Hands-On with Consumer Cellular

Posted on August 20, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Mobile with 33 Comments

It’s the holy grail of wireless carriers: A service that resells bandwidth on one or more major carriers and does so at rock-bottom prices. And on that note, I’ve finally stumbled on an option that may meet the needs of many.

It’s called Consumer Cellular, and it offers voice, text, and data plans here in the U.S. for as little as $20 per month. (Plus a 5 percent savings over that if you’re an AARP member.) Better still, it offers the same pricing transparency as Google’s Project Fi, my current carrier, with no overage fees.

Are there any downsides? Perhaps, but it will depend on your needs.

Consumer Cellular resells T-Mobile, so if you can’t use that network, perhaps because your phone is incompatible or you’re outside a good area for T-Mobile, this option may be a non-starter. You can check its coverage area here.

Also, Consumer Cellular doesn’t offer much in the way of international usage: There are per-minute charges on phone calls, per-message charges on sent texts, and very expensive charges on data (per MB). Point being, if you’re used to the daily passes that major carriers offer, let alone the seamless international connectivity provided by Project Fi, this isn’t an alternative. So it’s back to the days of grazing around for an international SIM for you.

Which is fine: The vast majority of people who use cellular service in the U.S. either rarely or never need international access anyway. So this probably covers the needs of most people.

And the pricing, as I noted, is incredible.

I’ve been shopping around for an inexpensive alternative wireless carrier since last year. Prior to my move to Android—and to Google’s Project Fi as my only carrier—I maintained three phone lines at AT&T, one of which dated back to June 2007, when I bought the first iPhone and switched to that carrier from Verizon. This was expensive: I was paying about $130 a month for this luxury, and in the process of scaling back in 2017, I dropped that down to just one line, shaving my bill by about half.

But Project Fi is much cheaper still. It’s also transparent, and comes with no overage fees. Instead, I just pay for what I use: Calls and texts are unlimited and cost $20 per month. Data costs $10 per 1 GB, and is capped monthly at 6 GB. So my bill will never be more than $80 plus some fees. And it’s often much, much less, because Project Fi credits you back for unused data, too: My last four bills (before the international usage from my Sweden trip) were all between $27 and $42.

(I also access my Project Fi data via a data-only SIM at no additional cost. It’s amazing.)

But Consumer Cellular could be cheaper still. Its base service with data is just $20 per month before taxes/fees. This includes 250 minutes of calling per month (which I’ll never hit), unlimited texts, and 250 MB of data.

That might not seem like a lot of data, and it’s not. But there’s no penalty for choosing this low tier. If you use more than that, Consumer Cellular will simply bump you up to the next tier for that month only. And it will keep doing so as you use more and more data, with a cap at 18 GB.

“Our biggest plan offers 10 GB of data,” the firm explains. “Once you have exceeded the 10 GB maximum, you will be billed an additional $5 for each extra GB used. You may also experience slower data speeds after 10 GB of use.”

That may be an issue for power users, but it’s reasonable. And I’ve never used that much data, for the most part. (OK, we actually did use just over 10 GB on the recent trip to Sweden, but most of that was my son tethering off my connection. He’s not a good candidate for this service. Or for any non-unlimited plan, for that matter.)

So let’s compare what those four most recent Project Fi bills would look like on Consumer Cellular. Doing the math on the same usage, the costs come out like so:

June 2018 – 1.5 GB of data used
Project Fi: $40.88
Consumer Cellular: $35

May 2018 – 2.2 GB of data used
Project Fi: $27.45
Consumer Cellular: $35

April 2018 – 0.9 GB of data used
Project Fi: $34.51
Consumer Cellular: $25

March 2018 – 1.6 GB of data used
Project Fi: $41.88
Consumer Cellular: $35

(Note: If those Project Fi amounts don’t make sense to you, remember that each bill includes a credit from the previous month for the amount of data not used under a particular tier.)

In each case, Consumer Cellular is less: Over those four months alone, I could have saved over $28. Plus, I could have used any phone I wanted: Project Fi is limited to a small list of compatible devices, which is part of the reason I’ve been stuck on the Pixel 2 XL.

That said, Project Fi has some advantages over Consumer Cellular.

Like Consumer Cellular, Project Fi can use the T-Mobile network, but it actually smart-switches between different wireless networks, and will always choose the one with the best reception. Here in the U.S., Project Fi uses T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular. And I’ve had consistently high speeds at home and abroad.

There are no extra fees for using data internationally, which is huge for me. If that $28 in savings were spread out across a year, they would amount to less than $90 in savings overall. In using Project Fi internationally just on this most recent trip, I’ve absolutely already eaten up those savings, especially since I’d have to find and then pay for an international SIM and some data plan. And I still have about 10 more days of international travel coming this year.

But Project Fi can also be paused on the fly, another advantage. And that means you stop paying for the service until you enable it again. So I could keep both Project Fi and Consumer Cellular, and only pay for the former when I’m traveling. That is a compelling option. A very compelling option.

I just received the Consumer Cellular SIM over the weekend, and I chose a local number instead of porting over my existing number (which dates back to 2007 and that first iPhone). I’m currently using it in the OnePlus 6, but could easily move it over to the Pixel 2 XL, as that phone supports an eSIM (which I’m using for Project Fi) and a normal SIM tray. Indeed, the OnePlus 6 has a dual SIM tray, so I could use both the Consumer Cellular SIM and my Project Fi data SIM in that phone instead. It’s nice to have options like this.

So far, the service works fine and there were no configuration issues. Indeed, there was no configuration at all: Unlike with Mint Mobile, formerly called Mint SIM, which also resells T-Mobile, I didn’t need to make any weird changes to certain options for features to work. Even the mobile hotspot works fine. Using Fast.com over cellular at home, my Consumer Cellular-based OnePlus 6 hit 27 Mbps, compared to 31 Mbps on the Project Fi-based Pixel 2 XL. Very comparable.

Will I switch? I’m not sure yet, but I can see doing so. At the very least, I’ll keep this Consumer Cellular account going on the second phone for a few months and see how the two networks compare over time. I will almost certainly test using both networks on the same device(s) as well.

 

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