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Wireless Plans


Wireless Phone Service Plans

wireless phone illustration
wireless phone Most cell phone service providers offer a selection of wireless plans based around specified numbers of calling time minutes per month.  Some of the minutes are good at any time; others are good only during off-peak hours such as nights and weekends.  If you exceed your minutes allocation, you will typically be charged a premium of 35 to 50 cents per minute, depending on the calling plan.  Look for a plan that offers rollover minutes from month to month.  Most wireless communication plans require a one-year or two-year service contract, with monetary penalties for early termination.  Many plans also include long distance coverage and offer substantial discounts on the purchase of wireless phones.

smart phone Speaking of these wireless phones, they aren't just for making phone calls anymore!  Today's cell phones do way more than let you talk.  Most of today's cell phones are equipped with small cameras that allow you to take pictures, as well as features that allow you to download music and ring tones.  Text messaging has become popular with cell phone users, and many phones enable you to add photos, video clips, and sounds to your messages.  Some phones offer global positioning services (GPS), while others allow you to download TV programs and live news feeds.  Of course, many of these features add extra charges to your monthly fees.

With all these options, how do you choose a cell phone service provider?

cell tower - wireless communications tower The first thing you should do is check out the geographic coverage offered by each provider.  Since coverage can vary significantly from provider to provider, you need to make sure that you will have consistent and full service in the areas where you need your phone.  The best way to find out about adequate coverage is to talk to others in your area about what service they use and their level of satisfaction.  Most carriers also list their coverage areas and dead zones on their web sites.

Once you narrow the choice down to a few carriers, find out if their networks fit your needs.  Wireless networks fall into a few basic categories, and knowing which network your carrier uses will help you determine things like whether your phone can be used in rural areas or outside the United States.  The digital networks are CDMA (code division multiple access), GSM (global system for mobile), TDMA (time division multiple access), and iDEN (integrated digital enhanced network).  TDMA is an older system that is not often used, while iDEN is used more or less exclusively by Nextel.  In most cases, you'll be choosing between CDMA and GSM.  So what's the difference?  Some CDMA phones use analog backup, which allows you to roam in areas where digital service isn't available.  GSM phones, on the other hand, can be used in other countries outside the USA.

wireless pda As you narrow down your choices, start comparing prices.  A good way to do this without making lots of phone calls is to visit the individual carriers' websites.  The websites should detail the plans each carrier offers, as well as any special offers or promotions.  If you don't find a plan that suits your needs on the carrier's web site, it never hurts to ask them if plans other than those featured are available.

Once you have chosen a service provider and completed your contract, it's time for the fun part — picking your phone.  Many plans offer a "complimentary" phone that comes with a one-year or two-year contract, but if you want more features, you can spend $600 or more.  So, how to choose?

woman wearing wireless bluetooth headset First, decide which features you need.  Do you travel frequently, and would a GPS be handy?  Do you need the option of using a wireless headset or a built-in speaker phone?  Do you want to be able to take photographs or download music?  Some cell phones have a few of these features, while others have all of them.  In order to pay only for things you need, decide which features are necessary and which are not.

pda phone keypad Once you've picked a phone you think might fit your needs, hold it to make sure it's comfortable.  Are the keys set up so you can comfortably dial, and will you be able to dial in dim light or darkness?  Also check out the display.  While some phone displays are easily seen in dim light, they are difficult to see in bright light.  Make sure you test your potential phone in both dim and bright lighting situations.

Have you decided that a long-term wireless contract doesn't really fit your needs?  Don't worry, you have options!  Prepaid wireless phone plans are an alternative for those who are averse to long-term wireless contracts.  With these plans, you pay in advance for a number of airtime minutes that are usable within a specified number of days.  With some of these prepaid plans, you set up an account with an initial credit card deposit.  The account is debited when calls are made and automatically replenished as needed.  Virgin Mobile is a pay-as-you-go wireless provider that offers simple refill options and helpful customer service.  However, Virgin uses the Sprint PCS network, and its service and coverage are not up to Verizon and T-Mobile standards.

Major Wireless Plans

  • AT&T Wireless
    AT&T Wireless, formerly Cingular Wireless, is the largest wireless company in the United States; it also features the nation's largest digital voice and data network.
  • Verizon Wireless
    Verizon manages a wireless network that serves millions of voice and data customers.  Verizon generally receives high marks for customer satisfaction, network coverage, and signal quality.  International travelers should know that Verizon operates on the CDMA network, which is incompatible with European and Asian GSM networks.
  • T-Mobile USA
    T-Mobile features wireless plans and mobile phones as well as handhelds, PDAs, and wireless network cards that are compatible with European and Asian GSM networks.  This makes T-Mobile a good choice for overseas travelers.
  • Sprint
    Sprint, a provider of fully integrated wireless communications services, offers flexible wireless phone services.  Sprint wireless data services provide broadband-like speed on your wireless phone, and Sprint Business Wireless features wireless mobile applications including location-based services and messaging capabilities for mobile workforces.

Wireless Plan Reviews

  • CNET.com Cell Phones
    Features reviews and advice about cell phones, smart phones, Bluetooth headsets, and cell phone accessories.

Related Phone Service Resource

  • Telephone Area Codes
    North American area code tables, sorted by area code, country, and location.

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Wireless Plans - Guide to Wireless Phone Service Plans

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