So many Choices... which cellular plan is right for me!?

Apr 5, 2001

The Bottom Line Need, Cellular Service reputation, Cell phone reliability, Phone size, and Phone battery life are major considerations of cellular service. Knowing what you are willing to accept is a must!

As with most things, when a useful technology crops up and becomes more affordable, a ton of people want to get their hands on it. Cellular phones rank rather highly on that list these days.

These days, quality phones are very cheap. There is a proliferation of cell phone makers including Nokia, Motorola, Siemens, Phillips, Sony, Ericson, etc... More importantly, cellular plans have come down enormously in overall price with some caveats. Most areas will be served by a minimum of 3 cellular carriers... The big 3 today are Verizon, Cingular, and AT&T Wireless, which account for over 60% of cellular service in the USA. Smaller players include NextTel, VoiceStream, and MCI Wireless among others.

I had a cell phone for 9 almost 10 years now so I guess I'm a fairly early adopter of the technology. I've been with various carriers including Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), AT&T Wireless, and now Cingular. Many things have changed and in some ways have gotten better... some things have worsened.

Now there are several tips for people wanting their first cell phone or people trying to upgrade their current service.

Necessity is the mother of all Invention

As many epinionaters have stated, figure out your necessities with a celluar plan. Is it for emergencies only? Then you want a low cost plan or even a prepaid celluar plan. Cell plans run as low as $19.99 a month for roughly 60 minutes of free home airtime a month with your standard cellular bonuses included (Call waiting, Caller ID, Voice Mail, Beeper/Message receive). A prepaid will run even lower on a per month basis depending on your use. (Prepaid cellular requires you to buy a set amount of minutes that you have a certain time period to use. $10 can buy you 30 minutes of airtime that will be good for 2 to 3 months.)

You plan on keeping in touch with friends in the area? A medium cost plan should suit you well. $29.99 in the NJ/NY Metro area will get you around 225 minutes for use anytime in the whole NJ area and all of NY Metro and Long Island. Most of the time, there is a promotion that allows you to get 500-1000 free night and weekand minutes a month with the $29.99 plans. Many times you only need to pay for long distance charges on top of your regular cellular service charges. Make sure you keep track of your minutes however, if you go over your plan's minutes, there is a hefty charge for each minute above that included in your plan.

Travel alot around the US, then a Nationwide plan is called for. No long distance or roaming charges are added. You can use your phone anywhere where service is provided. Very few additional costs to your cell phone. The only problem is that unless you need such a cellular plan, the cost to maintain a Nationwide plan is rather expensive. Most plans start at $59.99 for 400-500 minutes. On top of that, there are rarely any promotions for these plans.

Know the quality of your cellular carrier

If your cellular companies is very unreliable, guess what! Your cell service will be unreliable. Let's take AT&T for example, in AT&T wireless early years, it was one of the most reliable cellular serives around. Unfortunately, in several markets (like NY metro), demand for AT&T cellular service far outstripped AT&T wireless capacity. It became difficult to place and receive calls on AT&T's network in NY City. It also didn't help that in the past, AT&T offerred probably the lowest prices around for cell service which kept adding more subscribes to an overtaxed system. Now, many people became dissatisfied and left AT&T. While that has been bad for AT&T, it has improved conditions for the rest of their cellular customers have had better performance from their AT&T service. What keeps AT&T afloat is their business contracts and excellent One Rate cellular plans (which still ranks very highly in the country).

Another example, Voicestream is a conglomeration of various companies including the old Omnipoint service. One of my friend joined Omnipoint in its infancy and enjoyed stellar cellular service. Omnipoint also offerred excellent cell rate plans that also built a large customer base very rapidly. However, service began to suffer for it. Cell calls began to have difficulty in being placed. On top of that, my friend found out that Voicestream's service was poor in areas where VoiceStream supposedly had a strong presence (St. Louis for example).

The important part here is that you should find out the reputation of the cellular providers in your area and adjust that to your cellular need. What use is a cell phone if you can't make a call on it!

The phone... I want the coolest

Now hold your horses there! If you browse through a Best Buy, Staples, etc... store, there are a lot... and I mean a lot of phones out there. What you should do is figure out the biggest cell phone you are willing to carry. Second, are you willing to pay for the cell phone? Many carriers will provide a quality phone for free these days. Note that you will get a better deal on the cell phone from an independent cellular dealer (they sell service for AT&T, Verizon, Cingular, Voicestream, MCI, etc... but aren't employees of the cellular service provider) than the stores directly from cellular providers.

