Small Carriers Compared: Slash Your Smartphone Bill
U.S. Cellular boasts that it has the “happiest customers in wireless” due to its broad network and unique reward structure that’s available with the carrier’s Belief Plans. You can get a new phone in as little as 11 months. U.S. Cellular offers both contract and prepaid plans, though not all of its smartphones are available sans contract. The carrier recently began rolling out its 4G LTE network and plans to cover 54 percent of its 5.9 million customers by the end of the year.
U.S. Cellular offers a rewards program that gives customers monthly points based on their plan, points for customer longevity and points for referring friends and downloading apps. Every 1,000 points redeemed takes one month off the standard upgrade time, so customers can get a new phone in as little 13 months on a single line, with some phones costing just a penny. Points may also be redeemed for accessories, ringtones or to cover an overage charge on your account.
Plus, if you’re out and about and your phone battery dies, you can visit any U.S. Cellular store and swap it out for a new, fully charged battery—as long as you’re not using a prepaid phone.
U.S. Cellular phones and service are available for purchase in much of the U.S., though the provider’s licensed markets don’t easily conform to state lines. Service is available in Illinois, northwest Indiana, Iowa, Kansas (but not Topeka), Maine, Missouri (but not Kansas City), Nebraska, New Hampshire, northern California, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, eastern Tennessee, northeastern Texas, Vermont, Virginia, southern Washington, West Virginia and the lower half of Wisconsin.
Thanks to roaming agreements, U.S. Cellular offers nationwide 3G voice and data and doesn’t charge customers roaming fees. Though it’s available only in select cities in Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin, the company plans to cover 54 percent of its customers with 4G LTE by the end of 2012.
Plans and Value
Text messaging is unlimited when added to any prepaid or postpaid plan. Unlimited voice is available, but data is capped at 2GB for prepaid and a generous 10GB plus tethering for all contact-based plans. Monthly and prepaid plans both include free incoming texts, including picture and video messages.
U.S. Cellular’s least expensive prepaid plan for a smartphone costs $40 per month, which includes 450 minutes, unlimited texts and a miniscule 200 MB of data. For $60 per month, you get 2GB of data, or you can upgrade to a top-level prepaid plan with unlimited voice and messaging and 2GB of data for $70 per month.
U.S. Cellular recently revamped its plans to include 300MB ($20 extra per month), 2GB ($25), 4GB ($45), 5GB ($50) and 10GB ($90) data offerings, with tethering included on plans that are 4GB or more.
The most basic smartphone plan with 450 minutes, unlimited messaging and 2GB of data costs $74.99 a month, though users can get up to 5 percent off by signing up for automatic billing on any plan. Unlimited voice and messaging with 2GB of data runs $114 per month, but this plan will allow you to upgrade your phone after 13 months. If you reach for your smartphone to surf the Web more often than to make a call, you’ll likely want to upgrade to a 4GB, 5GB or 10GB monthly data allowance.
Additionally, contract customers receive free incoming calls, unlimited mobile-to-mobile, nights and weekends starting at 7 p.m. and overage protection.
Though there’s only one Windows Phone available, the HTC 7 Pro (a doppelganger of the HTC Arrive on Sprint), U.S. Cellular offers numerous Android phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S III, Motorola Electrify (which appears identical to the Motorola Photon 4G on Sprint), HTC Hero S, HTC Wildfire S and Huawei Ascend II. The carrier’s other smartphones run Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and cost less than $200.
The carrier currently offers one 4G LTE phone and one 4G LTE tablet: the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, respectively.
U.S Cellular’s stable of devices is more advanced than other small carriers, but its pricing is more in line with the big guys. However, the company has spent years building up a strong customer service reputation. We love that users can control their own smartphone destiny by earning points to get a new device in as little as 13 months, and newer phones are offered with prepaid plans. Whether you choose a contract plan or prepaid plan, you’re sure to find a solid device from this carrier that offers plenty of perks.