The six major wireless service providers all sell the same thing, but they go about it in very different ways. While it's impossible to recommend one company for all people, knowing how each of them is positioned and what people say about them can help you whittle down your list of potential providers.
Here's a quick handicapping of the field, with comments from the experts.
could be the most difficult wireless carrier to gauge. It is reviled by customers for shoddy service, but it offers some of the most innovative phones and services around. In a study of wireless carriers from J.D. Power and Associates, consistently finished near the bottom of the rankings.
Not only does the company have a bad reputation for dropped calls, customers often complain about the myriad fees it charges -- something the company recently addressed with a simplified pricing plan. That doesn't mean its new pricing is straightforward. A just-announced low-priced introductory offer on plans under $60 will jump by $10 after three months of use.
Complaints about PCS network may be legion, but the company's just-launched Vision PCS service is the first national data network, which means you can finally do cutting-edge tasks no matter where you live. Experts also say that PCS tends to have the best selection of phones.
"All of the other companies went live on a regional basis," said Charles Golvin, wireless analyst for industry-tracker Forrester Research. "They're going after early adopters now, offering new color screen phones and camera attachments."
T-Mobile is the newest of the six providers, a rebranding of VoiceStream after
bought it about a year ago. To make a splash, the company not only traded pitchwoman Jamie Lee Curtis for Catherine Zeta-Jones, it also reduced prices to some of the lowest in the entire industry.
"They're using aggressive pricing to grow their subscriber base," said Golvin. "They're very focused on the consumer market, which you can see in the hip and cool ads they're trying to push."
T-Mobile's newness comes with a major drawback -- its U.S. network isn't nearly as wide as rivals like AT&T Wireless. As a result, the carrier relies on agreements with other carriers to provide national service, like in California, where it uses Cingular's network.
But on a global scale, no one can match T-Mobile. Because of its foreign ownership, T-Mobile can provide service, even if you're taking a trip to London. As a result, T-Mobile customers can pay a lot less than other people to make calls abroad, where charges run as high as $2 a minute.
When it comes to service,
is king, finishing atop the 2002 J.D. Power service rankings. And while the company has never been known for aggressive pricing, it just dropped them to encourage users to switch from its older TDMA network to the newer GSM network.
For $100 a month, you can get unlimited calling on the GSM network, cheapest in the industry -- but therein lies a problem. "While the company is in the transition, GSM doesn't have the same coverage as TDMA," said Paul Dittner, wireless analyst for industry-tracker Gartner Dataquest. "You really need to be aware of how well it built out its network."
Tech heads will be pleased by the company's mLife offering, which is coming to fruition after confusing consumers with a bewildering ad campaign that didn't stress the next-generation features its phones provide.
Cingular -- a joint offering from
-- doesn't have the best network, the lowest pricing or the edgiest phones -- but it is the only company to offer rollover minutes. This means the hundreds of minutes you don't use each month carry over to the next month, good news for customers who finally get to keep what they paid for.
But regular users are just amassing loads of minutes they won't use -- the people who really get their money's worth are those whose usage spikes wildly from month to month. "They just want you to use your phone more," said Dittner. "If you only use 200 minutes a month and you're on a 400-minute plan, then why would you need 400 minutes the next month if you didn't use them this month?"
Cingular does offer a nice suite of next-generation phones with ringtones and the games that younger users crave. It is well known for having solid service, winning first place in J.D. Power's service rankings for Texas and Atlanta, and its prices are competitive.
is best known for its direct connect feature, which allows customers to use their phones like a walkie-talkie with each other (good for traders). But unlike the other five carriers, Nextel has higher prices and is less likely to drop them to court consumers because its large and lucrative enterprise customer base allows it to focus its energies elsewhere.
"But even though they're focused on business, they still have a productivity message with their consumer offerings," said Golvin, who notes recent commercials, where pitchman Dennis Franz uses his phone while shopping for fruit.
Consumer offerings may be underhyped, but Nextel still offers a variety of games, fun options and new phones. The company's true Achilles' heel is its network, which can be spotty in places. Make sure to check how service is in your area first.
is a solid all-around performer in the space, with a large national network, a good reputation for service and a wide array of features. Unlike rivals, Verizon sells itself on network quality and not price, so while it's competitive across the board, its plans aren't always the cheapest.
"Their mainstream message is 'Can you hear me now?,' which is funny because it's the one thing you don't want to say into a phone," said Golvin. "But they're implying that you get what you pay for and the other networks aren't as good -- they're one of the top two in terms of quality."
In addition to the network, Verizon is also targeting younger users with its "Get it Now" campaign. "This is their branding around the ability to get games and tones. There is some innovation there," said Golvin, "but there isn't a whole lot that isn't available on other plans."