the carrier would soon start supporting GSM phones, which means it will no longer be locked down to a specific carrier’s device. As soon as a new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy or Google Nexus goes on sale, customers can activate them on Ting immediately.

Ting is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), a network-less carrier that buys voice, SMS and data capacity from an operator that owns its own wireless infrastructure. Since internet-domain registrar [company]Tucows[/company] launched Ting in 2012, it has used [company]Sprint[/company]’s CDMA and 4G networks exclusively, but in late February or early March it will start buying capacity from a GSM carrier as well, offering access to its 2G and 3G voice networks as well as its HSPA and LTE data networks. Goldstein wouldn’t reveal who that carrier is, but I’ve learned its [company]T-Mobile[/company], which is generally friendlier to MVNOs than the country’s other big GSM operator [company]AT&T[/company].

GSM support is a big boon for Ting because its customers have to jump through far fewer hoops to get the device they want. Previously customers had to use old Sprint phones off contract or track down a used device optimized for Sprint network and then request an unlock from the carrier. Sprint, however, placed restrictions on new devices, banning its MVNOs from offering the latest and greatest smartphones for a few months or a year after their debut. That policy changed this week as new rules went into effect that require operator to unlock devices as soon as they’re paid off.

With GSM, customers no longer have to meet a bunch of prerequisites or go through steps to get their Sprint phones unlocked and activated. They just have to slot a Ting SIM card into any unlocked GSM phone that supports T-Mobile frequencies, which is pretty much all GSM phones sold in the U.S. as well as many of the CDMA smartphones sold by Verizon and Sprint. Customers could also go also buy their devices directly from [company]Apple[/company] or [company]Google[/company], from third-party retailers like [company]Best Buy[/company] and [company]Amazon[/company], or pick up a used device on [company]eBay[/company].

In fact sending customers off to other marketplaces to buy their phones is preferable to Ting. It wants to be the service business, not the hardware business, Goldstein said.

AT&T begins building a unified US-Mexico footprint with Cricket

AT&T promised it would create the first pan-North American service area when it bought Mexico’s Iusacell last month, and it’s wasting no time getting started on the multinational footprint. On Tuesday, Ma Bell announced its prepaid arm Cricket Wireless will make unlimited calls to Mexico part of its standard $50 and $60 plans.

Cricket is already a brand used by many foreign nationals — it offers unlimited texting to 35 countries on those same plans – so it makes sense [company]AT&T[/company] would start its cross-border feature expansion with its prepaid service. Today customers can buy a $5 add-on that will give you free calls to international landlines or $15 add-on that will give you 1000 minutes to mobile numbers. But when the new rates kick in on Wednesday, customers on any Cricket plan with 5 GBs of data or more will no longer have to pay extra for calls to any Mexico wireline or wireless phone.

Of course, this isn’t the same thing as created a unified mobile footprint where customers can wander back and forth between countries under a single rate plan –it’s only good for calls you make from the U.S. If you want to take your phone to Mexico without getting hit with big roaming charges, then you have to sign up for a $10 add-on and that only gives you a measly 100 minutes and 100 texts to use within Mexico each month.

I suspect we’ll see those policies change as AT&T completes its network integration work, which will include not just Iusacell but also Nextel Mexico – assuming its acquisition of that carrier is approved. I really doubt AT&T is just going to include Mexico and the U.S. in one giant “home” network where all voice, text and data remains part of your regular service plan, but it could definitely lower the mobile barriers that sit astride those geographic borders.

My bet is that Ma Bell will soon make calls from the U.S. to Mexico a standard part of its main AT&T Mobility plans – or at least an extremely cheap add on to its postpaid plans – and will do the same for Mexico-to-U.S. calls for Iusacell and Nextel customers. Then I suspect it will drastically lower the roaming rates it charges customers from either the U.S. or Mexico when they venture north or south of their respective borders.

As for a true multinational plan – say, a 5 GB monthly data bucket with unlimited voice and text that can be used in either country – AT&T may one day offer it, but likely at a premium price to customers who travel frequently between Mexico and the U.S.

