Unless you are living under a rock, you have seen one of the new “Framily” plan ads from Sprint. The premise: You get a bunch of your friends and family together in one group and you all get a lower phone bill. In addition, everyone in the plan can get his own bill to keep the bookkeeping nice and neat. Sort of like a group insurance plan.
The commercial makes the plan look easy and its users really happy.
The idea is not new. T-Mobile did something similar about a decade ago called Five. Let’s jump into the details on a couple of the plans and see if they really are a good deal.
Since Sprint is pushing its Family Plan the hardest, let’s look at its offering first. If you have at least seven people in your group, each line will be billed at $25 a month. That $25 buys you unlimited talk and texting within the United States. International calls and texts are additional.
Each line gets one gigabyte of data per month at the base price. This data is not shared among the people in the group, so a gig is a gig. To get an idea of how much you use, you can download a free app like My Data Manager for your iPhone or Android smartphone to track your data usage. I can tell you that one gig is not a lot for a month. While I am not a light user, I go through a little bit more than 600 megabytes in a week, which puts me at about 2.5 gigabytes a month. That amount would result in a $22.50 monthly charge for additional data.
Sprint allows you to bump your monthly allowance to 3 GB for an extra $10 a month, or to unlimited data for $20 a month extra. This information is in the fine print:
“Other plans may receive prioritized bandwidth availability. Streaming video speeds may be limited to 1 Mbps. Sprint may terminate service if off-network roaming usage in a month exceeds: (1) 800 min. or a majority of min.; or (2) 100 MB or a majority of KB.”
This means that other customers may get faster speed at Sprint’s discretion. It also gives Sprint the ability to kick you out if you are not a profitable customer.
So, the plan is good on talk and text, marginal on data unless you choose to pay extra. What other impact is there?
First, this is a no-contract plan. If you are currently under contract with Sprint, you can only switch if you qualify for an upgrade. If you are not eligible for an upgrade, you will be charged an extra $15 a month until you would have qualified. With the no-contract plan, you can leave at any time, but if your phone is being financed, the remaining balance will be due immediately.
Second, you can be in only one group at a time. If you are in a group with your family and a couple of friends, you cannot be in another group to help pull its price down.
Third, you lose your discounted phone-buying privileges. You knew the company was going to get you somewhere, right? While Sprint will let you finance your new shiny iPhone 5 for 24 months, you are going to pay $649 for it, or about $27 a month. You can upgrade your smartphone every 12 months should you choose. However, you must return your old smartphone to Sprint and pay a $36 charge to activate the new phone.
If you are not a heavy data user and don’t care to upgrade your phone often, the Sprint plan is a good deal. Just be sure you have enough friends and family using Sprint to gather into one plan. If you are a data user and lust for new phones, that $25-a-month promise turns into about $62 a month ($25 service plus $10 for 3 gigs of data plus a $27 phone payment). Also, be aware that Sprint is not currently offering this plan online. You must go into a store to set it up.
Verizon’s More Everything plan is aimed at families. It has a much simpler structure than Sprint’s. Everyone in the plan is on one bill, and a smartphone with unlimited talk and text is going to run $60 a month per phone. These plans share a pool of data, which equals 2 gigabytes per phone. This is good if you have a mix of people in your family who are heavy and light data users. If your teenager uses 4 gigabytes of data in a month, but the rest of the family of five only uses one gigabyte each, you are not looking at any overage charges. Verizon also includes free international texting to most countries as long as you have a data plan.
Other than the data pooling, the Verizon plan is business as usual: two-year contracts, discounted phones and monthly charges.
Verizon also offers another family plan. You can get a discount on your monthly service by choosing its Edge service, Verizon’s version of the no-contract plan. It is cheaper per month (save $10 a month per phone, or $20 a month if you have at least 10 gig in data) than Verizon’s contract-based plans, but you will pay full price for the devices.
AT&T is a little more flexible than Verizon. Its Mobile Share plan can be with a contract or without, and you can choose how much data each phone gets. But the data all still goes into a pool that everyone shares. Going no contract and paying full price for phones saves you $25 a month.
Like Verizon, AT&T has also added free international texting. Be aware that on both AT&T and Verizon, this means you won’t be charged if you send a text from the United States to England, but you will rack up charges if you take the same phone to England and text back to the United States.
T-Mobile has its own take on the Family Plan. We have covered it before so I won’t go in depth here, but up to five phones can be on a plan. You get unlimited text and talk and unlimited data for $110 a month. You also get worldwide texting for free, but unlike Verizon and AT&T, it is free no matter where you are in the world.
The downside is that if you want to add more than five lines to your family plan, your pricing starts over. So, the first phone is $50 a month, second is $30, three, four and five are each $10. Unfortunately, the sixth phone would be $50, seventh would be $30 and eight, nine and 10 would be $10 a month.
T-Mobile no longer offers contracts with this plan, so you will always be paying retail for the phones.
Stacking up the plans
If you have seven phones on a plan, using as close a data comparison between them as we can for reference, this is how the bills break down:
- Verizon: 10 gig of shared data: $240 per month
- AT&T :- One gig of data each: $205 per month
- T-Mobile: Unlimited data: $190 per month
- Sprint: One gig of data each: $175 per month
The same comparison with five phones:
- Verizon: 10 gig of shared data: $200 per month
- AT&T: One gig of data each: $175 per month
- Sprint: One gig of data each: $175 per month ($125 a month if you add friends)
- T-Mobile: Unlimited data: $110 per month
Here are the caveats on these plans:
- Each is no-contract, and you’ll pay full price for your phones.
- Sprint, Verizon and AT&T will charge around $15 a gig for data if you run over your allotment. T-Mobile will not charge you anything, but will slow your access.
- All family members have to be on the same bill with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. Sprint will allow you to have separate bills.
- Sprint is the only one of the four that does not include some kind of international texting in its plan.
- Sprint will charge a $36 activation fee per phone, and your “Framily” discount may not go into place for two to three months.
Sprint has a pretty good deal, as long as you are careful with your data, but T-Mobile’s plan is still a better deal, unless you need more than five phones.
A lot of this comes down to cellular coverage. If Sprint or T-Mobile have good coverage in your area, these are good options. If not, then Verizon and AT&T are still a better deal because an expensive phone that works is better than one that doesn’t.
If you think that the major companies are little to late to the no-contract game you can always take a look at one of the original innovators like Cricket Wireless. It didn’t have to be pushed into creating a plan that didn’t make you sign your life away and it will give you a $5 discount for each phone you add to your bill.
Each has its own twists on the technology, with Republic pushing the phone to WiFi when possible and Ting only charging you for what you use. Freedom Pop has a plan that is $80 a year and gives you unlimited text and talk and 500 MB a month of data. All of these companies have a much more limited phone selection, but give you some interesting options to consider.