Note that battery life is rather important here. How much typical battery life in standby and talk time is provided with the battery that comes with the cell phone? Are other batteries available and for how much. Do I need to buy a car cigarette lighter adapter to supplement my cell phone power needs? (I would recommend getting a car adapter anyway... unless you don't own a car of course) In reality, the battery life of your cell phone plays a large part in the usefulness of the cell phone. If you only can talk for 30 minutes on a fully charged battery, it will reduce the usefulness of your cell phone.

Phone accessories... do you need them. I would recommend at least a low cost case, possibly a spare battery (Li-Ion or Li-Poly is preferred but you will pay for it over NiMH batteries). I would recommend a comfortable hands-free adapter (Nokia is nice enough to give you one with their recent phones including the 5165 and 8160 and 8190 phones) as well. You don't have to worry about talking a driving at the same time now with a hands free. Most of the other accessories are more to personalize your phone or for those in poor signal areas. Note what accessories you have to buy for a phone, since this will significantly add to the initial price of your cell phone. I've traditionally stuck with Nokia phones and kept my accessory costs to a minimum by upgrading to newer phones that use the same accessories.

I would recommend sticking to Brand names although this will become murky in the near future with companies like Microsoft and Siemens coming into the market. Yes I said Microsoft is going to be making cell phones... they made a gaming console, why not make a cell phone?

Overall make a list of your needs and wants...
for cellular service. It will help you get a plan that's right for you. You'll have less regrets (you'll always have some regret because prices change frequently and promotions even more so).

Overall values in cellular service have increased but there are a few features rarely offerred that I do miss. Companies will no longer offer free night and weekends (even as a option) unless the home coverage area is very small. I carry two cell phones currently. I have an AT&T phone using a Nokia 5160i phone with a $24.99 plan giving me 60 minutes a month for Northern and Central NJ and NY Metro with Long Island. I get 20% off my plan with 200 bonus anytime minutes and a $4.99 option for free Nights and Weekends. So every month, I spend about $28 for this plan. I've had this plan more or less in the same form for 4 years now. The $4.99 Nights and Weekends is no longer offered at all for any of AT&T current plans. My old digital advantage plan can't be found on the computers of AT&T customer service anymore as well. Overall, I use the phone for 500 minutes a month. Since I make many calls between NJ and NY Metro and Long Island, at 5 cents a minute for long distance and non-local phone calls, the same 500 minutes will translate to roughly $25.00 in regular phone bills anyway. However, many of the promotions on this phone will end in May 2001 so that's why I recently got another cell phone (since I'm discontinuing the AT&T service). My other cell phone is a $39.99 Cingular plan that I recently signed up for using a Nokia 5165 phone (so I don't have to buy any new accessories and it's a phone series that I'm quite happy with. Plus my brother and father carry a Nokia 6120 and and Nokia 5165 respectively as well). I get 400 minutes plus free nights and weekend plus free long distance. I'm putting 400 minutes a month on this phone for long distance calls. Again, the overall difference in what I pay for the cell phone plan and what it would cost me on a regular phone is miniscule. For me, I make many calls from northern NJ to central NJ to southern NJ as well as NY. Calls within NJ costs 7 cents a minute (based on what my parents pay on their home phone in NJ). I pay under $18 a month for my residential phone service in NY city. At home, I pay a set price per phone calls in the NY Metro area. I pay 10 cents a minute to areas in NY outside of the NY Metro area and 5 cents a minute long distance at night and weekends and 25 cents in the daytime. Considering that I make over 900 minutes of calls on the cell phones of various types. Even if I consider an average price of 5 to 7 cents a minute for those calls, they would translate to $45 to $63 of call charges if placed on my home phone. That easily covers one cell phone and almost the second cell phone. I am considering the fact that the calls encompass local calls as well as daytime long distance calls. I ultimately paid very little for having a cell phone with the advantage of having a phone that I can use virtually anywhere I want.

I hope that gives you an idea for how I evaluated pricing plans for my cell phone. AT&T and Cingular do share the same networks so overall, the quality of service is relatively unchanged. However, differences do exist other than price. AT&T offers 24 hour customer service so you can always talk to a live human being anytime. Cingular customer service works set hours Monday to Friday only. So in that way, Cingular has been a bit disappointing. Cingular doesn't have a base of operations in NY City per say and technically the service is based for the suburban areas of NY State and NJ so NY City service is handled by AT&T.

Hopefully many of you will find this article useful!

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