Switching Wireless Carriers

James A. Martin
PC World
Friday, March 31, 2006; 12:10 AM

Last week , I offered advice for existing wireless customers on getting the best price for a new smart phone. One option I didn't mention is switching service providers, and that's what I ended up doing. I switched from Cingular to Sprint when I wanted to upgrade to a Palm Treo 650 but not pay the full price. I'll explore that option this week.

Why did I make the switch? I had a couple reasons.

First, I had never been happy with Cingular service in San Francisco. I've experienced too many dropped calls in and around Noe Valley, the San Francisco neighborhood in which I live. In fact, I hadn't even chosen Cingular. I signed my first cell phone contract with Cingular One in 1996. But Cingular One merged with AT#00026T Wireless, which later merged with Cingular, and I remained ensnared in contracts throughout.

Second, Cingular's $40 monthly charge for unlimited e-mail and Web browsing on a Treo seemed too high. At $45 a month, Verizon was even less appealing, and T-Mobile doesn't offer the Treo. That left Sprint, which charges Treo users only $10 per month for its personal PCS Vision Access Pack (which includes unlimited e-mail, instant messaging, and Web browsing, but not text messaging or Picture Mail).

So I paid $300 for a Treo 650 from Sprint. Given that I was still under contract with Cingular, however, that carrier hit me with a $150 early termination fee. Thus, I paid a total of $450 for the Treo 650, which is $75 more than what I'd pay if I'd stayed with Cingular.

But over the long run, the switch saved me money. Over 12 months, I would have paid Cingular $480 for unlimited e-mail and Web browsing on my Treo. Add $375 for the Treo, and that's a total of $855.

By comparison, switching to Sprint cost $300 for the Treo, plus a $150 early termination fee from Cingular, a $36 activation fee from Sprint, and $120 for one year of unlimited e-mail and Web browsing. Total cost over 12 months: $606, a $249 savings that nearly pays for the Treo.

Was the switch worth it? Absolutely--even without the savings. In my area, Sprint's service seems more reliable than Cingular's, so I'm getting more use from my phone. And I can check e-mail just about anytime, at a price I'm comfortable with.

Also, my phone number was ported from Cingular to Sprint without a hiccup. The transfer happened overnight, and I didn't miss a call. I didn't have to contact Cingular to cancel my service, either.

If you're thinking about switching carriers, I recommend that you do the following:

Check the new carrier's coverage.Wireless service providers include coverage maps on their sites, which you can search by zip code. Independent Web sites, such as DeadCellZones.com and Mobiledia , can provide even more information.

Check the new carrier's e-mail and Web browsing rates.The amount you'll pay varies by service provider, and sometimes by device. For instance, unlimited data plans for Research In Motion BlackBerry users often cost about $5 a month more than similar plans for other mobile devices.

Compare cell phone plans. LetsTalk.com is a useful resource.

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, #00026 Tips

PC WorldSenior Editor Yardena Arar loves the easy-to-use Wi-Fi option on T-Mobile's new MDA (Mobile Digital Assistant) smart phone. And at $400, the MDA is a good deal, especially compared to the $550 Palm Treo 700w , another Windows Mobile smart phone. The MDA's roomy keyboard is another plus. But the phone has its problems; for example, it isn't geared for single-handed use. Read Denny's review for more details.

A Decent Hotel:Located in the Uptown district of Charlotte, North Carolina, the Marriott City Center has all the amenities you'd expect of a Marriott: wired Internet access ($10 a day), a business center, and printing over the Web via the PrintMe service.

On a recent visit, I stayed in room 1201 (about $95 for a Saturday night), a spacious corner room with an odd two-level desk, a comfortable desk chair, a small sofa, and a baffling menu of entertainment piped into the TV; it took me several minutes to figure out how to watch basic cable. The hotel's fitness center is well equipped; there are plenty of good restaurants in walking distance; and--a necessity for me--there's a Starbucks in the lobby. What's not to like? As with most Marriotts, this hotel distinctly lacks character.

Make the Most of a Layover:One of my favorite airports in the U.S. is Charlotte Douglas International (CLT). The business center--located in the airport's atrium lobby--is a big reason why. It's free of charge (I love that Southern hospitality) and includes eight cubicles with power ports, lined against the wall. The lounge area features a cluster of comfy chairs with adjustable desktops. A free wireless network is available, with excellent signal strength. Just outside the center, a pianist plays soothing background music. If that's not enough, a bar and a row of rocking chairs are both nearby--an excellent spot for people watching. And there's a Palm store, which is handy if you need to pick up a cell phone or PDA accessory.

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it . However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

© 2006 PC World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved