Choosing a Cell Phone and Plan That's Right for You
Over the life of your phone, the calling plan service will cost much more than the phone itself-especially if the phone is free. Thus, the best way to control your budget is to choose the most cost-effective calling plan from a carrier with good coverage in your area. Aggressive competition for subscribers among carriers (also known as service providers) has driven the monthly and per-minute costs of wireless calling dramatically downward and even made some of the latest phones, packed with cutting-edge features, unprecedented bargains. Subscribers' ability to keep their existing wireless phone number-and even their landline based numbers-when starting or transferring service to a new carrier has created more downward-pressure on comparative service plans through direct competition. As a result, every day more people are switching to exclusively wireless, giving up their landline based service altogether.
Calling Plan Basics
With the right calling plan, a wireless phone shouldn't cost much more than a landline service phone. But the sheer number of choices and complexity in rate plans can make simple comparison and selection a challenge for anyone.
Two key differences that make wireless calling plans more complex than typical landline service. First, wireless phone customers pay for service based on the number of minutes for both incoming and outgoing calls, unlike landline service which is typically unlimited in nature excepting long-distance fees. Second, by their very nature wireless phones are not tethered to land-line access, allowing a customer to send and receive calls or messages from a virtually infinite number of places.
As a direct result of these differences, a wireless calling plan bill is a very accurate tally of where a customer uses their phone, how long they talk, what time of day they talk, and what numbers they called or received calls from.
Components of a Cell Phone Bill
Estimating an average or maximum monthly usage in each of these categories will help narrow the field of calling plans to a more manageable selection of cost-effective choices.
- Talk Time
- Peak Minutes
- Long Distance
- Additional Talk time
- Mobile-to-Mobile Minutes
- Data Services
Talk Time (also known as Air Time) is the total amount phone use, typically measured in minutes, for both call placed and calls received. Most monthly calling plans include a specific allowance of talk time, frequently divided into peak and off-peak minutes, for a flat monthly fee. Any talk time used over this allowance will cost extra, usually at comparatively much higher per-minute rates.
Peak Minutes (also know as Anytime or Whenever minutes) are talk time minutes used during the prime calling periods when the carrier networks are most active, typically between 6am and 9pm Monday through Friday. Because of this demand, Peak Minutes are expensive. Plans that include more Peak Minutes typically have higher monthly fees.
Off-Peak Minutes (also known as Night and Weekend Minutes) are Talk Time minutes used outside of prime calling periods (typically at night and on weekends) when the carriers are least active. Off-Peak Minutes are the least expensive Talk Time minutes and are often included in generous quantities (frequently unlimited) even in many inexpensive plans. Customers who expect to use their phone frequently at night and on weekends should make sure to choose a plan with a generous allowance of Off-Peak minutes.
Roaming refers to any wireless phone use outside of a customer's home calling area or carrier network coverage. Because most phones feature multiple network capabilities, Roaming agreements between carriers let customers use their phones over a much wider area than a carrier's network service coverage. However, customers typically pay significantly more than even Peak Minute rates for using this capability. Unless a calling plan specifically offers no Roaming charges, this Talk Time is usually the most expensive. International Roaming is possible with some wireless phones, and accordingly is even more expensive. Frequent travelers are best served with plans that feature no roaming charges.
Long Distance charges may apply to calls that are placed to numbers outside your local area codes. Because Talk Time charges also apply, wireless Long distance calls can be more expensive than on a land-line phone. However, all carriers offer a selection of calling plans that include free Long Distance service where all domestic calls placed are billed at only the applicable Talk Time rates. For frequent long distance callers, these plans are often more cost effective than landline long distance service.
Additional Talk Time (also known as Additional Minutes) is the amount of wireless phone use that exceeds your allowance of Peak- or Off-Peak Minutes or both. After Roaming charges, these Additional Talk Time minutes are the most common cause of unexpectedly high wireless phone bills.
Mobile-to-Mobile Minutes (also known as In-Network Minutes) are minutes used for calling or receiving calls from another customer on your carrier's service network. When included in a calling plan, are not measured as Peak- or Off-Peak Minutes and are tallied in a third distinct category. When offered as an unlimited allowance on some carrier plans, Mobile-to-Mobile calling becomes especially valuable with friends and family who have service from the same carrier, effectively making any wireless-to-wireless call between them free.
Data Services including multimedia messaging, downloads, wireless Web access and wireless modem capabilities are typically optional carrier plan services that are offered for an additional charge, either separately or bundled together as packages. Unlike voice service, Data Services come in many forms and are packaged and priced in many different ways from per-message charges for text messaging to bulk charges (per megabyte) for all data (non-voice connection service) sent or received by a wireless phone to unlimited data plans for a flat monthly fee. Carrier by carrier, most of these services require a separate subscription. In some carriers, the most popular Data Services are often featured in bundles or packages suited to typical wireless customer profiles, for example Instant Messaging or Wireless Calendar or Contact Book Synchronization. A customer planning to use their wireless phone for more than just talk can find some very significant savings in reviewing these optional services or packages carefully.
