Wal-Mart, the Business Phone Company

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), T-Mobile, Sprint ( S) and AT&T ( T) are happy to sell you a slick discounted Droid or Apple ( AAPL) 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.

WHAT YOU GET
This is a damn good mobile business phone for a reasonable price.

It takes some getting used to -- wandering into Wal-Mart to buy a business phone. But what a revelation. There's none of the usual cell phone mumbo-jumbo. No salesperson or number to take. Just find the racks with mobile phones and pick out what you want. Quillan was adamant that a full-on smart phone such as the N71 -- which, by the way, I like -- was unnecessary for average business communication. So we bought a Samsung T401G for $100.

Even this basic phone showed a real small-business upside. It had a perfectly good camera, QWERTY keyboard, cramped but reasonable screen and decent Web access. Customer service was phone-based -- don't bother stopping into Wal-Mart looking for a phone expert -- but solid. In about an hour we had a perfectly professional business phone with a unique number, high-quality voice calling and texting capability.

For basic business communications, the Straight Talk was more than adequate.

WHAT YOU DON'T GET
Straight Talk offers limited phone selection, none of the bells and whistles of business telephony and no white-glove service.

For all of the service's upside, this is still Wal-Mart service. You are on your own. And while the Nokia N71 is not a bad phone, it is no Droid or iPhone. Mobile business tools, such as those from Salesforce.com ( CRM) and Netsuite's ( N) mobile tools, are beyond this service, at least for now.

BOTTOM LINE
For basic telephony for smaller firms, there's no reason not to try Straight Talk. It's easy, fast and lets you get a decent-quality phone in your people's hands. Just don't ask it to be a legit smartphone with all the attendant apps and fancy features.

Need to communicate with your people fast? Get to Wal-Mart, buy a Straight Talk phone and thank me later. It really works.

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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.