We've all had experiences and frustrations with cellular carriers, but do any stand out for respecting customers' privacy? In the US, regardless of the carrier, all cellular calls and SMS text messages are subject to monitoring by "authorities" thanks to the USA Patriot Act.  I'll tell you which carrier I chose and why... and if there is any distinction in terms of privacy rights.

Mobile Network Operators and MVNOs

In the US there are three main mobile network operators, or cellular carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.  They own the infrastructure that their network runs on.  Mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) lease bandwidth from the major carriers and resell it to their subset of customers. MVNOs include companies like Boost, Cricket, Straight Talk, PureTalk, Mint, Tello, and Ting.

Carriers and their Customers' Privacy

After the events of September 11, 2001, the individual's right to privacy in the Western world came under significant attack.  The USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law by George W. Bush, allowing agencies like the FBI, CIA, and NSA to perform warrantless surveillance operations on its own citizens. The most notable example was the discovery by Mark Klein of Room 641A operated by AT&T in the SBC Communications building in San Francisco.  Like many other facilities around the country, it houses the equipment to perform real-time interception and analysis of all customer communication and data. To this day, the surveillance continues unchallenged, perpetrated in the name of "security".

Voice calls and SMS texts made on a cellular network are not encrypted and are continuously intercepted and monitored by government agencies. The major carriers were given gag orders and National Security Letters long ago and simply must bend to the law. We can also assume that since MVNOs use the major carriers' networks, their customers are also being surveilled by the same agencies.

Subtle Advantages to MVNOs

Is there any advantage from one carrier over another, considering the state of massive surveillance?  It is this author's opinion that due to their limited resources, MVNOs are less likely to meddle with and manipulate their customers.

MVNOs have limited resources.  Think about it: advertising and marketing, collecting and requiring personal information just to log in to your account or talk to an agent, employee indoctrination as evidenced by their attitudes toward customers. As any corporation becomes larger, they become more process driven and less personable. Major carriers run manipulation campaigns, make it more difficult to access and change your account and plan, and mandate greater amounts of personal information to do business than in the past.

To offer some anecdotal evidence, our family has done business with Tello since 2019. I never receive annoying mail or unsolicited phone calls. There are no television or online ad campaigns.  The online account is simple and straightforward to use. Every time I call customer service, I speak to a human being and not a robot.  They don't ask me to verify my first pet's name, my secret PIN, or my childhood best friend.  Their service simply works.  I keep my distance and they keep theirs.

This may be unique to Tello and not all MVNOs. After all their customer base is one of the smallest in the US.  But in my opinion, if you find a company that mildly respects your privacy and treats you with an ounce of dignity, then you should stick with them.

The Tello Experience

I've had service with all the major carriers and in every case they leave much to be desired. Switching to Tello was a pleasant surprise. Our monthly payment went from $75 with Sprint to $22.50 with Tello.  The network quality was the exact same (at the time Tello used Sprint's network). They don't pay for brick-and-mortar stores or large advertising campaigns, so customers inherit the savings. I set up the account completely online.  Their online Help Center answered all my questions. The two times I called customer service I was connected almost immediately to an agent who was pleasant, didn't read from a script, and answered my questions without hesitation. The service agreement is month-to-month, no contracts, and I can upgrade or downgrade plans anytime I want. The icing on the cake is their migration from CDMA (Sprint) network to GSM (T-Mobile) network was completely seamless and painless.

Switching to Tello

I believe there is an advantage gained by doing business with an MVNO.  And I consider Tello to be one of the best mobile carriers today. Allow me to summarize why Tello is a better choice:

  • Expect to save - plans start at $5 USD/mo and go to $39 USD/mo for unlimited data
  • No contracts - like most MVNOs Tello does not require a contract
  • Better customer service - generally speaking, you talk to a human; not the run-around with a machine
  • Less invasive - they don't try to sink their claws in you like the major carriers

If you are considering changing carriers, take a serious look at Tello and sign up using my referral link.  You will receive a $10 credit toward a future phone bill. Or simply provide this referral code when you sign up: P3V4Z04N