Carrier Food for Thought

For some, the BlackBerry carrier decision is easy - you get handed a BlackBerry by your company and use whatever carrier they tell you to use. For the consumer, the choice can be sometimes be equally easy - only one carrier actually provides good coverage in your area. For others, the decision is more difficult and comes down to the details - price, available phones, customer service, loyalty, etc. I think it's safe to say there's no one-best carrier for everyone -- there are a lot of factors at play.

With carriers in the United States now offering unlimited plans, I thought it would be a good time to roundup some information on pricing and provide a little food for thought. I hope you find value in it - especially those of you thinking about jumping on the BlackBerry Addict wagon. Read on for more Info!

U.S. Carrier Unlimited Roundup
It seems times have changed from multi-option voice & text plans for cell phones, to more power hungry unlimited voice and data packages.  Personally, I use my phone for calls maybe twice a week.  I’m usually at work during the day so the need to make calls from my BlackBerry is just not there.  For business users, I’m sure the minutes pile upon each other by the minute (no pun intended).  The carriers have realized the need for more, so they have all unleashed unlimited phone plans to entice new customers and keep the current ones happy.  If you use you BB to its maximum potential, you know how quickly the charges come in and realize the need for these plans.

A quick Google search for unlimited plans per carrier leads nowhere really.  Only when delving into each online store can you truly find the plans laid out for you.  I took steps through each of the major carriers sites – Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, even Alltel – to “purchase” a new Blackberry Pearl so I could find the options for each and get a grasp of just what “unlimited” means. Keep in mind the following info can change at anytime - best thing to do is visit your carrier's site, build your plan for your own and check out the Carrier Discussion in the CrackBerry forums to address any issues you may encounter or want to check up on.

My first stop was my current carrier Verizon.  I essentially know what plans they have since I’ve been a customer for years.  Still, the so called “unlimited” plan confused me at first.  As with all the carriers, Verizon offers multiple minute based plans.  Their unlimited Nationwide Email & Messaging plan rings in at $149 and includes data, unlimited text, picture & video messaging and unlimited minutes to anyone on any carrier.

Verizon 1

Verizon 2

T-mobile was my next stop.  Unlike Verizon they don’t have a preset voice & data plan for Blackberry’s.  First I had to choose my individual voice plan and then had the option to add on BIS or BES service for an additional fee.  The Individual Unlimited plan has a base of $99 and includes unlimited nationwide calling, text, IM, video & picture messaging.

The Blackberry add-ons include Blackberry Unlimited Email for $9.99 which allows only for email use – no data for web browsing or apps.  The Blackberry Unlimited was my choice at $19.99, providing unlimited web and email usage in addition to my voice plan.  For BES users there is a BlackBerry Unlimited w/ Enterprise add on for corporate users at $29.99.  For 8320 Curve users, the Wi-Fi option would be available as well.  So if tacked onto the current unlimited combo, the best bet would be their T-Mobile Talk Forever, which provides unlimited WiFi minutes for and additional $9.99/month.  All in all, this makes T-Mobiles basic unlimited Blackberry plan come in at $119.98.  (The total would change depending on your combo of WiFi access or not, T-Mobile still kicks in the lowest total price regardless).  

T-Mobile 1

T-Mobile 2

A cruise over to Sprint let me choose my plan from their Simply Everything plans.  Perhaps the easiest so far, chose the unlimited option that gave me unlimited voice, text, picture & video messaging, and extras like Sprint Music and Sprint TV.  I was off to choose my Pearl and verify there were no more add-ons for Blackberry’s.  I was surprised to see that the $99 plan was just that.  The only additional option was $20/month for BES users.

Sprint 1

 Sprint 2

Just as easy as Sprint to delve in to, I chose my phone and was presented with my plan options.  The Talk, Text & Web Unlimited was the way to go providing me unlimited minutes, email, messaging and web use for $149.  As the customer service representative contacted my during my shopping, I was told this wasn’t what I needed since it didn’t include BB services.  He directed me to the BlackBerry services where I chose the Personal Bundle for $50 giving me unlimited data & messaging, then added Nation Unlimited plan for unlimited voice – a total of $149. Where the difference in these plans lies I’m not sure – I suppose the unlimited plan doesn’t include the BB services.



