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Lost in the Thicket of Cellular Plans? Try This
By KEN BELSON
O the uninitiated, shopping for a cellular phone plan can be akin to
preparing your taxes: you know you need to do it, but the sheer volume of
information can make the task time-consuming, confusing and potentially
Worse, there are often conflicting or overlapping stories from friends,
family and colleagues about what works and what doesn't. And the blizzards
of advertisements - often showing hip, 20-something models with their
cellphones - make it all look too easy.
Fear not. A handful of basic techniques can help you find a reliable plan
that meets your needs. With a bit of pluck and patience, you may even
unearth deals that would make the best haggler proud.
First, ask yourself the same questions you would ask on any shopping trip:
How much will I use it, and how much am I prepared to spend? The answers can
help you decide on the value of a plan's price, free minutes and coverage -
but can also let you eliminate a chunk of service-plan and phone choices.
Suppress the urge to buy a cellphone immediately. While it is easier to shop
for something that you can see and feel, it is often better to choose a
service plan first. Over the life of a contract, your monthly expenses will
add up to more than the price of the phone. Selecting a plan first will also
narrow the choices about which phone you can buy. The longer the contract,
the bigger the potential discount on the phone itself.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of plans. But Web sites can help sort the
information. For example, www.letstalk.com lets you plug in a ZIP code and
find plans available in that area. Listed in descending order by price, they
can be compared by their numbers of free minutes, night and weekend rates
and other options.
Another consideration is whether you are buying a phone for yourself, for
your job or for some combination of the two. Even if you have to pay for
your phone, your employer may be able to get you a discount on your monthly
bill. And, to save more money, add your spouse or children to a family plan
rather than getting separate contracts.
And scan the newspapers. Companies often roll out one-time deals that are
available only in specific cities or regions, and only for a few weeks. The
deals are offered in part to keep customers from jumping ship. As of last
November, cellphone companies must let people keep their numbers even after
they switch companies.
Typically, promotions tend to offer more free minutes per month, not lower
prices. While it is comforting to have a huge cushion of minutes, at a
certain point only Robin Williams could talk long enough to use all the
time. Still, in any given month, it is better to have more time than less:
if you exceed your limit, companies charge 30 to 45 cents a minute. At those
prices, a bill can snowball quickly.
Many plans offer free calls during evenings and on weekends. The definitions
vary for these off-peak hours, but they typically start at 9 p.m. and end at
6 a.m. But are you really going to call your friends late at night to save
minutes? If you do save some free minutes each month, consider a plan that
lets you roll over unused minutes.
Once you have decided roughly how often you will use the phone, figure out
how much you want to spend. That isn't easy if you are getting a cellphone
for the first time, but consider this: Americans spend $54 a month, on
average, on their cellphones. That includes taxes, plus fees and surcharges
levied by the companies.
When estimating the cost, leave yourself some wiggle room. Many consumers
end up paying more than they thought they would, especially during the
honeymoon phase when they cannot wait to call everyone they know from
unusual places, like the bleachers at Yankee Stadium.
Another trade-off involves the length of the contract. To get a cheaper
monthly rate, or a lower price on a phone, you often have to sign a contract
for one or two years. Make that choice carefully, because breaking a
contract can set you back as much as $200 - and that does not include the
cost of buying a new phone if you switch companies.
Coverage, of course, is also important. No cellphone provider has
consistently good reception everywhere. The six biggest companies, as ranked
by number of subscribers - Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, AT&T
Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile and Nextel - have decent reception in most major
cities. But coverage often differs out of the urban areas.
"All coverage is local," said Roger Entner, the director for the wireless
and mobile services practice at the Yankee Group, a market research firm.
"The 'best' carrier might not be the best where you are."
Verizon tends to have better service in the Northeast, while Sprint is
stronger in the West. Cingular and AT&T Wireless will presumably broaden
their coverage once their merger is completed later this year.
Companies continue to roll out attractive plans. The GSM America plan from
AT&T Wireless gives customers 450 minutes a month, with no roaming or
long-distance charges, for a $39.99 monthly fee. The NDC Plus Plan from
Nextel has unlimited minutes for $199 a month.
THEN there are globetrotters like Steven Korowitz who want to take along
their phones when they travel overseas. Mr. Korowitz, 38, who works at a
bank in New York, was happy with his service at Sprint. But he switched to
Cingular because he found a phone that he could use in Europe, which he
visits several times a year.
"If you're not underground, you get a strong signal, and I don't need an
international number," he said. "I was on the Eurostar and I had service all
the way from London to Paris," except when he was in the English Channel
If only the reception were that good in Brooklyn, Mr. Korowitz groused.
Companies often lease access to their rivals' signal towers, but even then,
coverage can vary from town to town and even street to street.
In a burst of disclosure, Cingular warned in one brochure that its "coverage
may be affected by such things as terrain, weather, foliage, buildings and
other construction, signal strength, customer equipment and other factors."
So what's left?
Some companies have detailed maps of their local coverage. But the only real
way to be sure that your phone will work in your home, your office and
during your commute is to take advantage of the 14- or 30-day trial period
offered by most companies.
That would have saved Michael Lee months of annoyance. Soon after he signed
up for a $45-a-month plan with T-Mobile about six months ago, said Mr. Lee,
29, a hobby shop owner from Onondaga, N.Y., near Syracuse, he discovered
that his phone did not work in or near his home.
After five months of being rebuffed, he said, the company allowed him to
cancel his two-year contract without paying a fee, citing a "no coverage"
clause. Richard Brudvik-Lindner, a spokesman for T-Mobile, said he could not
comment on Mr. Lee's case.
Mr. Lee is now exploring other deals, including pay-as-you-go plans that let
him switch carriers more easily because they do not require that he sign a
"I would definitely use the trial period now that I know this," he added.
The only drawback is that you have to pay for the calls you make, and trial
periods include only 30 or 45 minutes of talking time. If you exceed that
limit, the company may not take back the phone or let you break your
contract. Talk about a tax.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company |
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