Monday, August 10, 2009

Blackberry Price Study: Comparing Cellular Carriers

This is a comparison of prices between the five major cellular carriers. It focuses on one specific scenario: Unlimited-everything service for a Blackberry, purchased by a regular individual consumer – not an enterprise. I have divided the comparison into three parts:

1. Unlimited US domestic voice+SMS+email/Internet on the Blackberry handheld.
2. Having your Blackberry serve as a modem for your laptop.
3. Blackberry data roaming outside the US.

Let’s start with the cost of Unlimited Domestic Service:

Verizon (VZ): $150/month, consisting of unlimited voice $100, unlimited Blackberry/Internet $30 and unlimited SMS $20.

AT&T (T): $150/month, consisting of unlimited voice $100, unlimited Blackberry/Internet $30 and unlimited SMS $20. In other words, identical to Verizon.

Sprint (S): $100/month, which happens to be the simple all-in price for everything, and also includes GPS and TV.

T-Mobile: The baseline scenario is $125/month, consisting of $100 for unlimited voice+SMS, and $25 for unlimited Blackberry/Internet. However, if you qualify for the $50 unlimited voice loyalty plan, the total is only $85, because you add $35 for unlimited Blackberry/Internet/SMS. These plans also include unlimited calling over
WiFi, a technology not available from any other US carrier.

MetroPCS (PCS): $50/month, which happens to be the simple all-in price for everything.

Using Blackberry as a modem for a laptop/PC:

Verizon: Adds $30 per month for a BIS account; $15 for a BES account. 5 gig/month soft cap.

AT&T: Adds $30 per month. 5 gig/month soft cap.

Sprint: Used to be $30 per month with the customary 5 gig/month soft cap, but was recently discontinued in favor of no such service at all.

T-Mobile: Free on EDGE devices, which is going to be slow. However, for people who intend to use it only rarely as a back-up to other connectivity, it could be a good option. Free is good! Once T-Mobile launches its first HSPA (“3G”) Blackberry soon, expect some form of paid plan to follow.

MetroPCS: Not applicable.

What about Blackberry data roaming while abroad?

Verizon: Unlimited monthly use adds $35, in the form of a $65 plan replacing the $30 domestic-only plan. You can change the plan forth and back at any time.

AT&T: As an individual/residential account, no unlimited plan is available. You have to pay $25 for 20 meg, or a higher amount for a larger plan. The fatal flaw with this approach is that you don’t know how much data you are consuming, so you can easily exceed the 20 meg (or whichever larger number you purchase) without knowing, racking up hundreds or thousands of dollars in a matter of days. If you convert your account to a business/enterprise account, there is a $65/month plan available, replacing the domestic-only $30 plan, but you have to subscribe for a full year, making the incremental cost effectively a $420/year plan.

Sprint: Unlimited monthly use adds $40. You can change the plan forth and back at any time.

T-Mobile: Monthly email and web browser-only use adds $20. You can change the plan forth and back at any time. Keep in mind that this plan covers ONLY email and web browsing on your Blackberry. All of your other applications are not covered. In most countries, use of those other applications cost $15 per meg, which of course is impossible to measure, so just as in the case with AT&T, you can easily rack up hundreds or thousands of dollars in a matter of days, without knowing.

MetroPCS: Not applicable.

What are the main conclusions?

For regular domestic handset use, AT&T and Verizon are the most expensive, with MetroPCS being the cheapest. Sprint and T-Mobile are in the middle.
For using the Blackberry as modem for your PC, power users are best served by AT&T and Verizon. Infrequent or emergency users are best served by T-Mobile. Sprint fails this test.

For using the Blackberry abroad, for the purpose of using data (not voice) services, Sprint and Verizon are the only acceptable choices. T-Mobile and AT&T fail this test miserably, because their customers can very easily rack up dramatically large bills without knowing. This conclusion is of course ironic, because T-Mobile and AT&T are the GSM operators who led in this area only as little as a year ago.

Special award to T-Mobile: As a result of UMA technology (GSM tunneling through WiFi), a T-Mobile Blackberry can be used for making and receiving calls for free, while on WiFi abroad. This saves $1-$5 per minute, depending on the country. All other circuit-switched calling on US carriers, while roaming abroad, is prohibitively expensive.

Bottom line: There is no one Blackberry solution that is optimal, because all US operators each have flaws in their pricing structures. Different users have different priorities. What is clear is that while Sprint and Verizon were behind as little as a year ago, they have now caught up, and at least in the area of international data roaming, they are now the ONLY acceptable choices, by a very wide margin.

One major caveat: This study is only about price. It does not take into consideration coverage discrepancies (what’s great coverage for one person, is another person’s disaster) or handset choices, such as the fact that Verizon and Sprint Blackberries lack WiFi.

Disclosure: Long RIMM.