 ATT 3

I dropped by Alltel as well. I selected my Pearl and moved on to the calling plans.  By picking the phone first, I wasn’t presented with an unlimited calling plan (which was only announced a few weeks ago).  I removed the phone from my cart and saw all the plans laid out.  I couldn’t figure out through the site how to get the $99 Unlimited plan to go with my Pearl.  Nowhere was it possible to select the plan with a BlackBerry device, only non-smartphone devices on Alltel’s site.  I’m assuming as with the other carriers that it is available for BlackBerry’s as well.  I tried picking the plan first and then my phone, but the Unlimited plan didn’t stick when changing to a BlackBerry.  I put an email in to Alltel to try and find out for sure.  I had called them to try and get a quick answer, but since there is no Alltel coverage in my area, I couldn’t find out what I needed.  Thus, if the unlimited voice plan is indeed available for BlackBerry’s, when matched up with the $59.99 unlimited data plan, it would ring in total from Alltel at $159.99.  [update: see comments following article for more info]

Alltel 1

 Alltel 2

So as it lies, here is a synopsis of the flat price (no taxes, fees or equipment) for each Carrier's unlimited offering:

  • Verizon: One unlimited plan for BlackBerry - $149.99
  • T-Mobile: Combined unlimited voice & data plan- $119.98
  • Sprint: One unlimited plan for BlackBerry - $99.99
  • AT&T: Combined unlimited voice & data plan - $149.99
  • Alltel: Combined voice & unlimited data plan - $159.99

I’m not here to tell you who is better or worse than the other, that’s up to you.  My sole purpose on pricing was to go through the process of selecting an unlimited plan for my phone and try and get it all straight – and I’m pretty sure I have it figured out, at least as it relates to my BlackBerry and unlimited use (until these numbers change of course!). They are all unlimited if you create your plan correctly.

Making the Carrier Decision
While price is often the first topic on everyone's mind, as mentioned in the opening paragraph plans/price is only one factor in making the carrier decision. In the BlackBerry 101 lecture - How to Choose the Right BlackBerry for You, the topic of carrier selection is covered. In this lecture, Step 1 was to Pick Your Carrier... and since that was done a few months back and in the context of a larger article, I thought it would be good to bring the relevant content into here, to put the pricing roundup above into the greater context of picking the carrier.... so from BB101:

The first step in choosing the right BlackBerry for you it to first choose the right CARRIER for you. Despite the millions they invest in advertising, there is no single ‘best’ carrier (at some point the grass will always be greener) but in the long-run I’d consider it advantageous to pick a carrier and stick with them (that’s how you can eventually start talking your way into ‘loyalty’ perks) rather than bounce around between carriers each time a new device hits the market and always be a new customer.

Unless you buy your device outright (which is expensive), you’re going to be stuck with the carrier you choose for a while. You don’t want to have to end your contract early (nothing is worse than having to pay cancellation fees and/or buyout your contract) so you’ll want to give this some thought. Here are the key factors to consider in choosing your BlackBerry carrier:

1. Coverage – Choose the carrier that provides you with the best cellular coverage. You spend most of your time at the office, at home, and in the car ride in between, so make sure the carrier you choose will give you full bars/signal strength during your typical daily routine. There’s no point buying the latest BlackBerry only to find you get no signal and dropped calls! If you’re a first time cellular user (the odds of that are probably pretty slim these days) or just moved to a new area and are getting your wireless on (better odds) invite friends/co-workers/family over to your home/office and check their bars! Better yet, walk in to a store and see if they will lend you a test device for an hour or two so you can check your signal (tell them they did this for a friend of yours – they might go for it that way!).

2. Network Technology –
If coverage isn’t an issue (consider yourself lucky!) and you have your pick of carriers, your next consideration is the technology the carrier uses to connect your device to its network. Is it GSM or CDMA? Assuming the quality of coverage is equal (which rarely seems to be the case), from my observation it seems most BlackBerry users would opt for a GSM BlackBerry. GSM carriers tend to have a broader selection of BlackBerrys to choose from, and typically get the latest and greatest BlackBerrys first. But the good news today (vs. a couple of years back especially) is that all of the major carriers (GSM or CDMA) now offer some sweet BlackBerry devices, so even if you’re stuck with a CDMA carrier it’s not all bad news (unless you have your heart set on a Blackberry Curve).

