Wireless Choice Is Far From Clear
Picking a wireless-phone service is supposed to have gotten easy. Competition and consolidation over the past couple of years have led most companies to adopt the same basic price structure, making it easy to compare rates. Two-week trials are standard. And, in the biggest improvement the business has seen lately, you can keep your phone number when switching service.
But you still have to puzzle through hundreds of options from the five nationwide services: AT&T (formerly Cingular), Nextel and Sprint (although the companies merged in 2005, they're still separate services), Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile. And the things you need to scrutinize most still can't be found in the large print in their ads.
The most important of those is coverage. All carriers have areas of weak or no reception, which you can inspect on the coverage maps posted on their Web sites.
The self-reported estimates aren't infallible, but they help. Verizon Wireless covers the most ground, followed by Sprint and AT&T; Nextel and T-Mobile have the biggest holes.
One significant Washington area dead zone, however, won't show up in those maps: the underground portions of Metro, where AT&T, Nextel and T-Mobile's signals don't reach but Verizon Wireless's do. (Sprint roams on that network).
Price matters, too, although voice-calling rates don't vary much. About $40 a month generally buys 450 minutes of anytime calling, with night and weekend calls free. If you'd rather spend less, Nextel, Sprint and T-Mobile offer cheaper calling plans. But prepaid service, available from most carriers as well as such resellers as Virgin Mobile and TracFone, will be cheaper yet for minimal or emergency-only use.
Variations on plans can alter your math slightly. Sprint's "night" starts at 7 p.m., two hours earlier than other carriers. Nextel throws in unlimited walkie-talkie chatting with other Nextel subscribers. Verizon Wireless plans offer free calls to other Verizon Wireless subscribers. AT&T will roll over unused minutes to the next month. T-Mobile offers unlimited calling to five designated numbers for an extra $10 a month.
The real differences in prices and features surface in messaging and mobile Web access.
The companies don't offer the same grade of data service: AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless offer speeds almost as quick as some DSL or cable-modem services, though AT&T does not do so in as many Washington area locations as the other two. T-Mobile's data connection is far slower, and Nextel's is pokiest of all.
Unlimited smartphone Internet access costs $15 at Sprint, $40 at Verizon. Unlimited text messaging can cost $10 or twice that much. The catch is that most carriers ban audio or video streaming, even if they don't always enforce the prohibitions. Verizon Wireless also caps monthly data use at 5 gigabytes, so it's no replacement for a wired broadband connection.
All of that might be moot for cellphone shoppers looking for a particular model of phone, which can force a decision.
All the big carriers sell BlackBerry phones, but Nextel doesn't sell any Windows Mobile devices. Neither Nextel nor T-Mobile offers Palm's Treo smartphones. Some phones are available from just one source. Only T-Mobile sells Sidekicks, for example, while AT&T will be the sole carrier for Apple's iPhone when it debuts next week.
If you're a gadget enthusiast, avoid Nextel and Verizon Wireless. Nextel generally offers obsolete phones, and Verizon blocks useful features on some phones, such as easy transfers of photos from a camera phone to a computer.
The widest variety of choices comes with AT&T and T-Mobile. Those carriers run on a standard called GSM, which allows you to use any compatible phone -- not just those that they sell-- by popping your subscriber identity module (SIM) card into the phone.
That feature can also let you use your phone cheaply in other countries if you replace your usual SIM card with a pre-paid card from a local carrier. (You will, however, have to get your AT&T or T-Mobile phone "unlocked" first; T-Mobile will do so after the first 90 days of a contract, while AT&T customers must wait until their contract terms have ended.)
Many wireless carriers now offer discounts to customers who sign up for Internet or TV service at the same time. But beware: Signing up for a bundle of services from one company will make it harder to dump that firm if it lets you down.
Wireless carriers are also pushing contract terms of two years instead of one. Make sure you read the fine print about early-termination fees, usually $175 to $200. Verizon Wireless now prorates those fees, reducing the pain for customers who leave later in a contract term.
Once your contract ends, remember to shop around before you renew with the same carrier. You may have to get a new phone -- that's the most dysfunctional aspect of this business -- but that can be a lot cheaper than putting up with a service that no longer suits you.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.