Types of Calling Plans
- With few exceptions, most carrier calling plans fall into one of these categories:
- Local Plans
- Regional Plans
- National Plans
- Shared Plans (also known as Family Plans)
- Prepaid Plans (also known as Pay-As-You-Go Plans)
The most geographically limited plans where a customer would pay extra for any wireless phone use outside of a relatively small local carrier network service area, typically a metropolitan area and the adjacent suburbs. Many local plans do not include long distance but will connect any long distance calls with a per-minute surcharge in addition to any applicable Talk Time minutes. While these plans carry the lowest basic monthly fees, frequent out-of-area travel use (Roaming) or long distance surcharges can make monthly bills skyrocket above the cost of comparable Regional or National plans. Local plans are most cost-effective when a customer doesn't venture too far from home or place frequent long distance calls.
Regional Plans typically offer the most economical Talk Time per-minute rates over a much larger multi-state area or Region, for example the entire Northeastern or Southwestern U.S. Only calls placed or received while outside this area will incur additional Roaming surcharges. While not universal, more carriers are offering included long distance service in Regional plans. Customers who frequently call or travel to regional areas outside their carrier's Local service area will find the best value in Regional calling plans. Be sure to check local and regional carrier coverage maps carefully for calling area eligibility.
National Plans carry somewhat higher per-minute rates, but they permit wireless phone use anywhere in the country with no extra charge for roaming and/or for long distance calls when on an approved network. These plans are best for wireless travelers or customers that are simply willing to pay a bit more for freedom from worry about where, when and to whom they are calling.
Shared Plans give two or more wireless customers their own phone and separate phone numbers, while sharing a common allowance of minutes. These plans offer a lower cost per minute than separate wireless plans that add up to the same number of minutes. As a greater bonus, Shared Plans often reduce costs by addressing common multi-phone problems, for example some wireless users frequently exceed their allowance of minutes, while others don't or some wireless customers use primarily Peak Minutes while others use more Off-Peak Minutes. Best of all, Shared Plan usage is summarized on a single wireless bill. Cumulative call timers and call restriction capabilities on each phone as well as online network usage monitors can help Shared Plan customers avoid surprises in their monthly wireless bill.
Prepaid (also known as Pay-As-You-Go) service is an option for customers who do not wish to process a credit application or expect to use their phone very infrequently or only for emergencies. Prepaid Service per-minute rates can be more expensive than monthly Local, Regional, National or Shared Plans and purchased minutes can expire after 90 to 120 days. On the plus side, Prepaid Service phones are usually inexpensive, and increasingly stylish and capable models are offered with standard calling features such as voicemail, call waiting, as well as optional Data Service features such as Messaging and Wireless Web similar to those sold with conventional calling plans.
Today's wireless phones enable you to receive and send instant messages, check or send e-mails, and synchronize with your PC contacts, e-mail, calendars, and more. These features make the truly wireless lifestyle a reality; but they also make keeping your phone secure even more important. We recommend taking the following steps to make sure that the wealth of information stored on your wireless phone stays secure:
- Treat your phone like the valuable data vault that it is. Would you leave your personal directory, calendar, schedule, or credit information out in the open without being secured? The same rules should apply to your wireless phone.
- Lock your phone. Most phones have locking features that prevent strangers from accessing the phones functions or network services without knowing a user-defined code key.
- Delete sensitive e-mails, text messages, and IM conversations from your phone. Most phones with messaging capabilities allow you to limit what's stored in the phone's flash memory.
- Control access to your phone's short-range wireless features. Infrared and Bluetooth technology allow you to synchronize to other devices without cords or cables, but you shouldn't leave these features on when you aren't using them. Some phones also let you set passwords or code keys for accessing these functions either directly or remotely.
Cell Phone Basics
Each Carrier (also known as Service Provider) offers dozens of wireless phones ranging from inexpensive (often free after rebates with a new service agreement) to expensive multi-function Smart Phone devices that cost several hundred dollars. Choosing among them can be intimidating to anyone, especially without a basic understanding of the typical and sometimes more exclusive features that distinguish one model from the next. Deciding which are features most important will help you select the cell phone that best meets your needs.
Size and Weight
Wireless phones are generally much smaller and lighter than their predecessors of just a few years ago, and they still come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Tiny phones that weigh less than three ounces contrast markedly with Smart Phones that make capable handheld organizers and tip the scales at nearly half a pound. Ultra-compact phones are the easiest to carry and slip comfortably into a shirt pocket or a evening clutch. However, some users prefer a phone with a more substantial feel to it, with a larger screen that is easier to read and keypad that is more comfortable to use. Think about how you'll use and carry your phone when considering the size and weight that's right for you.
