Amid ZTE’s troubles, AT&T’s Cricket turns to Japan’s Freetel

AT&T's Cricket prepaid brand is selling the new Cricket Wave by Freetel in some Best Buy stores, according to Wave7 Research. (Wave7 Research)

AT&T’s Cricket Wireless prepaid brand has started carrying a phone from Japan’s budget smartphone provider Freetel. Although AT&T officials said the carrier inked its distribution deal with Freetel last year, before the U.S. Commerce Department issued a ban on U.S. business with ZTE, the action nonetheless highlights the other options available to U.S. wireless carriers looking for inexpensive phones beyond those from China’s Huawei and ZTE.

Wave7 Research reported that some Best Buy stores are now selling a smartphone built by Freetel and branded the Cricket Wave, for $59.99. That follows a January report from PhoneScoop that the FCC had approved a phone from Freetel for Cricket.

Although AT&T’s addition of a new supplier to its prepaid Cricket brand isn’t necessarily a major development—Cricket also sells phones from the likes of Apple, ZTE, LG and Samsung—it is somewhat noteworthy in light of the U.S. government’s recent crackdown on ZTE. The Commerce Department in April said that U.S. companies could no longer do business with ZTE because the Chinese smartphone company didn’t properly issue penalties on employees involved in violating international sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

Related: Industry Voices—Madden: The impact of the ban on exports to ZTE

That ban reportedly forced ZTE to shut down much of its manufacturing operations, considering U.S. companies like Qualcomm supply many of the components that go into its phones and other equipment. (It’s worth noting that recent reports indicate that the U.S. may rescind those restrictions on ZTE.)

Further, many see the U.S. crackdown on ZTE as part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to challenge the Chinese government’s trade practices; AT&T and Verizon reportedly dropped plans to sell phones from Chinese telecom giant Huawei due to U.S. government security concerns.

Although Huawei has never made headway into the U.S. smartphone market, ZTE is the nation’s fourth largest supplier, having made a substantial footprint in the market for prepaid Android phones.

Thus, AT&T’s addition of Freetel to its Cricket lineup indicates that the carrier has options beyond Chinese smartphone makers like ZTE and Huawei.