‘Secret’ cell phone plans could save you 50%, so why are carriers embarrassed by them?

Pee-a-boo!  I see you, Verizon coverage map
Pee-a-boo! I see you, Verizon coverage map

It’s fun to watch the wireless carriers struggle to keep their prices sky-high while still dipping into the “low end” of the market.  It’s quite a contorted two-step.  It requires downgrading certain phones and services, or otherwise hampering them from working at full efficiency to make a low-value product, but also creating an arm’s length sub-brand so as to not tarnish the main brand (or offend customers who are paying double and triple the price).  The sub-brands must pull quite the inside straight — they have to appeal to the poor credit and coupon-seeking crowds alike, but still somehow carry enough stigma that the high-priced customers wouldnt’ want to be caught dead with one.

The cell phone brand two-step reached new heights a few weeks ago when Verizon quietly launched “Total Wireless.”  The service is operated by TracFone but, critically, uses Verizon towers.  You wouldn’t know Verizon is involved from looking at the Total Wireless website – Verizon’s name isn’t on the “about us” page.   The coverage map, many observers have remarked, is obviously a map of Verizon’s towers, however. Total Wireless didn’t even change the color scheme.

You’d have to wonder why Verizon would be embarrassed about this new product.  Well, here’s why: individual data plans start at $35 per month for 2.5 gigs of data, when you bring your own phone. That’s about double what the parent brand plans cost ($75 for 2 gigs on the plan I spied). Even better (worse?) — overage for Total Wireless costs $10 for 1.5 more gigs, while it’s $15 for 1 gig on VerizonWireless.   It’s the same data. It just costs less for the discount brand.  

Well, not exactly.  While the coverage for Total Wireless is the same as Verizon Wireless, the speed is not. Total wireless phones don’t get access to Verizon’s fast 4G network.  Search the firm’s website with care and you will eventually find the catch on the terms and conditions page— customers can only use the slower 3G service on Total Wireless.  Note, this isn’t obvious from the Total Wireless home page, which boasts only that “Lucky for you, we are on America’s largest network.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with segmenting the market. Want basic smartphone access? Pay about $40-50.  Want super smartphone access? Pay about $100-$125.  That’s fair enough. I just wish it didn’t have to be so intentionally confusing.

Of course, Verizon didn’t invent this problem. In fact, it’s late to the game. All the big wireless carriers do it – The AT&T discount service is called Cricket Wireless, Sprint’s is Boost Mobile, and T-Mobile is GoSmartMobile.  All of them let folks have smartphones at a reasonable price, and that’s great. The phones will leave behind users who want to take advantage of the latest apps, video, and of course, snazzy new iPhones and Androids, but that’s not the end of the world.

The folks at SaveOnPhone.com think phones are changing so quickly that no-contract phone are really the way to go.

“Whatever plan you choose, do not sign a contract for cell service,” says John Oldshue “Find a good used phone or buy one, but don’t fall for the “free phone with a contract” which all big four carriers offer. Prices are dropping so quickly, so there is no longer any reason to be locked in a contract for an extended period of time.”

That’s certainly advice many folks should take to heart, though there are still some lingering reasons to go with contract phones — mostly, to get the latest phone. But I believe leaps between phone generations are also getting smaller, which means one-year-old smartphones aren’t as stale as they would have been a few years ago. So, get to know your secret sub-brand and check out your choices. You no longer have to sacrifice service availability to get discount smartphone service.

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About Bob Sullivan 1463 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.


  1. That is interesting. That is what I learned from reading the current total wireless terms and conditions. If available on the tower you get 4g lte

  2. I believe the reason you don’t see Verizon’s name on TW’s site is because Verizon does NOT own Total Wireless. TW is owned by the foreign multinational company America Movil, a Mexican company, where Verizon is owned by the merged Bell Atlantic (which became Verizon Communications) and the multinational British company Vodafone.

    Verizon became the sole owner in 2014 after buying out Vodafone’s 45% stake in the company. The only connection Verizon has to TW is the latter piggybacks on the former’s tower, which has zero to do with ownership. So I don’t imagine there would be any mention of V on TW’s site, save but to say they use Verizon towers. Hope that solves the mystery for ya Bobby!

  3. I have been in a cell phone nightmare. WE have had T-mobile three lines for $109.00 a nice price not a good signal, for about 12 years. Live in a dead zone for their signal zip 54740. Switched to straight talk last week still dead zone. Sent back the sim cards, waiting for a refund. Then to A-T&T 3 lines sharing 25 MG great signal, but got a bill for $348.00 today. Have to get rid of them. What is the best? Does the cheaper versions of Verizon–Total wireless—A-T&T cheaper version Cricket Wireless and Sprint— Boost Mobile and T mobile’s Go Smart Mobile have the same signal strength as their higher priced version? Thank you for helping me, looking for a reply. Connie, Elmwood, WI.

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