Pre-Paid Cell Phones' Time Arrives

What seem to be the best deals are the bargain 'pay by the month' plans: One fee covers unlimited everything.
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With the economy in the doldrums, this might not be the best time ever to get people to sign up for cell-phone services that cost $100 or more every 30 days or so. It might be the right time to reconsider the idea of not agreeing to an expensive monthly contract in the first place.

You can have a cell phone and pay as you go. There are companies that offer plans that allow light users to pay by the number of talk minutes used any time of the day and also pay for each time you use text messaging or even surf the Web on your phone. These providers could also offer daily plans: maybe $1 per day plus per-minute daytime voice fees and free nights and texting.

But what seem to be the best deals of all are the bargain "pay by the month" plans: One fee covers unlimited everything. There are usually no credit checks involved with these plans.

These days you have a large choice of pre-paid services and service providers to choose from. All offer ways to pay less for popular cellular services.

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

calls its the GoPhone,

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

calls its Prepaid Basic/Core/Plus/Unlimited Talk.

T-Mobile

(DT) - Get Report

has a number of prepaid plans, and

Sprint

(S) - Get Report

has named its prepaid division Boost.

Actually, Boost is the non-contract service of Sprint's Nextel phone service. That means in addition to pay-as-you-go deals for voice, text and the Web, Boost users also get Nextel "walkie-talkie" services in their plans for $1 per day of use or as part of their unlimited monthly plan.

And let's discuss that plan. Boost is currently offering its unlimited pay-by-the-month plan for $50. That's unlimited everything for only 50 bucks. Voicemail, long distance and Sprint Nextel's nationwide network are included. That's a pretty good deal.

What you need to know, though, is that Boost's choice of phones is limited to a small number of

Motorola

(MOT)

handsets and that those handsets are more expensive to purchase than if you had signed a contract for a monthly service plan in which part of your charges helps to subsidize the handset's real price.

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I used to be a Nextel customer a while back and really liked the service. My phone worked everywhere in the U.S., and when I travelled overseas, I was able to use the Nextel phone's SIM card in any world phone and use my account worldwide.

Recently, it has been a kick to be able to try Boost's top-of-the-line i9 phone ($299.99). The phone reminds me of RAZR on steroids. It's sleek and solid but feels slightly heavy in my hand. It's GPS-enabled, has a nice text browser, a hands-free speaker-phone mode, a 3.1-megapixel camera and a nice way to see the screen while taking photos with the top screen in the closed position; an MP3 player, multimedia and text messaging and a walkie-talkie. Overall, it's a nice package.

And there's another pay-as-you-go contender in town,

MetroPCS

(PCS)

. The Texas-based newcomer is in the process of building out their its network nationwide. Around here, if you live west of Interstate 287 in New Jersey, north of Westchester or much east of the Nassau/Suffolk line, MetroPCS isn't for you.

MetroPCS uses a phone system similar to Sprint (not Nextel) and charges some of the lowest prices around. It has five "unlimited" pay-as-you-go plans starting at $30 per month for unlimited local calls, up to $50 for everything. Unfortunately, it charges 19 cents per minute for calls made outside the MetroPCS service area (in other words when Metro has to use a Sprint line). That should be less and less of a problem as the company builds out its own network.

MetroPCS does offer a number of phones to choose from depending on where you live. It has just begun to offer (although not in the New York City-area market) a

Research In Motion

(RIMM)

BlackBerry Curve (model 8330) handset for $449.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.