Prepaid Phone Plans Finally Get Real

New plans drop crazy fees, pricey phones and shoddy service.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Call it the MetroPCS effect, but Verizon (VZ) - Get Report, AT&T (T) - Get Report, Sprint (S) - Get Report and T-Mobile may have just decided it's time to prepay for small-business cellular service.

If your business is like mine, telephony is a singular pain in the you-know-what. Most employees are too mobile these days to bother with desk telephony. So desk phones become fabulously high-tech paper weights. And giving out company paid-for mobile phones doesn't work either, since nobody wants to second mobile on top of the personal phone. And reimbursing for work minutes on personal cell phones sounds noble, but the billing quickly spirals out of control.

Did we really talk 1,000 minutes last month?

So it is with guarded optimism, that I am noticing a sleeper of a new telephony option for small business: prepaid wireless.

Prepaid wireless has traditionally been the telephone weapon of choice for those in the ... how shall we say it ... "cash economy." That would be those who, for whatever reason, are without credit and checking accounts or have a messy private life. Traditionally, phone operators have gleefully hosed prepaid users for their wild living: Crazy fees, pricey phones and crappy service were the norm.

But no more.

Cellular Interlopers like MetroPCS have made no-contract telephony the hottest thing in phones since, well, phones. So major carriers have had to respond. Now prepaid pricing, while not cheap, is at least fair. And while small businesses will not find uber-devices like the iPhone or the Droid in the prepaid mix, the phones here are perfectly suitable for basic voice and text and even some e-mail.

And while you will still have to struggle to get folks to carry their work phones, with no contracts you pay only when you and your people use them -- which ends the monthly agony of paying out two-year contracts on long-gone employee phones.

Here, then, is my hero-to-zero pocket guide to prepaid business telephony:

Virgin Mobile payLo

: If there is a hero of small-business prepaid, it's Virgin Mobile, a unit of Sprint Nextel. The company offers dang nice phones -- the pick here is the

Kyocera

X-TC ($100), a fully functional slider that is not only cute, but also easy to use. And Virgin charges a simply terrific $60 a month for a full package of unlimited messaging, email, voice and, yes, the Web. If you want to taste the liberating simplicity of bellying up to a cell-phone store counter and paying cash to get business-class telephony, this is the phone and the plan to do it with.

AT&T GoPhone Pay as You Go

: While not exactly our prepaid hero, AT&T does offer a nice balance of phone choices, pricing and service. Of about a half-dozen phones and plans, the small-business play is the

LG

Neon ($80), running the $60 unlimited talk and text plan. The Neon is a good-looking, no-nonsense QWERTY slider with a nice camera and screen perfect for getting work done. And AT&T will sell you 100 MB of data on its network for an extra $20 a month. The next time you cough up three figures for monthly service for that iPhone of yours, think about that!

T-Mobile Prepaid

:T-Mobile's small-business play in prepaid is the no-nonsense

Samsung

t369 ($79). Yes, it gets zero style points, but it is a legit slider with a decent keyboard, reasonable screen, voice and text performance. For a frugal $50 a month, T-Mobile offers unlimited voice and text, including picture and video messaging. Which is a good value. But beware Web access: It runs $1

per hour

, which for heavy usage is a potential pricing disaster.

Verizon Prepaid

: And now our prepaid zero: Verizon. It's ridiculous. Unlimited talk and text plans start at a priced-for-drug-dealers $95 a month. (That's $1,140 a year. But who's counting, right?) With add-on fees basically everywhere: Picture messages can cost 25 cents

each

!

And

there can be hefty roaming charges and other nasties on top of that. And, really, there are no business-class phones here.

The Samsung Smooth?! What the heck is that?

Verizon likes to say it Rules The Air. But clearly not the prepaid air. Just say "no."

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on Fox News and The WB.