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Your cell phone plan

Poor service? Dropped calls? Nonexistent signals, static and busy signals?

Maybe you can do better.


By Peggy Bendel
Special to Land Line


Got that nagging feeling you could get a better cell phone deal? Now’s a good time to ask, because providers such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and others are competing for customers in a saturated market. You owe it to yourself to see if switching makes sense, but it isn’t easy to work through all the jargon and fine print among cell phone plans.

To help you out, we’ve streamlined the comparison process into three steps.

Choose a provider
Above all, you need cell phone service you can count on, a big sore spot among cell phone users. The most common reason people change cell phone suppliers is substandard service with poor or nonexistent signals, dropped calls, static and busy signals.

Providers publish maps showing the extent of their coverage, so use them to judge service in the areas where you travel. Every provider has regional strengths and weaknesses. The bigger the network, the more likely you are to be calling in range of a base station or antenna (those cell towers you see along the road have a range of about 10 miles).

If your call is handed off to another network because your provider’s network is weak, nonexistent or busy, you are in “roaming” status, which used to trigger extra charges. Major providers now offer nationwide plans without them, something to check. You’ll also want to find out how a carrier defines “nationwide.” Is it anywhere in the country, or anywhere in the carrier’s network?

Of course, you need service that’s reliable, not simply available. Some provider maps color-code the signal from strong to weak to help you predict call quality in the regions you care about the most, although snafus called “dead zones” happen in every cell network. In these places, calls fail because the network is skimpy or because physical obstructions such as buildings, mountains or tunnels block wireless signals. Some carrier maps indicate such zones, but for more detailed information sites such as map coverage holes by carrier as reported by individuals all over the country.

While you’re online, search for the massive consumer surveys conducted by sources such as Consumer Reports, J.D. Power and Associates, and PC Magazine to help you separate the winners from the losers among cell phone providers. Your trucker friends are another good source of information about service quality.

Choose a contract or prepaid plan
Cell phones are a worldwide phenomenon. Experts estimate half the global population has at least one cell phone. U.S. providers usually offer cheap or free phones in exchange for a one- or two-year contract that guarantees carriers stable revenue.

Contracts come in all shapes and sizes. As you step up in price, they step up in minutes. How many monthly minutes do you need to cover both outgoing and incoming calls – 200, 450 or 1,500? You’ll want a good supply beyond minutes for voice communication if you plan to use the cell phone for Internet access, map transmissions, GPS, mobile e-mail, text messaging and similar extras. For phone access to Canada or Mexico, find a plan that includes international minutes because just a few calls at the off-plan rate can double your monthly bill.

The best way to save money is to match a rate plan to your use. One study estimates most callers use 477 minutes per month – although truck drivers presumably would use many more. Look at your recent cell phone bills. If your plan covers more minutes than you use, you’re paying too much. If you regularly pay a premium for “overage” minutes, a plan with more minutes may cost more per month but save money in the long run. Many plans offer unlimited, “free” minutes on evenings and weekends, so calls during these off-peak times are not deducted from the plan’s allowance. However, you need to kno w how the carrier defines “evening.” It may be 7 p.m., 9 p.m. or another time. As you might guess, providers are happy to upgrade your plan but not so eager when you want to take your business to a competitor. That’s why one important item to look for in any contract is an early termination fee clause. To avoid getting socked with the fee, which ranges from $175 to hundreds of dollars, a good time to switch carriers is at contract end.

You can also transfer the contract to someone who’s willing to assume the remaining months. Browse the Internet for sites such as, which can make a match for you for about $20.

Another contract detail worth looking for is a trial period or cancellation period clause, which lets you use the service for 20 to 30 days before you’re locked into a contract. You pay for this period, naturally, and some fees may not be refundable. Plus, you’ll probably have to return the phone if you cancel, but at least you’re doing the right thing for your wallet.

Also consider the total monthly cost of a contract. On top of charges for minutes and extra applications, add taxes (as much as 16 percent, depending on state and locality). Also add the various fees and surcharges imposed by the provider, which should be spelled out in the contract.

If you’d like a flexible cell phone deal with cost limits, you have plenty of company. That’s why prepaid plans are becoming more popular, and not just among people who prefer to skip the credit check that contracts require.

With this low-commitment option, you pay for the phone and a refillable “bucket” containing from 30 to 1,000 minutes. You’ll pay more per minute than if on a contract, and you’ll probably have to pay a daily access fee plus charges for extras such as text messaging. You’ll need to use the minutes before they expire (unless the plan lets you roll them over), but you might get free evening and weekend minutes.

You probably cannot port your former cell number into a prepaid plan as you can with a contract. However, you’ll never be on the hook for overages because the phone stops working when the bucket’s empty. You decide when to buy more minutes.

Choose a handset
The handset, which is what the industry calls the cell phone, can be free or greatly discounted with a contract or cost more than $500 with or without a contract. You can obtain your handset from the service provider you have chosen, or buy it retail. For budget’s sake, look past the fancy ring tones and flashy faceplates to a durable handset with the features you need for the coverage and applications you have selected.

If you’re switching carriers, expect to replace the handset. Your old handset is probably locked into your old carrier’s network and won’t work on the new one. Before you hand in the phone or donate it to a recycling organization, erase your personal data. The handset instruction book will tell you how, or you can get the information by e-mail from

Is there a better cell phone plan out there for you? Maybe. It’s time to do something about it. LL


Editor’s note: Freelance writer/editor Peggy Bendel, Island Heights, NJ, has written more than 1,000 magazine articles and edited more than a dozen books.

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