Picking the best cell phone plan

spectr17

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07/01/2002  

Picking the best cell phone plan

By Richard Mullins, Democrat and Chronicle

Picking the right cell phone service can drive you nuts.

There's the monthly fee, roaming charges, free and not-so-free minutes, plus the sneaking suspicion that no matter how carefully you shop, an ugly bill will appear in the mail.

David Heim of Consumer Reports recently conducted a study of cell phones and plans and said customers most often make the mistake of not getting a plan that meets their needs.

There's no magic formula to decipher the myriad of plans, but at least asking yourself some questions can point you in the right direction.

Most importantly, pick a cellular company that allows you to change plans from month to month without a fee. Otherwise, you could be stuck with a plan that does not work for you.

The companies tested about equal in terms of customer service, Heim said.

So Heim suggests this approach: Pick your profile, pick your plan, then pick a phone.

Heim says you need to decide where you fit as a user: casual, frequent, family or traveler. Almost every plan charges a monthly fee that includes a "basket" of minutes and a per-minute charge after that.

Casual users should pick a less expensive plan with fewer "free" minutes, while a frequent user needs as many minutes as possible because the higher monthly fee will still be much lower than the total bill if you run over the limit and incur per-minute rates.

"My teen-age son needs all the night and weekend minutes he can get," Heim said. "But I need those minutes during the day."

Have a family? Consider wrapping everyone into one plan, especially one that offers cheap or free calls to each other. If you travel frequently, coverage area is important.

Do you need local, regional or national access? Every cell phone company promises "complete coverage," but they accomplish this through "roaming" agreements with other companies to connect your call when they can't. That usually means roaming fees. Ask advice from friends who travel.

David Thiel, a vice president at Auragen Communications in Rochester, N.Y., chose Sprint PCS, mainly for the combination of long-distance minutes and Internet access.

"I've called every time I saw a commercial for a better deal and asked for that rate," Thiel said. Over time he has changed cell plans several times, ending up with 1,000 minutes of daytime use and 2,000 for nights and weekend use for $75 total each month.

"Think seriously about your year ahead," suggested Susan Christoff, a spokeswoman for Sprint PCs"Will you go on a vacation and make a lot of calls from another state? You may need a plan that's flexible enough to handle that."

Besides knowing when, where and how often you expect to use it, choosing the specific phone "depends on what your budget is and how many bells and whistles you want," said John O'Malley, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. Most phones still cost between $70 and $200, depending on features they have, Consumer Reports found in its study.

Test the ones you're considering by calling a friend from the cellular store.

Do you need to read e-mails from work? Make sure the phone has a big enough screen. Should you look instead at an organizer-phone that combines features of a handheld computer and a cell phone?

Once you've decided all these factors, compare plans of different companies to get the best price, experts advise.

"You need to be very careful in picking these plans," Heim said. "We have found that the same type of plan at one company can cost twice as much at another company, just because of things like roaming fees and how they handle their minutes."

Tips for choosing a plan

How to pick the right cellular phone plan:

Pick a type of plan for you — casual, frequent, family or traveler. Some plans charge a monthly fee for an unlimited amount of minutes. Some charge lower monthly fees but also charge for each call and for roaming charges if you keep it on for incoming calls.
Determine what geographic plan you need — local, regional or national access.
Then pick a phone that fits your needs and test it in the store for audio quality.
 

Marty

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Store testing is not always enough.  

Several people here, at work, were talked into the first cellular promotions and found ut later that there was NO reception at the residence.  My own residence sits in a partial shadow from the cell station and is limited in signal reception.  Last year, many of the carriers were installing micro-cells to cover the more troublesome voids.  

In a place like Big Bear, there seems to be one main tower serving the entire valley.  Exit the valley, or go around a hill, and you are in the black.  Also, on a busy weekend, the tower may be busy and not accept an incoming call.

As for plans, start low and increase as necessary.  Carriers like upgrades.
 

foulshot

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I've noticed a slow down in my line of work on new cell sites in San Diego.  I do a lot of the T-1 condtioning for the providers, and back country sites are almost non-existent.  I heard a rumor about sharing sites between providers in the remote areas, we'll see.
 

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