Sunday, November 2, 2014

MVNO Mooove over T-Mobile!

As reported in an earlier post, my misadventure with T-Mobile did have the fortuitous result of exposing 2 more under $20 options for light cell phone users.  These 2 options are Airvoice and P Tel.   As with all my service options, I always begin with a Google search for reviews.  I look for 2 important factors in the Google search results.  First, I check for reviews within the past 12 months or so.  This provides a picture of the current state of affairs with the service.  Secondly, I look for actual use of the service as experienced by a real customer (as opposed to an "online reviewer" who restates what is advertised).  I found a review for each that I felt was worth sharing here.  For Airvoice, I recommend reading this posting on Simple Cents.  For PTel, I recommend this posting on the Mr. Money Mustache forum.

 In addition to quick Google reviews, I also do some additional assessments.  I review the website of each offering to see if it is clearly presented and easily understood.   Additionally, I nibble at the customer service options to get a flavor of the caliber of customer service.  In the case of Airvoice, I both emailed and called.  Both were great news – the email appeared to specifically address my question in clear English, timely and it was clear that it was not “robo-written”.  In my phone contact, I was able to get through rather quickly, received a positive impression that the customer service rep understood what I was asking and the rep provided a clear to the point answer... wow, where have you been hiding, Airvoice?  Similarly, I was very impressed with Ptel where I conducted a “chat” session and was pleasantly surprised to find the rep had a much better command of cell technology than I did!  (Airvoice does not have a chat feature).  It is noteworthy to add that Ptel advertises United States based customer service on their website.  I suspect based on my interactions that Airvoice may also be based in the U.S., but could not find confirmation.  Unlike the big 4 cell phone companies, neither Airvoice nor Ptel have 24/7 customer service, but have wide day hours of service.  (This is one instance where quality trumps quantity in my opinion).

With customer service receiving a green light, I moved on to examine the offerings.  I seldom make a phone call or text a message, but occasionally I like to peek at my email or use data for directions.  Airvoice offers a $10 pay as you go plan that will provide 90 days of service, with voice at 10 cents per minute and each text or MMS is also 10 cents and data is at .066 per mb.  (I was paying $5 for 50mb) with AT&T.  In response to my email query, unused amounts will roll over if you refill timely; however, they do not offer an auto pay for the $10 option.  There is also a $1 monthly service charge.  In comparison, a $10 “paygo” card with Ptel will get you 60 days of service with voice at 5 cents per minute and each text or MMS is also 5 cents and data is at 10 cents per mb.

Both Airvoice and Ptel are mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) which means that they do not own the wireless infrastructure, but rather purchase the service and resell it to their consumers.  Airvoice uses AT&T and Ptel uses T-Mobile so in terms of covered areas, there may be an advantage here to Airvoice.  In general AT&T phones will work on Airvoice and T-Mobile phones will work on Ptel and generally, unlocked GSM phones should work with either provider.  It is noteworthy that Ptel advertises 4G LTE.  I did not research this aggressively, but did a general Internet review to get an impression that both providers had sufficient data speeds to meet my needs.  I will note that Airvoice has received some online criticism in the area of account maintenance, specifically needing to go online or use a 3rd party by phone to refill the account.  Also, Airvoice does not provide an online feature to view your call record.

Both providers sell their SIM cards (required for activation) on their websites for $4.99.  I went to Ebay and purchased a SIM card for each provider for 99 cents and free shipping and to my delight, both were shipped and received very quickly.

So who did I pick?

This was a very tough decision where I received a positive feel that either service provider would be an excellent choice.  I chose Airvoice.  First, I am an extremely light cell user so 90 days of service for only $10 is extremely appealing to me.  Yes, I realize that there is a $1 service charge (unlike other providers), but let's keep in mind that if you are using pre-paid and don't use what you pay for, your money is not refundable so a cost is a cost whether you call it a service charge or unused minutes.  Second, data is something that I occasionally like to use.  Airvoice was the better buy for light data at about 6.6 cents per mb compared to 10 cents per mb for Ptel.  (As a 3rd reference, I was purchasing 50mb of data from AT&T for $5 which also equates to 10 cents per mb).

I was apprehensive in regards to the porting from T-Mobile as noted in my prior posts I had left service with AT&T, then ported to T-Mobile.  I never activated with T-Mobile as their promise of $3 monthly service was quickly found to be a falsehood.  (There seems to be confusion online in regards to account number and pin when porting from T-Mobile – I used my phone number for my account number and the 4 digit pin selected during my recent port from AT&T).  Airvoice provides an online form for porting or you can call their customer service.  I chose to phone customer service as I believed this would be a great opportunity to experience their customer service and if issues were detected I could quickly abort.  I am pleased to report that I was able to get through to customer service in a very short amount of time and I could also understand the customer service representative.  The rep took my information and then advised that my number should be ported within 2 hours and they would be contacting me...ugh?  Not 2 days and a crap shoot?  About an hour later I received a text welcoming me to Airvoice.  I made 2 additional contacts to Airvoice that night.  First, I purchased my $10 for 90 days online, but was expecting to receive some sort of PIN to enter.  I received emails indicating that my purchase was successful, but no PIN.  The call to customer service (once again getting through without a long wait) quickly uncovered that the $10 was already added to my phone – that was too easy (and yes, pressing *777# will give me my balance, just like with AT&T).  My second call to customer service was to help configure my APN so that I could access data.  Once again, I got through to customer service very quickly and the customer service rep walked me through the settings.  (I will note that I also emailed the question and was promptly emailed the information as well so if I ever need to reset, I have the information.  I will also note that Airvoice has one APN setting for Web and a second for MMS which I found a bit strange, but not such a big deal to me).  As far as “lessons learned,” in hindsight I may have opted to purchase a $20 card to start as I found that I quickly burned through a little money just playing and testing.  I expect that my “average” will settle down to easily fit the $10 for 90 days, but could have used a bit more funding during the novelty stage.  Thus far I am an extremely satisfied customer.  I will try to update if I encounter significant changes or after a stint of time to confirm ongoing satisfaction.