Cricket, for the uninitiated, is a subsidiary of San Diego-based Leap Wireless International that sells prepaid phone and data service to some 6.2 million customers. Cricket's coverage has greatly expanded since I first tried its mobile broadband in 2009 (and even then, I thought it and Virgin Mobile provided useful alternatives), but until now it's suffered from the same lack of flagship smartphones as other prepaid services.
Now Cricket's become the first prepaid carrier in the United States to offer Apple's iPhone 4 and 4S. It will sell an 8-gigabyte version of the 4 for $399.99, with a 16-GB 4S going for $499.99. (Apple's site charges about $150 more for no-contract copies of those models.)
You can buy an iPhone for far less at AT&T, Sprint or Verizon Wireless, but at a much higher monthly cost than the $55 Cricket asks for a month of "unlimited" calling, texting and mobile broadband. Tethering, or sharing the phone's broadband with a computer, and visual-voicemail features will come later.
The quotes are necessary because Cricket's fine-print "fair use policy" may throttle your connection to 56 to 100 kilobits per second after you hit 2.3 gigabytes in a month.
The other catch to Cricket's offering, as brought up by spokesman Greg Lund in a phone call: You won't be able to buy its iPhone everywhere. Cricket will only sell it in the 59-and-counting markets where it offers service over PCS (Personal Communications Service) frequencies, leaving out the third of its network operating on AWS (Advanced Wireless Services) bands. Cross-hatching on its coverage maps identifies those areas, which include Discovery's home market of Washington, D.C.
Cricket's network covers about 97 million people total, with extra coverage provided through roaming on Sprint and 30 other partner carriers, Lund said. (Update, 5/31: You may incur roaming fees–remember them?–outside those regions.) So if you pick up a Cricket iPhone in a PCS market and use it in an AWS area, it should still function properly.
Cricket only offers international roaming in Canada–and that's where this gets interesting. Lund said that while the microSIM card slot on Cricket's iPhone 4S won't permit using the phone on U.S. carriers selling GSM (Global System for Mobile) service, it will be unlocked for international use.
So unless Cricket later chooses to sign exclusive roaming deals with other carriers overseas (Lund said it's weighing that option), you can step off a plane, buy a prepaid microSIM card, and use a Cricket-purchased iPhone for far less than AT&T, Sprint or Verizon's roaming rates. You'd also spare yourself the extra steps required by Sprint and Verizon to get their iPhones internationally unlocked. (AT&T customers have to wait until their iPhones are out of contract, although "jailbreaking" and unlocking them remain an option for the technologically ambitious.)
This move represents another opening in the iPhone's exclusivity (or, as an Apple spokeswoman phrased it, "making the best smartphone more accessible to an even broader market") after its arrival on Verizon in early 2011 and on Sprint last fall. It may also provide an appealing option to one set of potential iPhone users: Tech journalists who already have a smartphone and don't want to pay for a second voice-plus-data plan, but could still use an iPhone for occasional research. Hmm…
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery