Last Saturday I grabbed a UTStarCom CDM7025 with a month of service for $39 plus tax, plus $5 in “Value Pocket” funds from Pocket Communications’ retail outlet in Boerne, TX. Today I returned the phone; reception on that particular handset was poor and there wasn’t a comparably-priced model in stock at my Fredericksburg HEB Pocket kiosk. In the interim though I learned a few things about the company, stuff that’s changed since I last used their service more than two years ago…

  1. Pocket can now “flash” phones at all of their locations, as long as their software is working correctly. The price: free. The upside: you can take your old name-your-CDMA-carrier phone and plunk it down on Pocket’s network without having to shell out for one of the company’s own phone models. The downside: you may not get data access on a non-Pocket phone, depending on the model.
  2. Pocket’s roaming option, available for 19¢ per minute or $5 per month for 50 minutes, mainly picks Verizon as the out-of-area provider. This hapens whenever the Pocket phone can’t pick up a “native” signal, not just if you’re out of Pocket’s licensed service area. This is a good thing in areas where Pocket doesn’t have towers, but at that point you’re limited by how good your phone is at receiving signals.
  3. The UTStarCom 7025, even with its pull-up antenna, was bested by my parents’ Nokia 2126i internal-antenna Tracfones in the reception department. So if you want a Pocket phone with good reception for $39, consider your options narrowed.
  4. Pocket will be expanding to the western side of the Colorado Rockies (to the Grand Juntion area, to be exact) shortly. They appear to be leasing spectrum from ClearTalk PCS, another unlimited-minutes CDMA provider, and they don’t face competition from anyone else in the area as far as cheap unlimited providers go. Rumor has it that Grand Junction will be 3G-enabled, in contrast to the highly competitive-albeit-2.5G Texas market. Guess when you’re priced $5 per month lower than in other markets due to competition there isn’t a whole lot of dough left over to roll out 3G for the handful of customers who will actually care about the tech at this point.
  5. GJ and Texas are 1900MHz markets for Pocket, allowing them to use a plethora of phones, some of them cheap. These markets also allow Pocket to flash phones from other carriers without worrying about whether those carriers support Pocket’s network. In contrast, Pocket’s New England market (also rumored by Teas staff to be 3G) is in the AWS 1700 band, as are the newer network expansions of CricKet and MetroPCS.
  6. Pocket handles voicemail in an interesting way (for a cell phone provider) on their $25 plan: they don’t have it. Remember when your landline phone would ring “forever” without an answering machine on the other end? Seems like Pocket is the same way, which makes it a great fit for Google Voice forwarding or the like. Then again, if your phone’s off, callers will hear a message like the following: “Pocket Communications. Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please try again later.
  7. Pocket now has some nice phones on their network, thanks to their rather large-for-a-regional size (over 300,000 customers) and use of standard frequency bands in the Texas area. While they do have a number of AWS-equipped handsets in their lineup (including multiple models from ZTE and Kyocera, plus a Huawei phone or two) their upper echelon is star-studded with the likes of Motorola’s VE20, a phone that sells on Pocket for a mere $100 more than on Sprint…with a two-year contract! On the other hand, the newer mid-range Pocket phones all have AWS radios , and include such standard fare as the Motorola VE240 and the Nokia 1006 (both of which are lovely entry-level phones by the way).
  8. If you want stellar rural coverage, look elsewhere. Pocket doesn’t have that quite down. Then again, that’s not their business model, and their coverage map doesn’t set up any false expectations. Wherever they say they cover, they cover. No dropped calls due to overloaded networks, no “it should work here but doesn’t” areas, no roaming where home coverage is advertised. Then again, get a phone with good reception so you’ll get better-than-advertised coverage; chances are that, if you’re traveling around the hill country, you’ll need it. Less so in markets that are easier RF-wise.
  9. Pocket’s customer service is just fine. I’d say excellent, but the guy I talked to on the phone didn’t know off the top of his head that shortcode-based SMS still doesn’t work on the carrier (a blessing and a curse…no stupid ringtone deals either). The IVR tree is exactly one level deep: press one for English, 2 para Español. You’re connected with a live rep mere seconds later. Now that’s service.

The bottom line: I like rooting for the home team by default, especially when they haev a great product. Pocket is “gettin’ there” even in an area that’s hard to cover in terms of cell towers, with prices lower than a landline for a similar feature set. Plus, you can get phone numbers with the 777 prefix. Now how cool is that?