Updated: New T-Mobile MVNO Ultra Mobile is a Good Deal for International Callers and Pay As You Go Data Fans

Ultra Mobile is another of several new prepaid mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) launching this fall. MVNOs resell one of the big four operator’s services, often with lower prices than the parent operator. Ultra will be offering service on the T-Mobile network. They were supposed to launch today, but are based in hurricane ravaged New York City.  The launch has been delayed a bit because of widespread power outages and flooding in the Big Apple. It might still happen today though, Ultra Mobile posted the following on their Facebook Page a few hours ago;

Our head of technology is walking 3 miles through Lower Manhattan to a colo right now so we can launch. He has no internet or power and we need to get him online for launch. The hurricane has pushed us back, but we will be up this afternoon. Hang tight Ultras.”

Update: Ultra Mobile is now live. The ultra.me web site has been updated, there’s now a dealer locator and contact information and it’s possible to order SIMs and activate monthly plans.  I was also able to call Ultra Mobile’s  customer support number today. The support line answered immediately and the rep was able to answer most of my questions. I’ve made updates throughout the post based on my conversation with support and the updated site.

Ultra’s website lists four plans:

Ultra Mobile Plans
Plan Price per Month Voice Text (domestic & international) MMS Data International Call Credit
Ultra PAYGO $8.33 and up1 4.9¢/minute 4.9¢/each ? 4.9¢/MB No extra charge calling to 70 countries
Talk & Text $29 Unlimited Unlimited not available not available None2
Talk &Text, Unlimited Data $39 Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited at 128 Kbps $52
Talk & Text
Unlimited Data
1GB at 4G Speeds
$49 Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited (1 GB at 4G speeds) $202

1 Top up amounts and validity: $10-$24 30 days, $25-$49 90 days, $50-$99 180 days, $100 365 days.
2 Additional international call credit is available for $10 and up. Included international credit expires at the end of each billing cycle and is replenished with a fresh $5 or $20 balance. Purchased international credit does not expire.
All plans include Caller ID, Free 411, Voicemail, and 3 Way Calling. There are no additional taxes or fees on any of the Ultra Mobile plans.

Ultra Mobile SIMs are “free” but there’s a $9.95 shipping and handling fee. SIMs are also available from at least one Ebay seller for 99¢ with free shipping.

The pay as you go plan is definitely the most interesting. It’s listed on the Ultra site as “coming soon”. According to the Ultra rep I spoke to PAYGO should be available sometime next week. Update, Ultra has posted on their Facebook page that PAYGO would be available later this month (Nov., 2012).

PAYGO refills are available starting at $10 which is good for 30 days. Topping up with $25 is a better deal as it lasts for 90 days, making the minimum monthly cost $8.33.  There is rollover if you top up before your balance expires. Data is purchased in advance in 50 MB blocks which cost $2.45 each. It looks like data is drawn from the block in 1 KB increments with a minimum charge of 1 KB per session. The PAYGO plan will also include no extra cost international calling to 70 countries.

Ultra Mobile is competing most directly with Tracfone’s Simple Mobile brand. Both are SIM-only MVNOs that use the T-Mobile native network with no roaming available.

Simple doesn’t have pay as you go so there’s no contest there.  Ultra’s PAYGO plan looks like a winner. The data pricing is the best I’ve seen from any operator and is the first reasonably priced pay as you go data from a GSM operator.

On the monthly side, Simple and Ultra are more alike than different. Both include unlimited international text messaging at no extra cost and have similarly low international voice rates. Here’s a comparison of Simple and Ultra’s rates for calls to land lines in five countries:

Ultra: Canada 2¢, Mexico 2¢, China 2¢, UK 2¢ Philippines 12¢ – Total 20¢

Simple: Canada .83¢, Mexico 1.33¢, China 2¢, UK 1.22¢ Philippines 15.5¢ – Total 20.88¢
Ultra includes $5 or $20 per month of international calls with their $39 and $49 plans, respectively. Simple requires you do buy a $10 International PIN to be able call internationally. Ultra has international direct dialing while Simple makes you dial a nine digit access number before making an international call.  I’d say that if you make international calls, Ultra is both more convenient and the better deal.

Another good deal is Ultra’s $29 Unlimited Talk & Text Plan, which is lowest I’ve seen for unlimited with a US GSM carrier. The only cheaper unlimited plans are MetroPCS’ $25/month promotional plan and Sprint MVNO Liberty Wireless‘ $20 plan. However both of those are  restricted to basic feature phones, with Ultra you can use any compatible GSM phone.

On the other hand, if you use data and don’t call internationally, Simple has one advantage over Ultra. Simple’s $50 plan includes 2 GB of data before throttling, Ultra’s only includes 1 GB at full 4G speeds.

Ultra Mobile is running a contest and the prize is a new Samsung Galaxy S III and a free months service on the $49 plan. You can enter on the Ultra Website or on Ultra Mobile’s Facebook page.