Cell Phone Plans

There are many things to consider when shopping for a cell phone plan. It’s often difficult to distinguish between clever advertising and what is actually there in the fine print. Here are some things to check into before making your decision:

Coverage

"Coverage" is the geographical area within which you can use your cell phone to make and receive calls. Coverage can vary greatly by carrier because it is primarily determined by where the carrier has built up its network. Most carriers can provide you with maps outlining their coverage areas, but typically these are only rough estimates of the geographic area they cover. They do not guarantee that your phone will work in all areas on the coverage map. Areas on the coverage map in which you cannot use your phone are often referred to as "dead zones." Dead zones can be caused by hills, buildings and even foliage blocking the signal between the carrier's tower and your phone.

Tip: It will be difficult to adequately judge the quality and coverage of the cellular service in your area before you buy a phone and sign a contract. Ask friends, family and coworkers for recommendations of carriers that provide good call quality in your area. Ask each carrier how much of a trial period they will provide you for testing out the coverage of your phone. Most of the national carriers offer 14-day to 30-day trial periods.

Calling Plans

Many cell phone companies offer local, regional and national calling plans. Each plan will designate a specific calling area where you can make a certain number of minutes of calls each month for a set price. Calls made outside of that calling plan can carry an extra per-minute, long-distance charge.

Tip: To pick the best plan for you, figure out whether you will be making most of your calls locally or outside of the carrier's local or regional areas.

Roaming

"Roaming" refers to calls that you make or receive either when you are outside of your home calling plan or on another carrier's network. Some cell phone plans charge high fees for roaming; others do not. Several carriers reserve the right to terminate service if over half of your calling time is used while roaming.

Tip: Be aware that even "nationwide" plans can include roaming fees. Some carriers define "nationwide" as anywhere in that carrier's service network, not anywhere in the country. Once outside of that network, subscribers will have to pay roaming fees that can be as high as 79 cents per minute.

Included Minutes

Most carriers offer different calling plans that include a set amount of minutes for use each month. This is often called a "basket" or "bucket" of minutes. Generally, if you use more than that specified amount of minutes, you will have to pay additional charges. Many carriers will offer a limited amount of daytime or "peak" minutes and unlimited "off-peak" minutes. In addition, some carriers offer plans with additional minutes that can be used for calling other subscribers to that carrier's network.

Tip: Carriers can define "peak" and "off-peak" minutes differently. Read the contract terms carefully to understand the bucket of minutes included in a particular plan. Exceeding your allotted minutes can be costly.

Service Contracts

The national carriers all require that new customers sign a one to two year contract for service, unless they sign up for prepaid plans. While many carriers will allow you to move from one of its calling plans to another while you are under contract, making this kind of change will often extend the length of your contract with the carrier. Most contracts carry a high termination fee if you decide to cancel the service early.

Tip: Read the service contract carefully. Most providers' contracts include clauses that allow them to modify the contract at any point in the future and that prohibit you from resolving any disputes through court or class actions. Consider striking out these kinds of clauses. The carrier ultimately may not agree to your suggested contract changes, but at the very least you can express your dissatisfaction with the terms of its form contract.

Monthly Billing

Some carriers will provide you with "detailed billing," itemizing each call you made or received during a billing cycle, at no cost; others will charge a fee for this information.

Tip: Billing mistakes are the largest source of complaints about cell phone companies reported to the FCC. When you get your first bill, read it carefully to verify that the cost and terms of the plan are the same as the company represented to you.

If Something Goes Wrong

If you are unable to resolve billing or service problems by contacting your carrier directly, you may want to file a complaint or take further action. Consider the following options:

  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC): The FCC has regulatory authority over cell phone carriers. To file a complaint with the FCC’s Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, call 1-888-225-5322 or visit:http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/complaints.html.
  • Contact the Public Utility Commission of your state.
  • Small Claims Court: If you are unable to resolve your dispute, you may want to file a claim against the carrier in small claims court. Some contracts allow consumers to pursue this option. Others may prohibit it, but those clauses can be challenged in some circumstances.