GSM stands for The Global System for Mobile Communications and is the leading technology for cellular communication worldwide. In North America, AT&T (formerly Cingular), T-Mobile and Rogers (Canada) run GSM networks. GSM phones use SIM cards to store information about your cellular account (i.e. your phone number), which makes it easy to upgrade and/or switch between phones. Just pop your SIM card out of one BlackBerry and into another and you can begin talking right away (login to your BlackBerry BIS account and update the device’s PIN # and your data/email will begin working immediately too). GSM BlackBerrys come locked (they only recognize SIM cards from the carrier the phone was purchased from), but many BlackBerry users (especially those who travel a lot) seek to ‘unlock’ their phones, allowing the phone to use the SIM card of any GSM network worldwide. In addition to this ability to be ‘unlocked’ (which is not something the GSM carriers want you to do), GSM networks also tend to get the newest BlackBerrys first. Data services for GSM BlackBerrys are typically provided via a technology called EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution). With a max data rate of ~ 236Kbps, EDGE is somewhat slow when compared to the higher EV-DO data service technology becoming available to BlackBerrys on CDMA networks.

GSM Carriers in North America each offer the full range of BlackBerry devices – including the Curve, 8800, Pearl and 8700 and older 7xxx series of phones. If you’re on a GSM carrier, you are lucky enough to have the full gamut of device form factors to choose from.

CDMA stands for Code Division Multiple Access, and is the cellular technology used by Sprint, Verizon, Alltel, and Bell/Telus (Canada) in North America. Unlike GSM phones, CDMA phones do not use a SIM card. The devices are hard-coded with a unique ID number, which the network recognizes to allow connections. Because CDMA is less adopted in Europe and Asia than in North America, getting coverage when traveling abroad with a CDMA BlackBerry can be challenging. RIM has addressed this with the BlackBerry 8830 World Edition, which when in North America runs on CDMA networks, but also accepts a GSM card for roaming when overseas. As mentioned, some CDMA BlackBerrys (the new BlackBerry Pearl 8130 coming to Sprint) take advantage of EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) technology for data services, which offers transfer rates of up to a speedy 3.1Mbps.

With a CDMA carrier, your selection of BlackBerry models to choose from will be limited when compared to those available by GSM carriers. Unfortunately, the BlackBerry Curve series will not be on your shopping list, nor will the original BlackBerry Pearl (though if you remain patient, as mentioned, a CDMA Pearl is on the way and will soon be here!). The best CDMA BlackBerry on the market right now is the BlackBerry 8830 World Edition, and the odds are relatively good this will be the phone you end up with if you are looking to buy a CDMA BlackBerry right now (at least it’s a great phone!).

3. Plans – If coverage isn’t an issue (again, consider yourself lucky!) and you have multiple carrier choices available to decide from, look next to the PLANS. Every carrier has BlackBerry voice/data plans, and no matter what carrier and plan you choose your monthly bills will always be wayyyy more expensive than you think they should be. You need to put some research into figuring out what suits your needs best. Are you a data hog? Better get unlimited data (good luck if you’re in Canada!). Can you get by with only email access? T-Mobile is offering a new $10/mo. email only data package. Talk to the same people all the time? Maybe you need My Fave Friends. Figure out how many minutes, how much data, and how many text messages you think you’ll need each month, add 15 – 30%, and try and find the carrier that can provide it for the least cost.

4. Other Factors – Maybe your company is going to pay for your phone, but whatever phone you choose it has to run on AT&T. Maybe you’re a long-time Sprint customer, and don’t want to switch to another carrier even though you’re stuck on CDMA and don’t understand the way their plans work. Maybe you’ve heard good things about T-Mobile customer service and want to give them a go. Maybe your friends are all on AT&T, and you need to be too. Maybe you like Alltel's commercials!

There are many factors that may influence the decision of which carrier you choose. Just remember, push comes to shove, the most important factor is COVERAGE COVERAGE COVERAGE! ##

There you have it. The low down on the latest unlimited BlackBerry plans, as well as where they fit into the overall carrier decision process. Hopefully you're left with some food for thought and a little more clarity (or confusion?!) as you decide which carrier is best for you. Ultimately it's a decision you will have to make. Now get out there and use some data!!