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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.")

coverage_maps_combined.jpg

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?

* AT&T 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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 19, 2010; 9:18 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Mobile , Telecom  
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Comments

What is the deal with Sprint and other companies focusing on free calling to mobile numbers? If it's not on Sprint's network, why would Sprint even care that it's mobile and not a landline?

Posted by: nashpaul | February 19, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

It's too bad T-mobile's coverage/2G is so limited, since they seem to have the most innovative/consumer friendly approaches (which of course is not saying much).

AT&T because of iPhone and previous phones (GSM). BTW I assume AT&T does *not* unlock iPhones after the contract is up.

Posted by: ah___ | February 19, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

rob - i do not use the phone alot but wanted to have one; i looked at prepaid options and chose boost just because of the monthly price ($20.00 prepaid card good for 90 days).

Posted by: sjannandale | February 19, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

There are more cell phone carriers out there than just the ones in your report. Why not include Cricket, Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, TracFone, and PowerNet Mobile? They may or may not offer all of the features/coverage of the big four, but there may be a definite cost advantage for those whose budgets are limited.

Posted by: Tyelctu | February 19, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Hubby and I have an ATT plan that we've had for years. Union member discount gave us more than we needed. No data or internet since we just don't need it. We have Verizon for home bundle. Verizon calls frequently to get us as cell customers, when I tell them they would have to beat our current plan, they can't. They change tack to buying a new phone and all but, in the end, they can't match our current plan/price. They don't even try.

Posted by: tbva | February 20, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

For those who don't use many minutes, like me, consider this: T-Mobile $100 prepaid card good for 1 year and 1000 minutes. If you don't use the 1000 minutes in a year, then a $10 renewal will carry the remaining minutes for another year, and add 35 more minutes. The minutes can even be bought at a small discount at www.callingmart.com

Posted by: jfehribach | February 20, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

You haven't mentioned Straight Talk which is the best cell phone option in my opinion. Straight Talk runs on Verizon's network nationwide which is a huge plus but it's much cheaper than Verizon's prepaid options. There is a $30 per month plan which gives you 1000 minutes, 1000 texts/MMS's and 30MB of data with free 411 calls or their unlimited minutes, texts/MMS and unlimited data plan for $45 per month. There are only 8 phones to choose from but they range from simple phones to qwerty keypad and a touchscreen phone which looks like an iPhone; so there is something for everyone.

Posted by: Greta3 | February 20, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

sjannandale -

Actually Boost Mobile only requires $10 every 90 days to keep the service (including unlimited - but slow - data on their iDEN phones) going for 90 days; you may not be able to do this via "recharge" cards bought in the store, but you can recharge for this minimum amount online with a credit/debit card (I use a PayPal virtual "Secure Card"). I rarely talk on the phone, but regularly use the Opera Mini browser to surf and use InstaMapper to track myself via GPS, all for no extra cost.

Hard to beat ~$3.34 a month to carry a cellphone!

Posted by: Chalres | February 20, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Rob – I frequently read your column and find it helpful and informative. I use AT&T because I wanted an iPhone, simple as that. It was a definite trade-off switching from Verizon, but oh well. I would add two things to your comparison of wireless service plans:

1. AT&T, if you have a “qualifying” plan (i.e. not the cheapest) lets you call 10 friends (mobile or land lines) for free. While they don’t make it easy, we downloaded and analyzed 6 months worth of cell phone bills to figure out who we spoke to the most, and it has let us go from the 2100 minutes per month family plan down to 1400.

2. Users should find out what service their employer uses for their corporate cell plan. Frequently carriers will offer discounts to those employees, even if it’s not an advertised benefit. Moreover, in my experience once this discount is added it never goes away, even if you leave the company. I get a 7% discount on my service because my employer also uses AT&T. But the size of the discount depends on the carrier and the size of the business plan the corporation uses. Depending on who you work for, this could make a difference.

Posted by: guitarsit1 | February 21, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Rob-

Timely article. My wife and I just switched from Verizon to T-mobile over the weekend.
Here are a couple of thoughts:

Verizon had great coverage, but was much pricier. The Even More Plus plan from T-mobile is great for us: we get 500 minutes, unlimited text/web, for 60 bucks/month, and no contract. Yes, we had to pay full price for the phone, but you actually save over the contract.

Consider---if we got the same plan on contract, it'd be 80 bucks/month (including unlimited txt). Over 2 years, that's 480 bucks---and the phone discount is $270.

It also works out cheaper to get 2 individual plans, rather than a no-contract family plan (~120/mo. vs $150/mo). That may change once our kids have cell phones, but that's years away.

So my advice for shoppers is---look carefully at the 'hidden' cost of the contract price. In many cases, it makes just as much sense to buy the phone, and be contract free.

Also---fed employees typically get a discount at all carriers (inc. T-Mobile, 6% for non-contract) AND can get activation
fees waived.

Posted by: MeinDC2 | February 22, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I chose Verizon by observation. That is, I asked the people what carrier they used when they had to go outside my home to make a phone call. The only people who could use their mobile phones in my home used Verizon. I now use Verizon and have had no dropped calls, can use my phone in stores, garages, basements and have had not roaming problems as long as i remember to update my roaming every month and before I travel. I'll get an IPhone when Verizon carries them.

Posted by: WiniAtlas | February 22, 2010 11:45 PM | Report abuse

Why reward those who would destroy our planet and our freedoms?

Why use AT&T or Verizon? Both turned over their networks to the NSA without a warrant.

And why use Verizon? It sponsored Glenn Beck's show on Fox, as well as a global warming denialist rally organized by big coal's Don Blankenship, CEO and President of Massey Energy, which has destroyed far too much of Appalachia with mountaintop removal mining. Hey, Verizon: Can you hear me know? Global warming denialists won't get my business.

Why not use Credo? 1% of your charges goes to progressive nonprofits you vote on, your bill serves as a progressive newsletter and your phone company as a progressive lobby. They resell Sprint services.

Posted by: NYVegan | February 24, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

We live in rural North Carolina and Altel was the only choice now taken over by Verizon still the only choice. Think about cell phones, high speed internet and other things we take for granted in the big city before you move to that historic rustic rural site where a night out means going to Hardees.

Posted by: mostromanticsites | February 25, 2010 12:53 AM | Report abuse

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