Let Joe Know: Is $20 a month smartphone the real deal?

$19 Prepaid Plan: Really?

Lots of us pay more than $100 a month just to have a smartphone with a data plan. But, now there are a number of services that offer cheaper, prepaid options. And, better yet, there is no two-year contract to sign.

The cheapest of all is now from Republic Wireless – just $19 per month for a smartphone with unlimited talk, text and data.

After he saw the advertisement, Michael Handy was among the first to sign up with Republic. "I thought I'd check it out," he said.

How it Works

So, how can Republic offer such a low rate? Simple: Its phones seek out Wi-Fi whenever possible to avoid using expensive cell towers.

That has upsides (low price) and some downsides.

Handy agrees with the first tests by Consumer Reports Magazine , which said the service works, but can be glitchy.

He said his service sometimes drops calls and gets cut off when you leave Wi-Fi area. Then, both Handy and Consumer Reports say, your call jumps to a cell network, which can mean a dropped or garbled call.

Virgin Mobile:  $35

If you'd prefer a prepaid plan that uses the cell network all the time (without bouncing back and forth), the next cheapest major plan out is Virgin Mobile's prepaid, at $35 a month.

Data is unlimited, but you have to watch your calling minutes.

Ranie McCance said she loves her Virgin phone. "I get 300 free minutes, and then free unlimited texting, data," she said.
 
Walmart Straight Talk: $45

You can also go for a prepaid plan like Walmart's Straight Talk, for $45 a month.

Bob Mallory of Walmart said "for $45 a month you will get unlimited talk, as many minutes as you want, and unlimited text."

Walmart's plan gets very good reviews, though several national publications have warned your data can be "throttled," or slowed, when you hit 2 Gigs a month.

Several Options for $50

Fifty dollars a month brings you more prepaid options, including Boost Mobile , Cricket, and Tracfone, and Cincinnati Bell's i-Wireless, among others.

None of these offer the convenience of an AT&T or Verizon, but, at a fraction of the cost, they may be worth considering.

"I was paying $70, now I'm paying $20," Handy said. "Is $50 a month savings worth a few hassles? I'd say yes."

Before You Buy

One last thing to remember: You have to buy a phone at full price with prepaid plans, typically $100 to $300. You cannot get a subsidized phone, such as a $199 iPhone 5, with a prepaid, non-contract plan. 

Expect to pay $400 to $600 for an iPhone, depending on the model.

But the bottom line: If $85 a month – the typical smartphone plan contract – is too high for you, there are cheaper options.

If you need help or need to warn others about a consumer problem or scam, let me know at joe@abc15.com or by going to my  "Let Joe Know" Facebook page.

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