A few months ago I said I was going to switch from Verizon prepaid to AT&T prepaid because Verizon deprioritizes prepaid customers’ data in congested areas. Well, I never actually got around to switching, until this week, when I didn’t switch to AT&T but instead to Consumer Cellular. Yes, the thing for old people.

UPDATE: Consumer Cellular doesn’t have visual voicemail, which is common among some prepaid carriers. Usually I work around this by using YouMail for my voicemail, but there were some unforeseen difficulties setting this up. I’ll explain at the end.

Verizon prepaid is basically unusable in major cities. Verizon’s website says nothing about the fact that they deprioritize prepaid customers’ data when connecting to busy parts of the network. They do say this about their cheapest Go Unlimited postpaid “unlimited” plan, but you only see any words about this congestion prioritization being on ALL PREPAID PLANS in your customer portal after you sign up for Verizon Prepaid Service. And it sucks. All too often, Verizon’s network would arbitrarily decide it was congested, and my data would go to the back of the line. I’d have full bars of signal but data would straight up just not work, and calls would only go thru the old busted CDMA network with terrible sound quality and no background data.

If you spend any time in or near a major city, stay the fuck away from Verizon prepaid. The end.

I decided I wanted to be on AT&T’s network. They don’t deprioritize prepaid customers. AT&T’s in-house prepaid plans don’t have access to LTE calling, but they do have access to AT&T’s 3G HSPA network which still gives background data, just not the HD voice calls that make the person you’re talking to sound like they’re in your head maaaaaannnnnn. Cricket, AT&T’s in-house subsidiary, has LTE calling but data speeds are capped to 8 Mbps. KEEP YOUR THROTTLING AWAY FROM ME! Straight Talk and other brands under the TracFone umbrella aren’t throttled or deprioritized, and somewhat have access to LTE calling, but it’s hit or miss and TracFone customer service is mediocre to poor at flipping this switch on their end if you need this, and in general. I’ve been there and wasn’t in a rush to go back.

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Of these mixed drawbacks, I decided I could live without HD calling in exchange for the uncapped speeds of AT&Ts’s in-house prepaid plan. But I never actually got around to switching to AT&T prepaid because I kept not going to the AT&T store to get SIM cards and swap the service before my autopay on Verizon renewed for another month. I could’ve ordered them online but I was hung up on going to the store.

Just out of curiosity I decided to investigate if there were any other prepaid plans from MVNOs that use AT&T’s network, aren’t throttled, and have LTE HD voice calls. Turns out Consumer Cellular does support LTE calls if you ask them to flip that switch on for you. Like anyone else with LTE calling on the AT&T network, you get HD voice with anyone else on an HD voice-enabled AT&T or Verizon phone. That’s not everyone but it’s a lot of people including most of my family.

You can also go on T-Mobile’s network with Consumer Cellular, which is nice if you want to access wifi calling on an unlocked phone. But for me, I’ve been on T-Mobile’s network before and the signal at my house is bad, so it needs wifi calling. I’m far from the sticks, and at my parents’ vacation house out in the sticks T-Mobile has no coverage. Maybe at some point but right now not an option for me.

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I had actually looked at Consumer Cellular in the past but their plans never were the amount of data I wanted. But now I have unlimited talk, text & 20 GB shared data for 2 lines for $75/month.

As you can see from the handy dandy plan calculator on Consumer Cellular’s website, I have basically the most expensive possible plan on Consumer Cellular. If only I were old enough to be an AARP member I could save 5%!

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I was paying $80/month with Verizon prepaid for 7 GB for me and 3 GB for my wife, with rollover data. Consumer Cellular would get me more data, no deprioritization, and keep HD voice calling (with AT&T and Verizon customers) for 5 bucks a month less. Bingo.

I ordered SIM cards, which are free on the website but also available in stores like Target for 10 bucks or something (so don’t buy them in a store when you can order them free!), and they came in the mail the other day. I used my Google Voice number on my computer to call in to customer service to activate my SIMs, and got a nice lady in Anytown, USA where the Consumer Cellular call center is located. She activated the SIMs, and also LTE calling when I asked, but said my numbers were scheduled to port over at 1 am, so I’d have to wait until after then to swap SIMs.

Except, right after that, I got a bunch of texts from Verizon that my account was closed out. I tried to make a call and the service was already off. So I swapped the SIMs and called my wife’s phone from mine. It worked but wasn’t HD voice. We were going out to run an errand and grab dinner but I didn’t think to check data because our phones were connected to our wifi. We headed out, and my wife’s data worked fine, but mine didn’t. Hmm. Whatever.

