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How to choose a mobile carrier for your small business

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How to Choose a Mobile Carrier for Your Small Business
Although you may have only a handful of major wireless providers to choose from, each offers an array of plans, services, devices, and pricing. Voice, messaging, and data aren’t the only options now that you have mobile Internet for laptops, tablets, and even mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

This guide steps through the important features and hidden fees to watch for when you're selecting a mobile provider. If you're in the market for a carrier to keep your staff connected and productive, read on. If you're looking for a handset and service plan for yourself alone, start with PCWorld's consumer cell phone buying guide.

Assess Your Needs

First, evaluate the kinds of services your organization must have. For instance, traveling salespeople might need mobile phones, but can the office-bound do without? If those staffers use only basic talk or texting, then feature phones (or "dumb" phones) should do the job. If they need email, Web access, and apps, however, go with a smartphone. Note that even though you can get a free smartphone when signing a contract, that arrangement usually requires committing to a data plan of $30 or more per line.

AT&T, among other carriers, walks you through choosing small-business products.
As for choosing a voice-minutes package, most providers offer free calls on nights and weekends. Therefore, start with a daily workday estimate of the minutes and multiply that by 21 for the month. Does your staff require text or multimedia messaging? Estimate how many messages per day and per month each person will use. From there, pick one of the bundles that cover a set amount of messages, or select an unlimited option.

What about a data plan for checking email, using GPS navigation, browsing the Web, or accessing Internet applications for work? Most providers--including the big four, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon--offer a data calculator to estimate usage. Keep in mind that your employees will typically have “free” data usage within the office if you provide Wi-Fi and their phones are connected. But don’t bank on using just Wi-Fi, since most providers require that $30-or-higher monthly data plan per line for you to get the special pricing on smartphones regardless.

How many of your employees travel often enough to need an Internet connection on their laptops, netbooks, or tablets? If one staffer has a mobile phone with a data plan, could that person use the phone's Internet connection via tethering instead of purchasing exclusive access for his or her other mobile devices? Or, if multiple employees typically travel together, could you provide Internet to all through a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot?

If the mobile carrier also provides Internet and phone service for the office, it's worthwhile to get quotes for a package that bundles wired and wireless service.

Consider Regional Carriers

No doubt you've heard of the major mobile providers, but regional carriers might also serve your area. Most of these companies don’t limit coverage to your region alone, but allow free roaming throughout most of the United States via agreements with larger networks. Most lack international roaming, however.

Check the coverage areas of popular regional carriers Cricket Wireless, MetroPCS, and U.S. Cellular for starters. In addition, think about prepaid smartphone options: They can save you a bundle, especially if your employees don't need a handset for the long term.

Examine Contracts and Fees

As you likely know from dealing with your personal mobile service, providers are eager to bulk up their contracts and fees. They draw you in with discounts on hardware, and then keep you by requiring contracts--typically for two years, for each line of service.

How to Choose a Mobile Carrier for Your Small Business
If your business already has mobile service, confirm whether the provider's contracts hold you back from switching carriers. Breaking such contracts means paying an early-termination fee--usually $150 to $350 per line, prorated based on the time remaining. Still, parting ways is smart if you can save even more money in the long term by changing providers. If only a few individuals have mobile service at your company, sites such as CellSwapper put people who want to trade providers in touch.

Remember, however, that some providers, such as AT&T, won’t prorate the final month’s service charges. In that case, wait until near the end of the monthly billing period to cut the service.

Most mobile carriers require an activation fee, typically $35 per line. Additionally, each could charge 15 percent or more of the monthly service amount to cover taxes, government fees, and the carrier's own administrative fees. You’re also subject to overage charges if employees exceed the plan’s minutes, messages limit, or data cap. That's why you should check with providers on what limitations or monitoring features they have, and whether such offerings are for a free or premium service.

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