Straight Talk's ubiquitous TV ads make an enticing pitch for anyone looking to save money on cellphone service: You can pay less for access to the same networks used by the Big Four carriers. But this is an instance in which you get less than what you pay for.
We've come to that conclusion after putting Straight Talk to the test in our annual look at the best and worst wireless carriers. That survey of nine different wireless providers takes into account our network testing of LTE speed as well undercover customer-service evaluations and comparative looks at each carrier's array of monthly data plans.
While there was a lot of jostling between Verizon and T-Mobile for who would claim the top spot in our carrier rankings, it was quite clear who would finish at the bottom. Straight Talk had the slowest LTE speed of any carrier we tested, and it also came in last when we tested customer support. Straight Talk performance in other areas — smartphone plans, phone selection and special features — wasn't strong enough to close the gap between it and other carriers.
Those results don't quite measure up with Straight Talk's pitch for your business. The carrier buys space on other company's networks; it uses AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon towers. Because this carrier doesn't have to maintain its own network, the argument goes, Straight Talk can sell you phone service for less money each month. The carrier says it can save you up to half on your monthly bill.
Depending on what your current plan is, you can indeed get a lower monthly bill with Straight Talk, though saving half of what you're paying now would be a stretch. Straight Talk's cheapest plan with an acceptable amount of LTE data is the company's 5GB offering for $45 a month. (There's a $30-a-month plan, but you get a paltry 100MB of data.) That $45 is certainly cheaper than what the major carriers offer: only $5 off Sprint's currently discounted unlimited plan but half off the Unlimited Plus plan AT&T offers customers.
Straight Talk's $45 plan is $10 cheaper than Verizon's similarly sized 5GB plan, though Verizon had the best LTE performance of any carrier when we conducted our latest round of network speed tests in six cities. But expand your search for cellphone service to other prepaid carriers, and Straight Talk's savings evaporate.
The same 5GB of data that costs you $45 each month at Straight Talk will set you back only $35 at Virgin. If you'd like unlimited LTE data, both MetroPCS and Boost Mobile offer unlimited plans for just $5 more than what Straight Talk's 5GB plan costs (though both those unlimited plans place caps on video streaming). If you'd rather save more money than have more data, MetroPCS, Boost and Cricket all join Virgin in offering lower-priced plans than anything you'd find at Straight Talk. And all of those carriers offer faster LTE speeds than Straight Talk does.
In our testing, Straight Talk tallied an average download speed of 5.1 Mbps nationally. The next slowest carrier was Cricket, with a 6.0-Mbps download average, but parent carrier AT&T caps Cricket's speeds at 8 Mbps. MetroPCS, Boost and Virgin have no such restrictions from their parent networks (T-Mobile in the case of MetroPCS, Sprint in the case of Boost and Virgin), and they all handily outperformed Straight Talk.
Not only can you expect slower LTE speeds from Straight Talk, but you'll also get less assistance from the carrier when you run into customer-support issues. When we went undercover to test customer phone support at nine carriers, we consistently ran into a messy automated phone system and unsatisfying answers from Straight Talk's phone reps, who were difficult to understand.
Support through social media was also frustrating, as Straight Talk never answered a question we posed on Twitter to the carrier's support account. Even Straight Talk's helpful online chat feature couldn't disguise that the company provided the least helpful service of all the carriers we tested.
Straight Talk's other selling points don't really set it apart from the crowd. The carrier lets you bring your own phone, but so do its rivals in most cases. (CDMA-based carriers like Verizon, Sprint and Sprint's prepaid subsidiaries can't support some phones.) One of Straight Talk's more appealing features — an international plan that promises unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling to Canada, China, India and Mexico — tacks $15 onto the $45-a-month 5GB plan. Other prepaid carriers offer international calling add-ons for $5 to $10 extra each month.
We wish Straight Talk provided as compelling an option as its TV ads claim. You don't have to look any further than T-Mobile to see how one carrier can push others to improve their service and offerings. (Verizon is now the top-ranked carrier, in part, because it finally followed T-Mobile's lead and offered customers an unlimited data plan, for example.) Straight Talk could give budget-minded wireless customers an attractive alternative while pushing its rivals to improve their own offerings; based on our research and testing, however, it's doing neither right now.
Illustrations: Tom's Guide