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Why you can’t get a Cricket prepaid iPhone in Chicago

A  tourist uses his iPhone. AP

A tourist uses his iPhone. AP

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Updated: July 6, 2012 10:00AM

The iPhone has always lacked one great feature found in other U.S. smartphones, and even iPhones outside of the country: the option to buy your hardware outright and operate it on a national network on a prepaid, no-contract basis. Cricket Communications (owned by Leap Wireless) has finally broken through that little restriction with the delivery of a pay-as-you-go iPhone that becomes available through stores starting on June 22.

But not in Chicago or some other big-city markets. Leap’s Chicago-area network uses AWS radio frequencies that aren’t supported by the PCS-only iPhone.

Too bad. Cricket’s terms look very good. You can purchase the same 16 gigabyte iPhone 4S or iPhone 4 as the ones sold by Apple, at the non-subsidized prices of $499 and $399. And the monthly rate plans are competitive. $55 a month gets you unlimited voice, text, and data, with free roaming throughout the USA on CDMA networks.

It’s still a mobile phone, so of course there’s some fine print. The “unlimited data” is free from restrictions for up to 2.3 gigabytes of data; after that, Cricket can start throttling down your bandwidth. Secondly, the iPhone’s mobile hot spot and tethering features aren’t active (Cricket says they’re considering it).

So what if you buy a Cricket iPhone in Boston, and try to use it in Chicago?

It’ll work fine, thanks to the iPhone’s roaming ability. However, Cricket doesn’t want to see people importing their pay-as-you-go iPhones. Tourists and business travelers will encounter no difficulties, but locals will run into problems if more than half of their iPhone use in any given month is via roaming.

Apple will happily sell you an unlocked, contract-free 16 gig iPhone 4S for $649. You then have to go out and get your own GSM SIM to make it work on the carrier of your choice . . . which in this country, usually means signing up for a contract and a data plan to make all of its features work.

For now, Cricket offers the only option for a true pay-as-you-go iPhone.

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