It's enough to make you wish for the days of two tin cans and a string.
Today, wireless-telephone consumers must sort through regional plans, national plans and national-on-network plans, all of which feature night and weekend minutes, anytime minutes, rollover minutes and text-messaging minutes. And those run on a network that may or may not be TDMA or GSM (that's industry parlance for time-division multiple access and global system for mobile communications, respectively), which is an important consideration if you want games, ring tones, instant messaging, full-color screens and a connection to your PDA.
The plans will become even more complicated as the six major wireless service providers --
, T-Mobile and
-- roll out new features and new plans to go with them. (Please see
accompanying story on the pluses and minuses of the major providers' plans.)
If it seems as if all this is designed to confuse, you're right. However, shopping for a cell-phone plan can be easy -- especially if you know the inside dirt on these companies and the plans they offer. These five facts will help you get a better, cheaper and less-complicated plan.
You Should Change Your Plan
With more than half of all Americans in metropolitan areas owning mobile phones, the competition to retain and attract customers is fierce.
As a result, the wireless providers have been slashing prices on a near-weekly basis. On Oct. 18, Sprint PCS debuted its next-generation Vision PCS service with a $10 per month charge for unlimited data. Ten days later, AT&T Wireless added unlimited nights and weekends to its $30 regional plans. And on Monday of this week, Nextel, Verizon and T-Mobile either dropped prices or unveiled new plans.
"On a weekly basis, at least one of the carriers will lower their prices," said Sean Butson, a Legg Mason wireless analyst who writes a weekly report of the latest plan changes. "This has been going on for a year, particularly after the emergence of six national carriers."
In other words: Don't get complacent about the deal you have. Keep your eyes open for a better offer and shop around a bit to make sure you're getting the latest cut rates.
They Are Trying to Confuse You on Purpose
When you need to fill up you car, deciding where to fill up is easy. Just drive up the street, check the signs and pull into the station with the cheapest price. After all, a gallon of gas is a gallon of gas. But in the wireless industry, pricing isn't this transparent -- which is exactly how they like it.
"It's in the wireless operator's best interest to retain that opaqueness. They're able to do that because there are a lot of other factors in decision-making," said Charles Golvin, analyst with industry-tracker Forrester Research. "They keep adding new factors in, like nights and weekends, instead of a price-per-minute
The confusion can cripple a consumer who is too scared to change plans for fear they'd trade the devil they know for one they don't, which benefits the wireless provider. One of the biggest problems facing the industry is churn, the loss of customers to rivals, and the confusing plans can keep people in place, while encouraging new users to sign up for a deal that seems better than it may be.
"The more these guys can maintain their opacity, the better it is for them," said Golvin.
Don't Let Bells and Whistles Drown Out Price Concerns
To keep from being confused, you'd be wise to write exactly how you plan to use the phone and completely ignore any features you'll never use. After all, how many people use three-way conference calling?
Start by focusing on where you live. The single most important factor in buying a mobile plan is the strength of you network, not the amount you pay. "You have this thing so you can make a phone call," said Golvin. "If you can't make or receive a call, it doesn't matter how little you're paying. It's useless."
But because no one ever thinks about how many minutes they really use the phone, it's all too easy to overbuy when it comes to service. If you're not much of a traveler or if your family and friends are close to your home, then a national plan might not make any sense. Likewise, taking photos or sending data may seem neat, but you may not use it once the initial curiosity is gone.
The Coverage Maps Lie
All six of the wireless-service providers love to remind customers that they have a national network, but just because a company is coast-to-coast doesn't mean the service is any good.
For example, T-Mobile has great coverage in New York, but in California, where it has no coverage, the company has an agreement with Cingular to handle its business. The converse is true for Cingular, which has a similar agreement with T-Mobile in New York.
Because of these agreements and the fact that everything from tall buildings to overcast skies can affect service, those coverage maps in stores merely give a good suggestion of where your phone will work. "Putting those maps together is not an exact science," said Paul Dittner, wireless analyst for industry-tracker Gartner Dataquest.
To make sure you're getting the best service, ask friends, family and colleagues what plans they use and if they're happy with their service. The experts agree -- this is one area where anecdotal evidence can give you an edge.
Nights and Weekend Minutes Don't Matter
The skies may be dark, but in the wireless world nighttime usually doesn't begin until 9 p.m., which leaves little calling time for the nonvampires out there. Because of this, experts suggest that consumers look closer at the anytime minutes being offered instead of being sucked in by night and weekend minutes.
"The average number of minutes used each month is 450," Butson said. "There are not many people out there who can actually use a thousand night and weekend minutes. And at that amount, they're virtually irrelevant.
Some carriers take the night and weekend minutes to extremes. Verizon, for instance, offers 4,000 monthly night and weekend minutes as a major feature in a $55 monthly plan. In a month, there are about 20,000 minutes of night and weekend minutes when you could possibly talk, which means you'd have to be on the phone nearly 20% of the off-peak time to use the minutes.
By looking just at anytime minutes, not only will you make sure your plan fits, but you'll also have an easier time comparison shopping. "It's impossible to compare plans on other features," said Butson. "Consumers mainly use the anytime minutes, anyway."