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When I got home I called Consumer Cellular’s Anytown, USA call center again. Oh, I should mention that Consumer Cellular has their own in-house news radio while you wait on hold. Old people love news radio.

After a short hold, I told the nice gentleman about this. He right away said, “ok we’re going to have to update your Access Point Name settings,” and started trying to walk me through to how to get to that in my phone’s settings, but I know where that is so I was like, “ok I’m there.” Bam. He told me what to put in, I rebooted my phone, and voila, data worked and I had the toggle for Enhanced 4G LTE which is LTE calling.

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Even though my wife’s data was already working, I checked her settings to see if it was the exact stuff the Consumer Cellular guy had told me, and it wasn’t. But her phone had managed to figure out some “AT&T Reseller” APN. Just to make sure everything worked right, especially since my wife was about to fly to Wisconsin to look after her mom who’s having health problems, I entered the same stuff as my phone and rebooted hers. I also downloaded offline maps in Google Maps for her just in case she had any issues with the connection on her trip.

My wife’s at her mom’s now, and we’ve had multiple conversations in HD voice. The Consumer Cellular customer service has been on point, and for me, that plan is all I need and a good price. I’m happy. It’s not just for old people!

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VISUAL VOICEMAIL APPENDIX:

Consumer Cellular and other prepaid plans only offer old-skool touchtone voicemail, or sometimes only iPhone visual voicemail, but often this is no problem as there are third-party voicemail services that you can use to cover this gap. I use YouMail, which has a free tier with some ads and limits on the number of voicemail transcriptions you get per month but otherwise is totally fine and functional visual voicemail. These services all work with a network feature called conditional call forwarding.

Regular call forwarding simply takes all calls dialed to your number and forwards them to some other number. Your phone will no longer ring. But conditional call forwarding only forwards calls in certain conditions, like a missed or declined call. By default, your carrier conditionally forwards your calls to their voicemail dial-in number.

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YouMail and other third-party voicemail services work because many carriers let you dial codes from your phone to change the conditional call forwarding number. The YouMail app has a part of the settings where you pick your carrier and it dials the correct codes for you automatically, and verifies forwarding is working correctly. Simple.

Except when I tried to set up YouMail on my Essential PH-1, it wouldn’t work at all. I kept getting an error. I tried to troubleshoot this on my own and there were a bunch of forum threads about Consumer Cellular straight up not supporting conditional call forwarding. I also tried and failed twice with Consumer Cellular’s U.S.-based, J.D. Power-winning customer service to see if there was some switch they needed to flip on my account to enable conditional call forwarding. They kept trying to walk me through doing it from my phone, like there was nothing to do on their end.

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So I gave up and set up the old-skool BEEP BOP BOOP voicemail, which I really did not like the thought of, because I use my Google Voice number for work, and both it and my personal number both dump their voicemail in YouMail. I told my wife, who was in Wisconsin visiting her mom, to hold 1 on her phone app to set up her BEEP BOP BOOP voicemail.

Disappointed but not defeated, I kept trying to research any other possible solutions, but last night after my wife got home from her trip, I tried to set up the YouMail forwarding on her Moto G5+, just for kicks. I selected AT&T Wireless for the carrier since Consumer Cellular uses their network, and the forwarding activation sequence worked just as it was supposed to on the very first try. When I went into the call forwarding settings on the phone, it was able to talk to the network and show conditional forwarding was now going to the YouMail dial-in number. WTF????????????

So, with this knowledge, I turned off both of our phones, popped the SIMs out, put my SIM in my wife’s phone, and tried to use the YouMail app on her phone to activate forwarding on my line. AND IT WORKED!!!!! I put my SIM back in my phone, and it still gets the errors and can’t make any forwarding changes, but calls still are properly handed off to YouMail. Good enough!

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I have no real explanation for this other than people have been posting in forums about certain phones not being able to access the conditional forwarding settings on AT&T and other companies that use AT&T’s network, for years. At least one phone in my household was able to do it for both of our SIMs.

So all is well, but not without a certain amount of hassle that took some ingenuity on my part to overcome. BUT I DID OVERCOME.

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So, with this, I’m still happy with Consumer Cellular as it meets all of what I want in terms of calling features, coverage, data cap, and no goddamn Verizon congestion throttling. YMMV with Android visual voicemail though.