It's Not The Money, Can You Hear Me?
The wireless-phone business is one of the most competitive stretches of the telecommunications universe, but in one way that competition may be working too well.
In their efforts to keep up with one another, the top four nationwide carriers -- AT&T Wireless, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless -- have often wound up mirroring one another's prices. Most individual and family-use calling plans cost the same, from 10-cents-a-minute prepaid deals to the $100 unlimited-calling specials that the four rolled out this spring.
To find a carrier that will work for you, you may have to look past the obvious criterion of monthly rates.
Here are six other ways to judge these companies.
Coverage. If you pull up each carrier's map of its Washington area coverage, they may all look roughly equivalent. They're not.
Zoom out, and you'll see that some carriers, such as T-Mobile, exhibit noticeable gaps in rural areas. Zoom in, and you may see patches of weak reception in your neighborhood, though even their block-by-block maps may not show a gap confined to your house.
Those maps also don't show the underground parts of Metro, where only Verizon has transmitters. Sprint's non-Nextel phones can roam on that coverage, but AT&T and T-Mobile devices can't tune into that signal and go silent in the subway.
Technology. Excluding the proprietary system used by Sprint's Nextel handsets, wireless phones in the United States speak two different languages: GSM (used by AT&T and T-Mobile) and CDMA (Sprint and Verizon). Wireless engineers can debate their virtues endlessly, but the important issues are that CDMA broadband coverage is better here, while GSM phones work in many more countries. You can also use GSM handsets with different carriers by asking AT&T or T-Mobile to "unlock" the phone. With some exceptions, AT&T will do so once you're out of a contract, T-Mobile after you're 90 days into it; after that, you can swap out their subscriber identity module (SIM) cards.
Pricing quirks. The firms' regular price plans leave little to compare; at most, some users may save $10 a month by choosing Sprint or T-Mobile. But each carrier offers variations on the standard dollars-for-minutes equation that can pay off. AT&T carries unused minutes from one month's allocation to the next month. T-Mobile's "myFaves" plans include free calls to five designated numbers. Sprint defines "night" as starting at 7 p.m., two hours earlier than other carriers. And Verizon reduces the early-termination fee as you get further into a contract, a customer-polite move that other companies, such as AT&T, are now adopting.
Consider prepaid plans if you make few calls; they can give you basic wireless service for just $100 a year. But be prepared for some complicated math. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon's major prepaid plans cost $1 for each day you talk on the phone, plus 10 cents a minute (excluding calls to people on the same carrier). But Virgin Mobile, which resells Sprint's service, employs a different formula without daily fees. Both Virgin and AT&T also offer prepaid monthly plans that yield only slight savings compared with regular subscription rates.
Smartphones offered. If you have your eye on a particular model of phone, that alone may drive your decision. AT&T, for example, is the only carrier in the United States to offer Apple's iPhone (perhaps you've heard of it?) and will be the first carrier to sell the upcoming BlackBerry Bold. T-Mobile is the sole carrier for the Sidekick series of phones. Sprint and T-Mobile have also been quicker than other carriers to sell new Windows Mobile smartphones.
Texting. I keep waiting for one of these companies to offer pricing for text messages that reflects how little bandwidth these short notes take up, but in the meantime you can find healthy savings by picking the right carrier. Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile all undercut Verizon's prices, with Sprint the cheapest of all. Unlimited texting adds just $10 to a Sprint voice plan, compared with $15 or $20 elsewhere.
Internet access. Here, the major carriers have yet to synchronize their pricing -- even, in some cases, among their own phones. Verizon charges $30 for unlimited data use on some phones, $40 on others. At AT&T, you'll need to add $30 to most smartphone calling plans, but with other devices, such as the iPhone, it costs $20. Things are simpler at Sprint and T-Mobile; the former charges $30, the latter $19.99.
T-Mobile, unlike the other three, has just begun to deploy "3G" broadband service (meaning access as fast as a slow DSL or cable-modem connection). However, it has yet to impose the 5-gigabytes-a-month cap on total bandwidth use that the other three carriers now include but don't always enforce.
All these fine-print issues can be a lot to consider, even without factoring in distractions such as ringtone, navigation assistance and screen-wallpaper fees. And yet, wouldn't you rather have this level of choice the next time you went shopping for TV service?