Sprint is growing, but it’s still losing core phone customers

Marcelo Claure may have brought the struggling Sprint back to growth, but the new CEO probably wishes the company were growing in different ways. Sprint added 1 million new connections in the fourth quarter, but they were all prepaid, wholesale and tablet connections instead of core smartphone subscriptions.

In its Q4 earnings (the company’s fiscal Q3), Sprint revealed it lost 205,000 postpaid phone subscribers, the high-value customers who tend to be either on contract of premium service plans. While [company]Sprint[/company] total postpaid connections did grow by 30,000 last quarter, it was all tablets. Tablets are great, but a $30 tablet plan brings in half the revenue of a $60 smartphone plan. And as far as the slate race goes, [company]Verizon[/company] and [company]AT&T[/company] are clearly winning, connecting a combined 2.4 million tablets to their networks in Q4.

Unlike with tablets, there aren’t that many new phone customers out there. Carriers are basically poaching postpaid customers away from one another or upselling prepaid users on premium plans. So it’s pretty unreasonable to expect Sprint to post a quarter with a million new postpaid smartphone plans. But ever since Claure took over, Sprint has been focused on that segment, launching new promotions like its iPhone for Life leasing program and an offer to cut Verizon and AT&T phone bills in half.

Sprint said that due to those aggressive campaigns it had a record quarter of luring postpaid phone subscribers over to its network, but its competitors were also pretty successful at luring customers away from Sprint. Sprint’s churn rate, the percentage of customers that defect every quarter, for postpaid subscribers was 2.3 percent, double that of Verizon.

Sprint reported a loss of $2.38 billion last quarter, compared to a $1.04 billion loss a year earlier, but $1.9 billion was a one-time charge: Sprint wrote down the value of its brand. Sprint now has 55.9 million total customers.

During Sprint’s earnings call, Claure also gave an update on Sprint’s ongoing network upgrade. Sprint’s LTE network basically has three parts, each in a different phase of construction. Its main network on the PCS frequency band now covers 270 million people. Sprint has also been using its old Nextel airwaves to add LTE coverage to its footprint and that network is now in 60 percent of Sprint’s markets. Finally, the Spark network Sprint is building in the 2.5 GHz airwaves to add loads of capacity to the network now covers 125 million people.

In mobile, postpaid connections rise while prepaid declines

Over the last year, postpaid mobile subscriptions have been booming, while prepaid — once the strongest area of mobile growth in the U.S. — has been slowly dropping off, according to communications market researcher ShareTracker.

According to ShareTracker, postpaid net additions among the mobile carriers has increased 156 percent between 2013 and 2014. Postpaid used to mean contracts, but today it’s any manner of plan where you pay after your billing cycle. Meanwhile prepaid — service where you buy voice, SMS and data ahead of time  — saw an average decline of 35 percent, ShareTracker found.

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As you might expect, prepaid and postpaid tend to track the U.S. economy. During the recession, prepaid growth jumped dramatically, but now that the economy has recovered, postpaid is returning to growth.

Virgin’s new shared data plans swap customization for simplicity

When Virgin Mobile launched its Custom plans at Walmart last summer, it created the most flexible prepaid family plans in the U.S. Thanks to technology provided by ItsOn, customers could pick specific buckets of minutes, texts and megabytes and share them with family members. They could even tailor individual phone plans for services like social networking and navigation.

There was only one problem: If anything, the plans were too flexible.

Virgin encountered situations where five different people on a custom family plan would all opt for different minute, text and data buckets and then start swapping their allocations between each other at the end of the month, Virgin director of corporate communications Jayne Wallace told me. It became very difficult and confusing to manage such accounts, she said, so Virgin decided to simplify its structure.

Starting on Saturday, Virgin and [company]Walmart[/company] will begin replacing Virgin Custom phone kits with a new Walmart exclusive program called Data Done Right. The new program definitely makes these service plans easier to manage, though a lot of the granular customization features are sacrificed.

All but the cheapest $35 individual plan come with unlimited voice and SMS, and from there, the pricing varies based on how many lines you purchase and the size of your data bucket. $45 gets you 2.5GB on a single line, while $65 gets you 4GB shared between two lines, $90 8GB over three lines and $115 12GB over four lines. You can add additional gigabytes to a plan for $10 a pop.

