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How to Make The Right Call On Cell Plans

Do you want the gadget-iest phone available? If you want a cell phone that doubles as a handheld organizer, that decision may dictate your choice of carrier. The two most aggressive marketers of smartphones are Sprint and T-Mobile, which have been first to sell such popular models as the Treo 600 (Sprint will be the first carrier to offer PalmOne's new Treo 650), the Sidekick and Sidekick II, and the new BlackBerry 7100t. Cingular is a little further behind, followed by Verizon. Nextel is dead last; it waited until a few weeks ago to offer its first camera phone, a good two years after the competition.

Do you plan to use your phone to go online? Wireless Web access is no longer a joke, thanks to improvements in data technology and cellphone screens. The fastest connections around are the "1X RTT" services offered by Sprint and Verizon, which top out at almost three times the speed of a landline modem. Cingular and T-Mobile's "EDGE" and "GPRS" offerings are a tad slower.

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2004 Guide to Wireless Phone Phone Plans Compare rates and coverage for Washington, D.C., area.
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How much do you plan on calling? Offers of unlimited or might-as-well-be-unlimited night and weekend minutes mean you only need think about calls between 6 or 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays. If in doubt, get a cheaper plan; you can always switch to a plan with more minutes, although that may require extending your contract.

Cingular and Sprint have come up with two smart twists on standard pricing. Cingular lets you carry over unused minutes into the next month, while Sprint's customers can be automatically bumped to a higher calling plan if they exceed their included minutes.

In one area, however, the competitive juices of the wireless market aren't flowing properly: Under-$30 plans, once a commonplace offering by carriers, have all but died out. If you need a phone only on rare occasions, look into prepaid service.

This is the equivalent of getting a calling card for your long-distance use: You buy an allotment of minutes and don't have to pay again until either the minutes are gone or a certain time has elapsed, often 90 days. The major carriers, save Sprint, sell prepaid service, as do such third-party firms as TracFone and Virgin Mobile (which itself resells Sprint service).

What if you realize you made the wrong call? Whether you wait out your contract or eat the early-termination fee, you can still leave and take your number with you, thanks to the "wireless number portability" policy enacted by the Federal Communications Commission last year. That's one of the best moves the government has done for customers lately, giving them yet another way to keep these competitors honest.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.


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