A very confusing topic! Don’t worry I figured it out. =] I will go over topics such as: Networks, Coverage, Technology, Resellers, Roaming, Lifeline (Free low income smart phone and monthly service), Prepaid, Cellphone hardware, Unlocking, Voice over IP (VOIP), Credo Mobile, Google Voice, Google Fi, Republic Wireless & Freedompop. All in the context of living in Nevada County.
Networks: There are four major networks in the USA: Verizon, ATT, T-mobile, and Sprint. I will refer to these 4 as networks.
Coverage: They all have different coverage in different areas. In order to be sure which is best for you, you can consult their maps. ask people you know, use aggregate crowd-sourced coverage map apps (Like OpenSignal or Sensorly), or test the different networks yourself.
Technologies: On top of the four networks they mainly use two wireless technologies 3g and 4g. (simplified; reality is much more complicated with different frequencies being used for most networks and technologies). Most networks have, or are in the process of shutting down their 2G networks. (AT&T shut its 2G GSM network down on December 31, 2016. ). The coverage can be very different for these as well. Very old phones don’t use 4g, and some very new phones don’t use 3g. I will call these technologies.
Resellers: To further complicate the issue. There are hundreds of companies that resell service on these networks, usually for cheaper. These are called MVNOs or Mobile Virtual Network Operators. I will call these providers, resellers, carriers, or companies. What complicates it further is that resellers like Straight talk actually resell service on all four networks. They pick one for you based on either your location or the phone they want to sell you. More info here:
One really mystifying piece is that if you are one of the hundreds of resellers of these four major networks, a stipulation of your service agreement is that you cannot tell your customer which network/s you are reselling. They also don’t disclose their roaming partners. As a customer you have to figure that out yourself. One great resource is Wikipedia. A page I’ve contributing to quite a bit. =] Especially in the low income lifeline section for California. You can find the company you’re wondering about here:
Roaming: In addition every company may have different roaming partners as well. This means that if your phone is compatible, and the networks are compatible you may hop networks when you don’t have your primary network available. Only If your carrier and that carrier are partners. Some have no roaming partners. Some charge you for roaming. Some don’t.
Lifeline: If you are low income, you can get a free smart phone and service on whichever network you prefer. Through the lifeline program that was started way back for landlines. Find a service to sign up for here:
Nevada City: For instance where I live, ATT 4g works well. ATT 3g not well. Verizon 3G works ok. Verizon 4g not at all. Sprint 3g works intermittently. Sprint 4g not at all. T-mobile no go. So for me, a reseller of ATT 4g is best. In downtown Nevada City, all four networks seem to work, although T-mobile probably the worst. I haven’t tested in a while. Once you find out which network works best for you at home, traveling, and your day 2 day. I think it’s best to pick a reseller that matches your politics. Credo Mobile is committed to donating a large portion of their profit to charitable causes you get to vote on. They use the Verizon network now.
Prepaid: Prepaid phone just refers to whether of not your provider bills you in advance, or after the month of usage is over. Many companies offer both options. With a postpaid plan you run the risk of being charged exorbitant amounts of money if you go over your quota. With a prepaid plan, your service shuts off if you reach your quota, unless you buy more.
Cellphone hardware: Then there is the phone itself. not all phones work with all networks and technologies. It has to do with what the the radios installed and which electromagnetic frequencies the radios support. Some modern phones have all the radios in them. However, you have to swap a SIM card if you want to switch networks. Apple is working on a smart sim card, so you can use all the networks without swapping sim cards. To figure out which frequencies (technologies) your phone supports use a service like phonearena.com.
Unlocking: Some phones have been crippled or software “Locked” to a specific network even though the have the necessary hardware to work with others. Sometimes you can get the original company that sold the crippled phone to “Unlock” it.
VOIP: Most modern phones and cell phone carriers also offer voice and text over wifi. This can be called VOIP. This means that if you don’t have any coverage, or spotty coverage you can do your calling and texting over any available wifi network. The Google Fi project and Republic Wireless seamlessly swaps you from wifi, cellular and their roaming partners. Where as before your call would be disconnected as you switched networks. AT&T, Verizon, T-mobile, and Sprint are jumping on the bandwagon, but usually charge you extra for the service, and cannot seamlessly swap your call between cellular and wifi. Most modern voice communication is actually VOIP. Google Voice gives you a free virtual phone number with unlimited voice and texting. You can communicate from any internet connected device.
What do I use? I use a reseller of ATT 4G network, Freedompop for my cell phone service. They give me free service of up to 200MB/month per SIM card. They offer exactly zero customer support, and constantly try to trick you into upgrading to a paid service. It’s perfect for me. With google voice and freedompop I do all my communication over wifi or free cellular data. I have two landlines, my desktop, my laptops and a bunch of smartphones all hooked up to that number. I love typing my text messages. They are all connected to the internet. My landlines connect to a little box that is connected to the internet. My phone bill is $0. I pay $45/month for unlimited internet at home through Spiral internet. They are a local reseller of ATT DSL. I use Comcast cable internet at work.