Nine million U.S. consumers rely on the prepaid cellphone service Boost, formerly a division of Sprint. But a complex series of maneuvers by T-Mobile, AT&T and Dish Network may leave those customers without service early next year.
Officials at the U.S. Justice Department have expressed "grave concern" over the possibility of a Boost shutdown in January 2022. It all has to do with T-Mobile's takeover of Sprint last year, in a deal brokered by the Trump Justice Department.
There was opposition to T-Mobile's takeover of Sprint when it was announced because it would have left the U.S. with only three major wireless competitors. As a sop to consumer concerns, Dish Network agreed to take over Boost, thus keeping some semblance of competition at the lower end of the scale.
But Boost doesn't have its own network. When it was owned by Sprint, it used Sprint's old 3G network. Now that T-Mobile owns Sprint, it plans to shut down the 3G network and use the capacity to further expand its 5G service.
T-Mobile has a seven-year agreement with Dish but when it upgrades the old 3G network – which uses an obsolete system called CDMA – Boost's phones won't work on the upgraded network, which won't be CDMA.
“Our projections show a material amount of customers on Jan. 1 will lose their service, and again this is the most economically challenged group in America" - Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen
Justice has "grave concerns" about shutdown
Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen said Monday that the majority of Boost’s customers are on the T-Mobile CDMA network and are thus at risk of losing service, according to Bloomberg.
Dish has reached agreement on a five-year agreement wiht AT&T to take over the Boost network but customers will need new phones, since their old phones won't work on the more modern network.
T-Mobile says the fuss is much ado about nothing.
“If Dish was really concerned for customers, they would simply take real action and get their customers new phones on time, before the network upgrade happens, just as T-Mobile is doing for affected Sprint customers. It’s that simple,” T-Mobile Chief Executive Officer Mike Sievert wrote on a company blog Monday.
The Justice Department says it has "grave concerns about the potential for a nationwide CDMA shutdown to leave a substantial proportion of Boost’s customers without service,” according to a letter to Dish and T-Mobile from Richard Powers, acting head of the department’s antitrust division.
The Justice Department could go to court to block the network shutdown but until then, Boost customers are in limbo and should begin planning what they'll do if the shutdown goes forward.
Other prepaid cellphone services
Although it is the largest prepaid cellphone service, Boost is by no means the only one. ("Prepaid" means customers don't have a contract and buy the service month-to-month. They may have to buy their own phones in some cases).
Here are some prepaid services that get high marks from consumer review sites. You can bring your own phone but it will have to be 4G/5G compatible. All the carriers sell phones at market rates. You might be able to find a better price on a phone at Amazon, Circuit City or other electronics sellers. Be sure you get one that will work with the service you're signing up for.
(These listings are for your information only. They are not ads. We don't get paid if you click on the links.)
Mint Mobile - $15 per month for 4gb of 4G or 5G data, with unlimited calling. Phones from $729.
Verizon - $40 per month for 5gb of 4G or 5G data, with unlimited calling. Phones from $799.
AT&T - $50 per month for 5gb of 4G or 5G data with unlimited calling. Phones from $279.
T-Mobile - Unlimited 4G data, unlimited calling. Phones from $999.
If you sign up for a prepaid plan, read the conditions carefully. Some plans include free calling to Mexico and elsewhere, others don't. Some include free hotspot data, others don't. Pick the one that's right for you. Remember, with a month-to-month plan, you can change at any time. You're not locked in.