Most modern phones are either bar shaped or feature a clamshell design that flips open to reveal an internal screen and keypad. Clamshell phones can be more compact without sacrificing display and keypad size, though there are several popular bar shaped phones that fit in the ultra-compact category. The clamshell designs protect the phone's display when not in use, and some feature an additional external display that can show Caller ID, phone information or network status. A few innovative designs fall outside these two categories with features such as sliding covers, QWERTY keyboards, or twist-open swivel type mechanisms. Outside of overall appearance and mechanical differences, there are very few functional advantages from one style to the next, and design selections are often based on personal preference.
Your local service area may feature a wealth of available carrier options, and it may not. Each carrier uses a predominant technology for providing cellular service to its wireless customers. There are some technical differences between the two predominant technologies in use-CDMA (used by Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, Nextel, Alltel, CellularOne, and Western Wireless) and GSM (used by Cingular and T-Mobile and others including most of the carriers in Europe and Asia). However the general performance characteristics of both are comparable, and the only real significance is that these technologies are incompatible with each other. That means that as a customer you can't buy a phone from one carrier and subsequently use it on another carrier's network.
If the ability to use your phone overseas ( international roaming) is important to you, consider the GSM network carriers and a "world-band" phone that also works on the GSM frequencies used abroad. These carriers and phones allow you to make and receive calls while traveling in many countries in Europe and Asia, though usually at a much higher cost per minute talk time.
As a subset of the CDMA compatible choices, Nextel iDEN phones feature a widely-known and often indispensable push-to-talk option (walkie-talkie) feature. However, while most other CDMA compatible phones are at least capable of Roaming on other CDMA host carrier networks, Nextel iDEN phones only work within Nextel network service areas. If there is no Nextel network signal present, a Nextel iDEN phone will not work at all.
Screen Size and Color
Larger screens that display sixty-five or even two-hundred sixty-two thousand colors are increasingly common, even on inexpensive cell phones. These bright, colorful displays can make it somewhat easier to read and navigate increasingly extensive feature phone menus, and they make a significant difference when using Data Services such as Instant Messaging, sharing Digital Photos or Wireless Web Browsing. However, phones with dual color displays are generally more expensive to purchase at the beginning and often have reduced talk time and standby capacity due to increased power consumption.
With current battery technologies, even the most inexpensive phones deliver hours of talk time and multiple days of standby operation (phone power on to receive incoming calls). Even so, if a customer spends several hours each day talking on the phone, they would benefit from the longer life of an extended-capacity battery. Phone use, network conditions and a number of other conditions (even the weather) affect battery life and talk time duration. While most wireless phones approach the maximum battery life figures provided by manufacturers and carriers, these numbers should be only be used as comparative measures between different models. Typically separate figures are provided for talk time and standby operation. Customers who use their phones a lot should seek out a phone with a greater talk time capacity or purchase an extended-capacity battery if available. Wireless subscribers who are frequently away from their home or office for long stretches should consider a phone with a longer standby capacity or purchase an additional travel charger for their home or car charger for their automobile.
Phone Book Capacity
Every modern wireless phone has the ability to store names and phone numbers at their fingertips in an electronic phone book. Basic models can store a few hundred names and numbers while phones geared toward business users provide more complete contact management with capacity for postal addresses, multiple phone numbers, email addresses and even photo IDs for as many as 500 contacts. For many GSM phones that feature SIM card operation, additional contacts can be stored on directly on the SIM card itself, ready for transport to new equipment if needed.
Today wireless phones are more than just communication tools; they are frequently fashion statements or expressions of personal style. Many wireless phones offer interchangeable covers, a selection of graphics or photos that can adorn the screen or a choice of customizable ringtones-samples of music or other sounds to replace the standard beeps, chirps or rings that tell you someone is calling. Many phones allow users to assign specific rings to individual callers whose names and numbers are stored in the phone's directory. While these feature do not improve the sound quality or reception of a wireless phone, they can be fun, inexpensive expressions of style and personal creativity.
The most common, non-phone function available on wireless phones is the ability to send and receive short text messages to and from other wireless phones. Sometimes called SMS ( Short Message Service), this capability can be handy for sending short, discreet messages to someone who's not free to take a phone call and is unable to access their email. Typing messages on a phone's numeric keypad can be time consuming, even with predictive text entry (software that helps type your messages by guessing what words you are trying to enter and completing them for you automatically). Through agreements among the carriers and limited to about 150 characters, SMS messages can be sent to any wireless phone user, regardless of which carrier they use. Several more advanced forms of messaging permit embedded or attached graphics, digital photos, music clips or other multi-media content. Known as EMS (Enhanced Messaging Service) and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) only work on specially equipped wireless phones and often only between compatible phones from the same carrier.
