Cell phone carriers: Consumers have many options to navigate

Competition between major cell phone carriers is fierce as they clamor to offer you not just a cell phone, but a “smartphone,” a mini-computer that happens to make phone calls as well!

Using research from Consumer Reports and PC magazine, BBB offers the following tips for choosing a cell phone carrier and equipment to get the service and phone features that meet your needs.

Phones: Bluetooth and a built-in camera are great, but they would be a waste of money if you’re not going to use them. If you’re on the hunt for must-have technology, think about how you are going to use your phone and consider a plan without all the extras. Aside from data features, make sure the device has a comfortable keypad, and that the screen and buttons are large enough to see comfortably. Also, ensure that the earpiece is loud enough. In many cases, free, inexpensive phones tend to have insufficient volume.

Plans: Typical introductory plans are for two years and impose hefty cancellation fees. These contracts offer incentives on phones, services and packages to sweeten the deal.

Next, there are monthly plans. Cricket and some others fall into this category. There may be options to pay by the minute if you don’t require lots of cell time and you probably have to pay more to purchase a phone.

When choosing a plan today, it’s not just the phone (remember roaming charges?) calls and text messaging that count, but data plans also must be taken into account. If you use your phone only for texting and phone calls, choose a carrier that offers these services without a “data plan” which is required for smartphones that offer access to e-mail, appointments, office documents and a host of applications. Infrequent mobile phone users should look seriously at prepaid, pay-by-the-minute phones.

It is helpful to calculate your typical usage. Look at old phone bills and determine your average minute use and calling patterns and take those into consideration as well.

You’re better off overestimating the number of “anytime” minutes rather than paying overage charges and you can easily change your rate plan — though that may require extending your contract.

Coverage: The bottom-line: test reception before you buy. There’s no point having a cell phone if you have poor reception or frequently dropped calls. Ask your carrier if you can test a phone’s service reception before you finalize the contract.

While smaller and regional carriers may offer more value in the form of less expensive plans, the trade-off may be coverage. Small carriers may supplement their voice coverage with roaming agreements. On average, the smaller a carrier’s coverage map, the cheaper the plans.

Coverage maps are good as a general guide, but beware of unmarked dead zones. Ask around and see what friends, co-workers and neighbors have to say. Use of your carrier’s no-penalty return period to make sure your phone works where you need it. Check out www.CellReception.com. Type in your zip code to find cell phone towers registered with the Federal Communications Commission. The more towers your carrier has, the better reception you’re likely to have.

Service: BBB receives complaints against all carriers, but it’s important to consider the size of the company in relation to the volume of complaints and how quickly they are resolved. You can compare carriers at bbb.org.

Before you sign on the dotted line, ask: How long is the grace period for testing the service and phone?

How long is the contract? How many minutes do you get and how can you track usage between billings? Are there any extra fees? Does the plan charge for nationwide roaming, and what about international travel? Will a bundle or data plan save money if I use email, multimedia messaging or web browsing, and what’s the break-even point?

What are the early cancellation penalties and procedures?

Read the fine print and get only what you need. Don’t be pressured into purchasing a plan that offers more time and features than you need. You can almost always upgrade — but you may not be so lucky if you overpaid for services that you don’t need or cannot afford in the beginning.

Mr. Schwartz is executive director of communications for Connecticut BBB. He may be reached at 203-269-2700, ext. 103, or by e-mail: [email protected]

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