Virgin, which is one of [company]Sprint[/company]’s prepaid arms, is also offering a much better selection of phones in the new plans, all of which support Sprint’s LTE service: The [company]HTC[/company] Desire 510 ($99.88), [company]LG[/company] Tribute ($79.88) and LG Volt ($149.88), and the new [company]Samsung[/company] Galaxy Core Prime ($129.88). All of the phones also have mobile hotspot features so you can share that data plan with other devices.

These plans are easier to comprehend, but it’s a shame that the ability to tailor your own plan is left on the wayside. Previously, you could create any manner of plan that reflected how you and each member of your family used their mobile service. Ultimately, though, Virgin’s new rates are pretty cheap, so the price difference between customizing a family plan and opting for a pre-packaged tier isn’t going to be much different. In fact, in many cases, you’ll probably see cost savings. If you’re on a custom plan today, though, Virgin will continue to maintain it, Wallace said.

And Virgin isn’t doing away with customization entirely. It’s keeping some of the add-on features that made the program unique, such as $5 a month for unlimited social media and music stream usage (data from apps like [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Pandora[/company] won’t count against your data allotment). It’s also keeping the ItsOn-designed management app in place, which lets parents fine-tune the usage of every line on their accounts. For instance, they could restrict certain apps from being used on a child’s device or set a “data curfew” for 10 PM, after which a phone would stop surfing the internet.

New T-Mobile prepaid unlimited talk and text plans start at $40

T-Mobile announced on Thursday that it’s introducing a new class of prepaid plans called Simply Prepaid. It’s a monthly plan that includes unlimited minutes, texts, and 3G data — you simply pay for how much 4G LTE data you expect to use.

There are three Simply Prepaid tiers, starting at $40 per month, which nets you 1GB of LTE data, all the way up to $60 per month, which comes with 5GB of 4G LTE data. Once you’ve used up your LTE allotment, you’ll be throttled to 3G speeds until the end of the month.

While Simply Prepaid customers can tap into some T-Mobile bells and whistles like Wi-Fi calling,  these plans don’t include T-Mobile’s data exception for music streaming or cheap international data options that come with T-Mobile’s postpaid Simple Choice plan.

Simply Prepaid joins T-Mobile’s Pay As You Go prepaid plan, which starts at a much less expensive $10 but has metered minutes and texts, and users have to buy expensive one-day or seven-day data passes. Simply Prepaid plans will become available through [company]T-Mobile[/company] and authorized dealers on January 25.

Sprint drops prices, doubles data on Boost prepaid plans

Without the distraction of a pending merger, Sprint is now focused on the competition. One of its prepaid arms, Boost Mobile, is cutting its monthly prices by $5 per plan while simultaneously increasing data caps.

T-Mobile’s entry-level smartphone plan gets a 2GB data option

As [company]Sprint[/company] tinkers with its family plans to encourage prepaid customers to go postpaid, [company]T-Mobile[/company] is tweaking its entry-level prepaid plan. The barebones $40 Simple Starter plan is a good deal for light data users, but its 500MB cap means it wasn’t an option for many. On Monday, T-Mobile announced a $5 add-on which brings the LTE data cap up to a more reasonable 2GB. After that’s used up, your data gets shut off unless you buy a one-day 500MB bucket for $5 or a seven-day 1GB plan for $10. T-Mobile warns the plan is subject to change, and it will be available starting on September 3.

New T-Mobile prepaid plans introduce a flat rate at 10 cents per minute

T-Mobile(s tmus) announced on Monday it is making changes to its prepaid Pay As You Go plans, simplifying the billing rate as well as adding an option to add limited-time LTE data passes. Previously, prepaid minute purchases at T-Mobile were tiered: If you bought 30 prepaid minutes, it would cost $10. Compare that to 1000 minutes for $100 — those are two very different per-minute rates. Starting August 17, after a $3 monthly minimum charge that includes 30 minutes, a single minute or text message costs $.10. If you’d like data, $5 gets you a one-day pass with 500MB. There’s a $10 option for a seven-day pass with 1GB of LTE-eligible data as well.