When making the switch to prepaid wireless, it can be confusing to determine what kind of service coverage to expect. Most prepaid cell phone providers are mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). That means they don't own the network used to provide services but instead lease services from other mobile providers, mainly AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
The wireless network that a prepaid provider uses depends on geographic coverage area and whether your phone uses Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) or Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) technology, which are not compatible with each other. CDMA technology employs a spread-spectrum technique and spreads electromagnetic energy to allow for a signal with wider bandwidth. GSM is a cellular network and the most widely used wireless phone technology. GSM networks operate in several different frequencies including 850 and 1900 MHz bands.
Prepaid wireless provider Straight Talk, for example, leases service from AT&T and T-Mobile for GSM phones, and Sprint and Verizon for CDMA phones. Straight Talk buys the minutes wholesale from these providers and passes the savings on to you. That means you get good coverage from established networks without a contract -- and for a lot less than you'd pay for a multi-year contract with just one post-paid wireless provider. Whether or not your coverage with Straight Talk will be on AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon will depend on your phone. If your phone model ends in the letter G, coverage will be through AT&T or T-Mobile. If your phone model ends in the letter C, coverage will be on Verizon's network. But Sprint will service Straight Talk Android phones.
Roaming is another element of prepaid wireless that depends on the type of phone you have and where you live and use your phone. TracFone, for instance, determines roaming fees by your phone model. While the majority of TracFone customers aren't charged additional fees for roaming, when you leave your local calling area, you could be docked two minutes for every minute you use to make and receive calls. If the home network for your TracFone phone is T-Mobile and you're in an area where AT&T has better coverage, your phone won't roam or work even if the coverage is better. Sprint-based phones as well as Sprint -- and Verizon- based Android phones on TracFone won't roam at all. Additionally, some of the providers with which TracFone has roaming agreements do not provide data. While TracFone doesn't provide international roaming, it does offer international long distance; you can call 60+ destinations for the same price as any other call.
Before you sign up for any prepaid wireless phone or service, do some research and determine what's going to work best for your needs and where you live. Some of the links below might be helpful to you.