For the past several months, I’ve been stewing about my cell phone plan. My kids are young adults with good jobs (knock wood!), but they’re still covered on our family plan because it would cost them at least twice as much to have their own. Of course, this leads to other issues — like why the heck don’t I make them pay for their share? — but that’s another blog.
So I have been investigating other carriers. I do not completely love my Verizon Wireless plan or service, even though I’ve been with them for over 10 years. (Being long-time customers means our family plan has many terrific grandfathered-in features.) Although various consumer watchdog groups continually give Verizon Wireless high marks for coverage in New York City, the service inside my apartment isn’t all that good. If I go into the kitchen, the call drops. We have a second home in the New York Berkshires, where we get no reception at all.
One Saturday about two months ago while I was at my country house, my phone started ringing. (Normally I don’t leave it on because the constant search for cell towers drains the battery quickly.) From the stranger to the stranger — the caller was Verizon Wireless customer service saying they wanted to help us reduce our phone bill. Because I knew the sudden reception was too good to be true, I asked them to call me when I was back in NYC.
Call me they did. A cheaper plan they had. Except it would involve giving up the unlimited data I currently have. Not that we go above the amount of data in the plan they offered, but still. The principle of the thing. I was so annoyed I must have seemed like the viral vine of the lady going crazy in an Apple store.
I am still with Verizon Wireless, still paying for my ridiculously expensive plan (and still ambivalent about asking the grown-up kids to pitch in for their share).
HOWEVER . . . I have learned a lot of important stuff that I want to share. Here’s what you should consider when choosing a cellphone service provider.
I’m putting price as the #1 factor because if you can’t afford your cellphone, then nothing else matters. When you look at price, though, consider a few things. What exactly are you paying for? Do you pay for more minutes than you use? Many plans have terrific gaps. You can have, say, 800 minutes a month or 2000, with nothing in between.
Next look at how much data you’re shelling out for. Even those of us who use our smart phones more as tiny computers than telephones generally use less than half of the one gigabyte most new plans allow. Unless you work on your mobile phone, there’s no need to pay for more.
Plans get more expensive when you “buy” your phone from the carrier. It’s like taking out a mortgage. Eventually you pay more for your phone than it would have cost if you bought it outright, without the carrier “discount.”
Another problem: insurance. If you do buy your phone from the carrier, insurance, which costs $8-$10 a month, is a good idea — for the first year or year and a half. The insurance will mean you get the same phone if you lose yours (or drop it in the toilet). At a certain point, however, you’ll probably want a new phone if you lose the one you have. I just found out that I am paying the insurance on my son’s three-year-old Android! So check all the little charges.
“Pay as you go” plans may seem like a bargain, but in the end you may end up paying as much or more than you would have with a contract plan. That being said, those paid to write about these things give thumbs up to T-Mobile’s plan. Verizon, by contrast, only offers non-smartphones on its no-contract plan. Sprint’s no-contract plan starts at $70 for a smart phone. Then again, Sprint customers are generally not happy.
What good is a cheap plan if you don’t get reception? If you look at Verizon Wireless’s coverage map, you can see that large areas of the country have no cell service at all. In most places, Verizon Wireless has the most extensive service. But not at my country house. And my apartment in New York City is a total dead zone for AT&T. So basically, I could use two separate providers. Except two phones from different providers, that’s kind of crazy. In the old days, before 3G and 4G, phones could bounce off of each other’s towers. You’d pay roaming charges, but you’d at least get reception. These days, there’s less roaming (unless you have a provider with no towers of its own that leases from the big providers).
I love my iPhone. I know that several of the Android models are fantastic. The HTC One, for instance, is getting rave reviews. I will probably stick with iPhone, though, because I love that my computers, tablets, and phones are using the same operating system so everything syncs up well. My choice to have an iPhone limits my provider choices.
If you’re open to Android phones, you have a wider selection. Make sure your comfortable with any phone before you purchase it. Many providers give you a one- or two-week trial period (though some will charge a small “restocking” fee if you return the phone). Before you purchase any phone, research. Sites like c/net or PC World provide reputable and unbiased reviews.
Be aware that although your cell-phone number is “portable” — you can take it from carrier to carrier if you want — phones themselves may not be. Carriers in the US use one of two basic technologies: CDMA or GSM. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA (although Verizon is supposedly leaving CDMA behind in in 2014); AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM — as does much of Europe. (This list from eBay breaks down which company uses which.) You can’t bring your Verizon phone to T-Mobile, even if it’s, say, an iPhone 5, or vice versa. That’s why you can’t take your Verizon phone to Europe and simply switch out the SIM card. (A SIM card is basically a plastic computer chip that stores information and can be taken from one device and put in another.) Theoretically, you could take a T-Mobile phone over to AT&T since both use GMS, but it still wouldn’t work as well. Best advice: if you’re changing carriers, be prepared to change phones.
One more thing: if you don’t want to be able to receive and send email, get the weather app, or have a pretty good camera right in your pocket, you may not need a “smart phone.” Dumb phones make calls, can be used for texting, and have basic cameras. They’re also a lot cheaper to buy and maintain than smart phones.
Three things we can be sure of in life: taxes, death, cellphone problems. You need to have someone good on the other end of the line, so to speak. Many people laud Verizon Wireless’s Twitter customer service, and, indeed, if you tweet a problem to them, they will answer you. They may even take it to email. My experience: eventually they give up. Most people I know have similar complaints about their carriers. So I’ve decided that perhaps a good barometer is how long it takes to get attention in the store. If you go in and have to wait 45 minutes until someone can SELL you a phone, I’d say that’s a customer service problem. I’ve taken to walking randomly into AT&T and Sprint stores just to get the lay of the land. I have heard sales associates at all the stores give incorrect information about phones with which they aren’t familiar. When I search online, I find articles that confirm my sinking feeling that wireless providers do indeed suck.
Let me know your cellphone stories — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in the comments below. Shoot me your questions as well. I can feel another Google Hangout coming on! See you then.