Mobile Computing: Avoid Cell Phone Woes

Feature: Avoiding Wireless Service Woes

When it comes to wireless phone or data service, it often feels like consumers are on their own. Think about it: When else have you been required to sign a contract just for the privilege of receiving expensive, unreliable service?

I could go on and on about my own wireless service woes. But I'll spare you the tedious details. Instead, I'll offer tips on finding a service plan that offers maximum coverage and minimal frustration.

Comparison-Shop

Several Web sites offer an overview of mobile phone plans, including current rates, special offers, and so forth. Here are a few to get you started:

Ask Your Friends

Before signing a contract, ask friends and colleagues in your area about their wireless provider. Which carrier and device (such as a smart phone) do they use? Are they happy with their service? If so, why? If not, why not? Where is voice reception the best--and where is it nonexistent?

Check Consumer Reports

Read Consumer Reports' most recent annual report on wireless service. Consumer Reports recently surveyed 39,000 of its readers in 17 metro areas to rate their cell phone service. Overall, Verizon Wireless was number one in customer satisfaction. T-Mobile was usually number two, and AT&T Wireless (now part of Cingular Wireless) was nearly always at the bottom. Sprint, Cingular, Nextel, and some regional carriers (such as Alltel) landed somewhere in between the top- and bottom-ranked carriers, depending on the metro area.

The survey results appeared in the Consumer Reports February 2005 issue and on its Web site. A subscription is required to access the magazine's online content, however. At $19 a year for magazine subscribers, $26 a year for others, the subscription is well worth it.

By the way: Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, is actively involved in the effort to strengthen the rights of wireless phone users. For more information, check out its site, EscapeCellHell.org.

Get the Scoop

Before you decide on a wireless voice/data device, check out Phone Scoop. This smart, easy-to-use, free site provides multiple ways to browse the current cell phone, smart phone, and wireless PDA models. For example, the site's Phone Finder lets you filter search results by carrier, average user rating, maximum weight, form factor, operating system, antenna type, and more.

Of course, you can also read reviews of wireless devices at PC World's Web site.

Check Coverage Maps

Before you sign a contract, make a list of all the places you frequently visit. Then check your current or potential carrier's coverage map, to ensure they provide service in your region and frequent destinations. (Every wireless service provider is required to provide accurate, up-to-date maps of its coverage areas.)

Here are links to the major carriers' coverage maps:

Don't Sign a Two-Year Contract

Wireless carriers offer new customers great prices on cell phones--sometimes they even give them away. But beware: Usually to get that great price, you must sign a two-year contract.

Unless you're already using and are satisfied with a carrier's service, stick with a one-year contract. Otherwise, if you become dissatisfied with the service, you must pay about $175 to bail out early.

Do the Math

Before you jump to a new wireless plan, get your last six months of cell phone bills. Add up your in-plan voice minutes used; divide that by six for the average. (Don't include in your calculations the unlimited night/weekend minutes used if those minutes are free.) Now total and average any data-related charges for the six-month period.

The calculations should provide a fairly accurate picture of your typical voice and data usage. With that information, you can more easily pick a voice or data service plan that fits your needs.

The bottom line: Avoid a service plan that doesn't provide you enough voice minutes, which is costly, or gives you more minutes than you use, which is wasteful. Of course, you can always change plans with your carrier without penalty. The downside, however, is you must start a brand-new contract to do so.

Your Tips?

Do you have a suggestion for finding the best wireless plan with the fewest gotchas? If so, Send me e-mail.

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