Almost universally available in some form or another, Wireless Web Browsing allows a customer to view and navigate through Web pages specially formatted for viewing on small cell phone screens. Wireless Web users should note that while the browser software is typically included with a capable wireless phone, actual access to the Web requires and extra-cost subscription from the carrier.
The most popular feature on today's wireless phones is a integrated Digital Camera. While not all are suitable for framing, these small format photos can be reviewed on the phone's display or shared with friends and family via email, the Web or by sending them to similarly equipped phones. An increasing number of wireless phones are coming equipped with 1+ megapixel cameras with advanced photo editing features and a built-in flash. These advanced camera phones are capable of taking and storing images that will print respectably on 4x6 photo paper.
While they are certainly not substitutes for conventional digital or film-based cameras for capturing memorable moments, having a camera with you everywhere you go can be both useful and fun. It doesn't cost anything to snap and display photos on the phone's screen, but sending photos via email, MMS or Web-based photo-sharing services typically requires a subscription from the carrier and or a third-party service. Customers should note that , airtime used transmitting or transferring photos and other data may be charged against your allowance of talk time.
Push-To-Talk Service (Direct Connect/Two-Way Radio)
Push-To-Talk Service allows subscribers to instantly connect with each other walkie-talkie style without dialing the 10-digit phone number. Carrier plans that offer this feature usually provide a separate allowance of minutes for the service in addition to the allowance of Talk Time minutes in the calling plan. Nextel is the most popular of the carriers to feature push-to-talk service, featuring DirectConnect(tm) capability on every one of their iDEN wireless phones. Verizon and Sprint also offer Push-To-Talk service, though only on select wireless phones in their catalogs. Currently, the Push-To-Talk features only work if both parties subscribe to the service on the same Carrier network.
- Speed Dialing or One-Touch Dialing - Allows users to designate a number of stored contacts for quick one- or two-button dialing of frequently called numbers.
- Vibrating Alert - Allows user to set phone to vibrate instead of ring, providing a silent alert for incoming calls, especially appropriate for phone use in public places or meetings where ringing would be inappropriate.
- Speakerphone - Permits hands free use of your phone during a call, especially useful when driving your car. Some speakerphone models will also respond to voice menu commands enabling users total hands-free operation of their wireless phone in everyday situations.
- Voice Dialing - Enables user to speak a contact name or number in the phone's address book and prompt the phone to dial the number automatically without pressing buttons on the numeric keypad. Coupled with speakerphone capability, this is another feature that eases hands-free operation while driving.
- Voice Recorder - Records and plays back short spoken notes or personal memos.
- Games - Enable wireless phone to provide an entertaining diversion from airport layovers, tedious waiting in line or other boring situations.
- Downloadable Ringtones and Graphics - Permits the user to add new ringtones, screen graphics and other data that didn't come built into a phone by connecting to a carrier or a third-party data service and "downloading" directly into the phone's memory. Some phones are limited to downloading ringtones and screen graphics, while others can add games and other software programs, including productivity tools and relatively sophisticated business applications.
- Ring Tone Melody Composer - Software program built into some phones that enables custom composition of melodies that can be then be saved as user defined ringtones.
- FM Radio or MP3 Player - Built-in radio tuner or digital music player for fans of portable music, talk radio or news broadcasts to listen to their favorite media through their wireless phone or in stereo with an external adapter or earbud headphones.
- Instant Messenger - Popular user-to-user text chatting service that enables silent two-way conversations with another user or users using an Internet-connected computer or cell phone.
- Personal Information Management (PIM) or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) Functions - Varied collections of simple organizational tools such as an alarm clock, calendar and to-do list to more sophisticated capabilities that mimic those of a full- handheld computer. Many inexpensive cell phones and mid-priced models include the basic organizer functions, and most can be synchronized with calendar and contact info maintained on a PC. More sophisticated wireless phone/PDA combinations with integrated microprocessors and advanced software capabilities typically cost several hundred dollars.
- Infrared Connection - Permits a direct line-of-sight connection to another wireless phone, handheld or laptop computer. Primarily for exchanging and synchronizing phonebook or calendar data, an Infrared Connection can also be used in wireless multiplayer gaming. Particularly useful feature with PC-based contact management or calendar software that can keep the same data stored and updated on a wireless phone.
- Bluetooth Connection - Local radio based direct wireless connection similar to Infrared, though with increased range and transfer speed and not requiring line-of-sight alignment. Allows links to other Bluetooth enabled devices including phones, headsets, laptops, printers and other devices. Also primarily for exchanging or synchronizing phonebook or calendar data, a Bluetooth Connection is also increasingly used in wireless multiplayer gaming.
- Global Positioning System or GPS - Enables carrier to use signals from GPS satellites to pinpoint the geographic location of the device in the event of an emergency, or increasingly for user-defined location based services.