Low-cost phone carrier TextNow is upgrading its network to one with better speeds and farther reach. And as part of that, it's launching a new video calling feature that lets you do some face-to-face chatting with anyone, even people who get their wireless service from a different provider.
Like other mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, TextNow doesn't actually operate its own towers, instead renting space on someone else's network. Previously, that someone else had been Sprint, which no longer exists after it merged with T-Mobile last year. With T-Mobile getting ready to shut down Sprint's CDMA-based network, that's prompting carriers like TextNow to find a new partner.
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TextNow isn't officially saying who provides its wireless service now, only that's it's a GSM-based carrier. That narrows things down considerably, and all signs point to TextNow simply moving its business over to T-Mobile. That's good news for TextNow customers as the Uncarrier's network is faster than Sprint's was, and it has a broader reach, too.
There are other practical benefits as well. With the move to a GSM-based carrier, TextNow is dropping the cost of its SIM cards to $4.99 after previously charging $9.99. The GSM SIM will work with more phones, too — roughly 75% of the devices in the U.S. versus 25% that worked with Sprint's network.
In addition to the move to a new carrier, TextNow is launching a video calling service reminiscent of Apple's FaceTime. And just as FaceTime is adding a web-based interface to let Android and Windows users participate in video chats, TextNow's version only requires you have a person's mobile number to invite them to chat face-to-face.
Enter a number into the TextNow app (Android, iOS), and then you tap the video calling icon instead of the usual phone icon. Assuming the person you're calling isn't on TextNow also, they'll get a text message with a link that opens up a video chatting interface in the web browser on their phone.
I tested TextNow's video chat using a loaner SIM from the carrier on my iPhone 12. I was able to place a video call to my wife on her Verizon-based phone, and the video chat looked pretty sharp on my end. (My wife noticed a lag between video and audio on her end, though that might have been the vagaries of our network connection.)
We called TextNow a low-cost network, but it might be more accurate to refer to it as a "no-cost" network instead. The carrier's entry level plan includes free calls and texting via the TextNow app, with data available through Wi-Fi. TextNow's service is ad-supported, and to ditch the ads costs $9.99 a month. If you need data over cellular, you can pay $20 a month for 2GB, which compares somewhat favorably to T-Mobile's 2.5GB Simple Connect plan ($15 per month) but is dwarfed by the best Mint Mobile plans, where you can get 10GB of data for $20/month.
Still, with video calling now part of TextNow's service, you can see the carrier making a play to be included among the best cheap phone plans.
TextNow's move to a GSM network only covers LTE coverage, though a spokesperson told us that people with 5G-compatible phones will be able to pick up the parent company's 5G network where it's available. (Again, if this is T-Mobile we're talking about, that's good news as T-Mobile 5G currently enjoys the widest reach of any carrier.) TextNow hopes to expand 5G accessibility to more of its customers in the future.