Reduce Your Mobile Phone Bill

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I'm just taking a wild guess here, but I'll bet your monthly cell phone bill is higher than you'd like it to be. If you use a smart phone, like a RIM BlackBerry or Apple iPhone, you're particularly vulnerable to high monthly bills, what with the data and text messaging plans. Even though you're locked into a contract with your wireless provider, there are ways you can get your mobile phone bills under control.

Obviously, one way to reduce your monthly bill is to switch to a less expensive plan with fewer minutes. But you've got other options, too. Here are four.

1. Text for Free

You don't have to pay to send and receive text (SMS) messages. For example, a number of iPhone Apps enable you to text people at no charge. Usually, these programs, such as Freedom SMS (a $2 app), send your texts to a recipient's cell phone via your e-mail account. Responses are received as e-mail, too. While not ideal, it can save you $5 and up on monthly SMS charges.

I've also read reports that you can send and receive free SMS messages using the free AIM for iPhone app, though I haven't tried it.

Alternatively, Gmail users can send and receive texts for free from their computers, using the Google Talk chat feature.

2. Avoid Directory Assistance

Unless you're driving, it makes no sense to pay $1.50 to $2 for a 411 call on your mobile phone. Instead, text the name of a business or person as well as the city and state to Google's text-message information service at 466453. You'll receive a text back, with the desired phone number. You can use this service to get weather updates, foreign language translations, currency conversions, flight updates, driving directions, and more. The Google service is free, though you'll have to pay for the text messages (unless you follow tip number one, above). You can also dial 800/466-4411, another Google service, for free directory assistance.

3. Use VoIP Whenever Possible

Did you ditch your landline phone in favor of your cell? Then you're a prime candidate for a Voice over IP (VoIP) service, which may help you switch to a cheaper voice plan with fewer minutes. You could use the VoIP service at home, in a hotel room, or at the office, saving your cell phone minutes for when you really need them.

With a service like Skype or Vonage, you can send and receive calls over the Internet at huge discounts. Let's consider Skype for a second. Using a free Skype account, you can call anyone with a Skype account for free. You can also video chat with other Skype users.

Another advantage to Skype: You can use your cell phone number as your Skype caller ID. That way, when you call someone using Skype, they'll see your cell phone number and know it's you.

Skype has several versions available, for the iPhone, Windows Mobile, and other phones. That means you don't have to sit at your computer to use your Skype account for free calls. You can use any version of Skype to call landline and cell phone numbers, at really low rates (beginning at 2.1 cents per minute).

There are limitations to mobile Skype, however. For example, Skype for iPhone currently only lets you make calls over a Wi-Fi network. And the Skype for iPhone app has to be open for you to receive calls.

By the way, the upcoming Google Voice service might help you reduce your mobile phone bill, too. With the service, all calls coming to your Google Voice number simultaneously ring on your cell phone and on other phones you designate, such as a landline. You could then answer the call on your landline, thus preserving your mobile phone minutes.

4. Ask for Discounts or Incentives

Call your mobile phone service provider to ask for discounts; you might be surprised by what they'll offer.

For example, some wireless carriers will give you a monthly discount (say, 10 percent) if you're a member of an employee or credit union. In most cases, they won't mention this to you up front, however.

Even if they can't offer you monthly discounts, the customer service reps at your wireless provider might be able to offer you savings of some kind. Recently, when I called AT&T Wireless, a rep said she couldn't give me a break on my iPhone 3G voice or data plan. But she did give me an extra 500 rollover minutes per line (I'm on a two-line family plan), and she removed about $6 worth of charges from my most recent bill.

So here's my advice: Give your most recent cell phone bills a good, long look-see, to identify if there is room to cut and to get an idea of your usage patterns. Then call your provider and ask if there is some way to reduce your monthly charges, or if there are any discounts or incentives they can offer.

Above all, always be pleasant and patient. The AT&T rep I spoke to put me on hold way too many times, but she did it in order to look for discounts on my behalf. At the end of our 10-minute conversation, she gave me the 1000 extra rollover minutes because, in her words, "you've been so patient."

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Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have Mobile Computing e-mailed to you each week.

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