Five Years, Five Carriers: A Phone Bill Resume

Which of my cell phone plans really saved me the most money?

Photo credit: Tony Webster, CC BY 2.0.

One day, my smartphone started screening calls on my behalf. By that I mean it vibrated whenever a call was coming in, yet it refused to display the caller ID or even the buttons to accept or reject the call. I had no choice but to let every incoming call go to voicemail—but if the caller left a voice message, I wouldn’t know. My phone stopped notifying me of new voicemails, and I rarely remembered on my own to check for messages.

My Moto G smartphone had been in declining health for a while. It no longer displayed screen notifications, and every phone buzz meant having to check my most vital apps until I found the source of the notification. The phone had also been on assisted charging for months — I had to hook it up to a portable power bank every few hours because it couldn’t hold a charge on its own.

I blamed the Android 6.0 Marshmallow update and longed to return to simpler 5.0 Lollipop times, but no amount of factory resetting or clearing the cache partition could save my phone. I knew it was time to power this smartphone down.

My new Nexus 5X arrived in the mail some days later and dazzled me with its processing speed. So fast! So shiny! So new! It wasn’t just my phone that was new. I had also switched to a new carrier, Project Fi.

Project Fi is one of Google’s latest projects. It runs on a combination of cellular networks belonging to other companies and Wi-Fi. I had been lurking around the Project Fi subreddit for several months, reading raves, rants, and product speculations. The international coverage in France was great! It dropped calls when switching from Wi-Fi to cellular network. Does Google plan to reduce the Nexus 5X price after the release of the new Nexus Pixel?

Google Fi sounded like Republic Wireless, but better. One major perk for me was that I would be able to use my phone internationally. That means if I were to return to Japan, I wouldn’t have to deal with buying Japanese SIM cards every month, and I’d be able to make calls too. Another thing Fi had going for it (that Republic Wireless didn’t) is that I could use the phone with any network, not just with Project Fi. So if I ended up hating Fi, I could just switch back to AT&T.

AT&T had been serving me fine, but I felt like I was paying too much. Why was I paying for unlimited data when I rarely used more than 2 GB of data? That’s what I liked about Project Fi. It’s $20 for unlimited talk and text and $10 per GB of data, and you only pay for the data you use. If you use 1.5 GB, you get $5 back.

People on the internet were saying that their phone bills were so much lower on Project Fi. $30 per month, even $25! They claimed the Wi-Fi assist, which automatically connects you to open Wi-Fi networks, was really helping them cut back on data usage. Well, I wanted what people on the internet were having! I canceled my AT&T plan and signed myself up for Fi.

After several months of using Project Fi, however, I wasn’t that impressed. I was constantly checking my data usage to make sure I didn’t go over 2 GB, and I kinda missed AT&T’s rollover data feature. When I made or received calls, people said they had trouble hearing me—which I suspect had something to do with the switch from Wi-Fi to network during a call. Sometimes calls didn’t dial through on the first try. Plus, my phone bill was still over $40! I had thought I would be saving enough money on my new phone bill that it would soon offset the cost of the new phone.

I switched to Project Fi because I thought it would save me money, but it didn’t feel like I was saving money. So I started looking through my phone bill history from multiple carriers to see how Google Fi compared. All of my phone plans have been no-contract, which has allowed me to switch carriers as needed.


Aug 2012Dec 2012

I paid my first cell phone bill when I was a freshman in college. My phone at the time was a Nokia X2–01, a prepaid phone that I called a “dumb phone” because it did not have access to the internet.

Phone: Nokia X2–01 ($79)
Prepaid plan: ?

I wasn’t very good with money my freshman year. I had no budget whatsoever. I remember having a cheap phone plan and frequently cutting conversations short in order to preserve my limited minutes. It’s possible that this phone plan cost less than $40 since it was only talk/text, but I am not including it in the running for cheapest phone plan because it did not include data.

If anyone had a T-Mobile prepaid talk/text-only plan circa 2012, do you remember how much you paid?

Virgin Mobile

Jan 2013Dec 2014

In December 2012, I received a $50 Amazon gift card for participating in a semester-long psychology study. I used that money to pay for my first smartphone.

