Cell esteem: How to shop for wireless phone service
Today's column covers what should be a perennial topic in these parts: how to pick a wireless phone service. But last year, I somehow didn't get around to it -- worse yet, my last piece on the subject ran back in May 2008.
(If you don't want to click through to that piece, just know that one of my editors wrote that reading it this week was "like reading from a history book.")
Since that summer, the phone market has changed enormously: Unlimited-calling plans are now commonplace, the iPhone is no longer the only smartphone people brag about, all the major services work in some underground Metro stations; per-message texting fees have become more of a ripoff.
One thing about the wireless market hasn't changed: how inherently confusing it can be. As BillShrink notes in its detailed chart comparing phone plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, there are some 10 million rate-plan combinations available. (BillShrink has a plan-finder tool worth checking out, but I don't think it weighs coverage or smartphone preferences heavily enough.)
In today's column, I offer my own take on how to shop for service, starting with coverage (the maps at right show each carrier's depiction of its voice network -- from top to bottom, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- with each resized to the same width) and then going through issues such as competing wireless standards, calling plan allotments and quirks, texting and data options, and smartphone availability.
While I was comparing these options, a few things jumped out at me:
* I wish every provider had an option like T-Mobile's Even More Plus plans, which let customers pay a lower monthly rate in return for giving up the usual hidden subsidy on the purchase of a new phone.
* Sprint's Any Mobile, Anytime -- that is, free calling to any other mobile number -- is a terrific deal, but it makes me wonder who would buy the company's unlimited-calling plans. With almost as many wireless subscriptions as living humans in the United States, how much time can any one person spend calling landline numbers these days?
and T-Mobile's data-coverage maps fail to distinguish between 2G and 3G coverage, which seems less than honest and invites the scorn Verizon has been heaping on AT&T with those "there's a map for that" ads. (Correction: If you zoom in one level from the nationwide map on AT&T's site, you can click a checkbox to display areas of 3G coverage.)
* It's not surprising when carriers don't tout customer-unfriendly limits to their service, but it is a surprise when they don't highlight customer-friendly policies. Cases in point: AT&T doesn't advertise that it won't unlock a phone for use on another GSM network until you've completed your contract, but T-Mobile has yet to brag much that it will unlock its phones just 40 days into a contract.
How did you pick your current wireless provider? Tell me how you made that call in the comments, along with what advice you'd give to somebody shopping for their own service. Then stop by my Web chat -- featuring our new, improved chat design -- from noon to 1 p.m. today to discuss things in real time.
February 19, 2010; 9:18 AM ET
Categories: Gadgets , Mobile , Telecom
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