I didn't see this one coming: Wal-Mart (WMT), the nation's largest retailer, has become a legitimate choice for smaller shops trying manage the royal headache that is wireless business telephony.
We here on planet small biz know the evil that lurks in business mobile phones. Yes, Verizon (VZ - Get Report), T-Mobile, Sprint (S) and AT&T (T - Get Report) are happy to sell you a slick discounted Droid or Apple (AAPL - Get Report) iPhone as part of of a business cell phone plan, but the deal usually comes with a two-year contract, other limitations and lots of tricky fees. So prepaid cell phones, which require no contracts and can even be paid for in cash, have become my sleeper pick for small-business wireless. Yes, the phones cost more upfront, but you can go month to month with no commitments and otherwise keep your cellular business life simple.
Prepaid phones are getting so popular that even retail giant Wal-Mart has entered the fray. Its Straight Talk brand resells cellular access provided by Miami-based TracFone Wireless, the so-called mobile virtual network operator with 15 million subscribers. TracFone in turn resells network access from Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile at prices that are Sam Walton-esque: $30 for 1,000 minutes and 30 megabytes of Web access (enough for average e-mail use) for 30 days. Or $45 a month for unlimited service, data and text. No contract. No fees. What's not to love?Until now, the service has been for consumers only. But Straight Talk recently made itself relevant to business by rolling out two legitimate smartphones, the Nokia (NOK) 6790 and N71 (both list at $200). Since Wal-Mart officials declined to be interviewed for this story or participate in a demo, I headed down to my local White Plains, N.Y., store with my cousin Quillan, who is visiting and in need of a phone. We bought one and spent the past two weeks testing this service in New York and Maine and along Interstate 80 out to Indiana.