Phone: Kyocera Rise ($65.24)
Prepaid plan: $45/mo. for unlimited talk/text and data (includes 1 GB of high-speed data)

Virgin Mobile had much better service in my area than T-Mobile, and my new phone could actually take pictures and access the internet! Those were revolutionary times.


Jan 2015Aug 2015

After two years, my Kyocera Rise wasn’t functioning very well. I guess two years isn’t a bad run for a phone under $70.

For my next phone, I wanted something that I would be able to use during my school year abroad in Japan. Virgin Mobile phones use CDMA technology, but my research of Japanese bands (the cellular frequency kind, not the J-pop kind) revealed that I would need to switch to an unlocked, global GSM phone. In the U.S., AT&T and T-Mobile are the GSM carriers. So I bought a phone that would accept Japanese data SIM cards, and I switched to AT&T.

Phone: Motorola Moto G, 2nd gen. ($179.99)
Prepaid plan: $45/mo. unlimited talk/text/data

Jan: $45 — I activated the plan in an AT&T store, which I assume is why I was not taxed.
Feb 2015-July 2015: $48.90/mo. — Missouri cell phone tax is kind of high.
Aug 2015: $10 — I suspended my account while I was in Japan. I left $10 in the account so that I could keep my number.

So-net Prepaid LTE

Sept 2015March 2016

Remember when I said that I bought a phone that I could use in Japan? I dropped that phone on asphalt about two weeks before I left for Japan. The phone hadn’t even lasted nine months, but that was my fault for not buying a phone case. My only consolation was that the replacement phone I bought was the newer version of the Moto G.

Phone: Moto G, 3rd gen. ($179.99) + phone case ($9.90)
Prepaid plan: 2.2 GB data (¥4000, or $34)

Once a month, I would stop at a ticket window in Kyoto Station and buy a So-net prepaid LTE SIM card for another ¥4000. At the time, it was ¥4000 for 2.2 GB, but the website shows that ¥4000 will now get you 2.4 GB.

SIM cards are data-only, so I could not use my phone for calls. This wasn’t a problem, as I could use LINE, Facebook Messenger, and Google Hangouts for messaging and calls. I also had a small Japanese phone that my study abroad program gave me for calling my host family and for emergencies.

AT&T, Round 2

April 2016Sept 2016

April: $74.37
 — ¥3000 ($26.55)
 — $47.82 ($44 refill plus tax)
May-Sept: $43.47/mo.

Phone: same Moto G, 3rd gen.
Prepaid plan: $45/mo. ($40/mo. with AutoPay) for unlimited talk/text/data

As much as I liked the Moto G phones, I did not seem to have good luck with them. This one lasted a little over a year before it started screening calls on my behalf—oh wait, you already know that part. This is the point at which I switch to the Nexus 5X and Project Fi.

Project Fi

Oct 2016present

Phone: Nexus 5X ($269.20) + phone case ($9.99)
Prepaid plan:
$44.81/mo. for unlimited talk/text and 2 GB of data

I hadn’t planned to spend that much money on a smartphone. Google was selling the 16 GB on their site at a discounted price of $199, but I had been waiting to see if they would discount it even more after the release of the Nexus Pixel. They didn’t. Other people had been waiting and watching too, and the phone was out of stock by the time I tried to order—so I ended up buying the 32 GB phone, and I am so happy I did. Going from an 8 GB phone to a 32 GB phone is like having someone give you a glass when you’ve been trying to drink water from a thimble.

Google Fi pricing plans start with the “Fi Basics” for $20 per month. This includes unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texting, and free Wi-Fi calling. Any money that you pay for data and don’t use is credited back to you, hence the varied bill totals below.

Oct 2016: $44.81
Nov 2016: $42.29
Dec 2016: $40.81
Jan 2017: $33.54

My January bill was low because I spent a lot of the holidays indoors, with Wi-Fi. My workplace does not have Wi-Fi, but if it did then my bills for the other months would be lower as well.

I think $20/month is too much to pay for unlimited talk and text and would like to see Google revise this in the future. I’m mostly disappointed that my phone doesn’t actually connect to open Wi-Fi networks as often as I thought it would. Despite my initially assuming that Project Fi wasn’t saving me any money, it turns out to be the cheapest plan I’ve had so far—if some months only by a few dollars—so I’m sticking with it until something better comes along.

Dera Luce is a writer and Japanese translator living in St. Louis. Follow her on Twitter at @deraluce.

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