$20 a month smartphone: can it be real?

Is your smartphone bill soaring? Or do you have a teenager who absolutely has to get a smartphone?
    
Then you'll want to know about the newest discount phone plans, as low as $19 a month. But are they worthwhile?

$19 Prepaid Plan: Really?

With many people paying more than $100 a month just to have a smartphone with a data plan, a number of services are now offering cheaper, prepaid options. Best of all, there is no two-year contract to sign.

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

Michael Handy was among the first to sign up with Republic.

"This advertisement came up for $20 a month for cell service," Handy said. "I thought I'd check it out."

How it Works

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.

"Sometimes you'll be talking," he explained, "and the other person sounds fine, but they say you drop out." He then has to re-dial them.

The problem, both Handy and Consumer Reports say, is that when you leave a Wi-Fi area, your call jumps to a cell network, which can mean a dropped or garbled call.

So we tried it out, making a call to our newsroom on Republic Wireless through Panera's free Wi-Fi. It sounded clear and loud to both me and our assignment editor.

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 right now 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

The hottest selling prepaid plan right now is  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.

That way you don't waste your money.
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