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What’s the deal with cell phone networks and stuff?

A very confusing topic! Don’t worry I figured it out. =] There are four major networks in the USA: Verizon, ATT, T-mobile, and Sprint. I will refer to these 4 as networks.  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, or test the different networks yourself. On top of the four networks they mainly use two wireless technologies 3g and 4g. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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. I second Credo mobile. They use the Verizon network now. Oh, also you can decide whether you like the postpaid, or prepaid invoicing choice.

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. 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.

What about VOIP? 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.

I use a reseller of ATT 4G network, Freedompop for my cell phone service. They give me free service of up to 700MB/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.

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Internet Options in Nevada County

Here are the broadband internet options available in Nevada County in order of speed:

Cable Internet (Comcast, SuddenLink)

Fixed  Wireless  (Smarter Broadband up to 15Mbps $100-$400 w/ 0-3yrs contract , Digital Path up to 20Mbps $250 setup w/ 1yr contract, in Lake Wildwood)

DSL or U-verse (AT&T, or third party resellers like the local Spiral Internet)

4G Cellular Hotspot (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-mobile, or third party resellers)

Satellite (Hughsnet, Exede, Wildblue, Dish Network) !low on list because of High Latency realtime intraction is delayed.

3G Cellular Hotspot (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-mobile, or third party resellers) Average 600Kbps – 1.4 Mbps and up to 3.1 Mbps

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Lifeline Eligibility

You qualify for Lifeline if you are part of any of the programs below:

Medicaid/Medi-Cal Women, Infant and Children Program (WIC)
CalFresh, Food Stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKS)
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Stanislaus County Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (StanWORKS)
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Welfare-to-Work (WTW)
Federal Public Housing Assistance or Section 8 Tribal TANF
Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Head Start Income Eligible (Tribal Only)
Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

If you are not part of any of the above programs, you can qualify by household income.

To qualify, your Household Annual Income must fall within the range next to your Household Size. A Household is defined as any individual or group of individuals who live together at the same address and share income and expenses.

Household Size Annual Income Limits
  1-2 people   $0 – $25,500
  3 people   $0 – $29,700
  4 people   $0 – $35,900*
*To calculate the Yearly Income range for households with more than 4 members, add $6,200 for each additional member. Yearly Income based on 2014 Federal Poverty Guidelines.


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Lifeline – State and Federal assistance (Free cell phone and service for low income)

Sign up here: /free-service/

Those of you that are curious about the California and Federal lifeline programs for low income. (You get a free cell phone and plan) For most of these all you have to do is fill out an online application, and upload your a photo of your medical or EBT card, etc… More eligibility info here. Below are the different companies (MVNO‘s) and the Networks they use.

I’d probably go with the one that uses Verizon or AT&T. Verizon seems to get the broadest coverage up here. AT&T is nice, because you can just swap your SIM card around.

If Sprint coverage is ok for you I’d go with Assurance Wireless, because it’s very easy to set up.

The Tag mobile plans with send you a free android smartphone with Unlimited talk text and Data. Data is throttled after ?GBs. 

Company Host network BYOD Free Phone Data Notes
Access Wireless Sprint Yes*1 Yes 200MB
Assurance Wireless Sprint No Yes 500MB
Blue Jay Wireless Sprint, Verizon No Yes No
Budget Mobile Sprint, Verizon No Yes 500MB
Entouch Wireless Sprint Yes Yes 500MB
Feel Safe Wireless AT&T Yes Yes 100MB Only tents in Southern CA?
Life Wireless AT&T Yes*2 Yes 500MB dba Telrite
SafeLink Wireless All 5 (depends on location)*3 Yes Yes 100MB Owned by TracFone
SafetyNet Wireless Yes 100MB
Tag Mobile Sprint, Verizon, T-mobile*4 Yes Yes Unlimited
TruConnect (formerly Telscape) Sprint Yes Yes No

*1 Access Wireless does not officially support BYOB, but customers have reported they can.

*2 Life wireless does not support BYOD officially, but you can just pop the SIM card out and put it in any AT&T, or unlocked GSM phone. APN settings are here. You can only sign up at pop up tents. You have to call them and ask where the closest ones are.

*3 Safelink uses the T-mobile network in California.

*4 Tag mobile’s network depends on your geographic location. I think they have two phones. If you get the CDMA one you can use the Sprint and Verizon networks. Pretty sure they send the GSM one to people in California. That one only uses T-mobile.[16]