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Sunday, November 23, 2003

Deciding on a cell-phone plan takes time, research

By KAREN SPILLER Telegraph Staff
spillerk@telegraph-nh.com


As a wife and mother, Laura Moran needs to be connected to her family. But she says finding the best cellular phone carrier has been frustrating.

“There are too many choices, I think that’s the problem,” the Merrimack resident, who recently switched her service provider, said on a recent visit to the Verizon Wireless store in south Nashua.

She decided to switch her service provider after months of poor reception in her home. She settled on Verizon Wireless, the world’s largest service provider, after polling friends and neighbors.

On the Net
Federal Communications Commission: www.fcc.gov
AT&T Wireless: www.attws.com
Cingular Wireless: www.cingular.com
Nextel: www.nextel.com
Sprint PCS: www.sprintpcs.com
T-Mobile USA: www.t-mobile.com
Verizon Wireless: www.verixonwireless.com
These sites offer useful tips, including price comparison charts and lists of area providers:
www.wirefly.com
www.decide.com
www.letstalk.com
www.point.com
www.numberportability.com
www.cellupdate.com.

But switching was only half the battle. Then she had to pick a phone.

“You go to stores and you see they have three or four different brands,” she said.

A number of major national wireless phone companies are competing for business in New Hampshire, and the choices are likely going to get even more confusing in the coming weeks.

Starting Monday, new Federal Communications Commission rules will allow cell-phone users in the 100 most populous metropolitan areas in the country (Nashua isn’t one of them) – to keep their numbers when they switch to competing wireless providers serving the same local area.

By May 24, the rules will apply to everyone else, including Hillsborough County residents, who do not fall into the top 100.

The deadline means a lot of good deals to lure customers. Some companies, such as Verizon, are offering free phones to get people to switch, and others, such as Sprint, are giving unlimited night minutes starting earlier than normal, such as 7 p.m. instead of the normal 9 p.m. Cingular has a unique deal, offering 500 bonus rollover minutes. And those are just a few examples.

“It’s definitely overwhelming,” said Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for Consumer Action, a national consumer advocacy group in San Francisco. “And it’s not cheap. I’ve never seen a plan for less than $40 (a month).”

Picking a provider

So, how do you know which company has the best deal? Just about every magazine, newspaper and television ad has a different answer, depending on who’s advertising.

The major national companies are AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. There are also a number of local providers, including U.S. Cellular, which also serves the Greater Nashua area.

Verizon, for instance, has its famous “Can you hear me now?” commercial, while T-Mobile uses actress Catherine Zeta-Jones it its ads.

“Most people make decisions not because of the price points, but because a celebrity comes on TV and tells you how great it is,” said Michael Brabans, a consultant with independent telecommunications consulting firm Schooley Mitchell Telecom Consultants.

Instead of helping, such ads have only made matters more frustrating for people such as Brian Ahrent of Nashua.

Cell phones have become a part of everyday life for Ahrent, whose first was purchased for emergencies only. But after he began using the phone for nonemergencies and traveling out of the service area, the bills added up.

When his two-year contract ended, he upgraded to a new phone and then went with a different service provider. Problem is, the phone doesn’t always work when and where he needs it. Now he’s looking for another provider.

“The thing that stinks is that there’s very few ways to research for a decent cell-phone service that will work for you,” he said. “Yeah, you can look at their coverage area, but that’s just sales spin. You can ask around, but if the people don’t travel to the same areas you’re having trouble getting service, then it’s useless.

“Basically all of the cell services out there have their pros and cons. I don’t know who I’ll choose next.”

He’s not alone. More than 145 million people in the United States have cell phones, and about a third of them change carriers each year, according to the FCC.

Before signing up with just any company, consumers should do research.

The thing not to do, said Sherry, is compare plans based on how the companies market themselves.

“They just don’t give you all the information,” she said. “I recommend asking friends and family what provider they use and are they happy.”

That increases the odds that you’ll have service when you need it, she said.

Instead, compare prices. Short of printing out each company’s plans and placing them side-by-side, there’s no easy way to compare. Most companies offer similar rates, though the number of minutes and bundled packages vary.

Many basic plans start at $39.95. For instance, T-Mobile offers one of the least expensive calling plans, with packages such as $40 for 1,000 anytime minutes. Sprint PCS lowered prices in October, and now offers packages such as one charging $50 for 700 anytime minutes with unlimited night and weekend calling and nationwide long-distance.

Besides price, other important considerations are coverage and reliability. Sherry recommends asking for a trial period during which you can use the phone for some time without a penalty if you cancel.

Verizon Wireless, for instance, has a “worry-free guarantee,” which gives customers 15 days to try the service. If a user doesn’t like it, he or she can cancel without penalty.

Before picking a calling plan, consider whether you want analog or digital service. The older analog systems transmit sounds on radio waves and have the most extensive coverage, especially in rural areas. Digital systems give clearer reception and are necessary for features such as wireless Internet and e-mail.

Choosing a plan

After choosing the carrier, the next step is to choose the calling plan. Companies offer dozens of plans from the basics to packages with unlimited extras.

Lifestyle is the big issue when choosing a plan, said Brabans, the consultant with Schooley Mitchell Telecom Consultants.

You need an idea of how much you want to spend each month and how often you think you’ll use your phone, he said.

“Most people would probably think the usage would be small, but find they use it more than they first considered,” Brabans said.

Reviewing your bill each month will help you learn your calling habits and ensure you’re on the proper plan, he said.

Local plans usually encompass a small area, and calls outside incur extra roaming charges. For example, if you live in Nashua but were visiting Florida, every local call you made on vacation would be charged a roaming fee per minute.

Regional plans cover a larger area, sometimes several states.

National plans usually offer free roaming, which happens when you use your phone outside of the local calling area. While these plans are all-inclusive, they’re also more expensive with fewer minutes. Brabans said national plans are best for people who travel and do not want to pay roaming or long distance fees.

Family plans let family members pool their minutes and use them on several phones.

Another factor that can confuse people is how companies define weekend or nighttime minutes. Some companies define night hours after 9 p.m., while others start at 8 p.m.

Prepaid plans are best for those who don’t want to exceed their cell-phone budget, Brabans said. Most companies charge a start-up fee and customers “refill” phones by buying minutes. Prepaid rates are sometimes higher than traditional plans, however.

“Before you make a decision to buy a cell phone, it might not be a bad idea to do a trial run with a prepaid,” he said.

To avoid surprises in your bill, Brabans suggests checking periodically to see how many minutes you’ve used. He said most cell phones have a feature that allows you to monitor the minutes for the month. Minutes can also be checked online.

Too many consumers don’t do the research, and end up with a plan they don’t like, added Consumer Action’s Sherry.

“We do hear from a lot of people who feel ripped off because they didn’t know the plan didn’t cover this or that,” she said, adding that “dead spots” are also common.

Many Web sites help you sort out cell phone rates.

Letstalk.com has a site that helps you pick a plan by answering multiple-choice questions based on your needs and where you live. Wirefly.com launched a site it says will be the most information about the major U.S. carriers.

What about picking a phone?

Just when you thought the work was done after picking the best company and plan, there’s still the phone.

Between size, weight and a rainbow of colors, there are lots of choices. Many now come with built-in cameras and MP3 players.

Brabans suggests that unless you need a high-tech phone with all the toys, just get the basic one.

“If you’re not going to really use a camera phone,” he said, “what’s the advantage of it?”

Karen Spiller can be reached at 594-6446


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