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Solving the puzzle of cellphone plans

The choices are dizzying, but careful consumers can get exactly what they need.

June 17, 2007|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

PICKING a cellphone plan has become one of the connected life's great chores.

Many of the nation's 235 million mobile-phone customers have faced the mind-numbing task of poring over an overwhelming array of available services and handsets, and it's not getting any easier.

Nearly 9 out of 10 cellphone users get their service from the nation's top four carriers: AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA. Each offers dozens of individual plans, family plans and handsets. Then there are the add-on features, such as text messaging, streaming video and photo sending.

Cellphone customers, especially parents with two or three mobile-crazed teenagers, can face huge bills if they make the wrong choice.

They may miss the "gotcha" charges for items like that call that began before the free night or weekend period. And sometimes their bills soar because their kids have no idea how quickly the costs for text messaging, ring tones, songs, videos and games can add up.

To avoid paying more than you should, you've got to be smart and prepared. After all, you will most likely be locked into a one- or two-year contract -- mainly for discounts on handsets -- and terminating that deal early will cost you $150 to $200 a line.

Start the decision-making process by asking yourself a few simple questions: Where, when and how much do you use your cellphone? What features do you really plan to use? And how much do you want to spend?

The answers can narrow your choices quickly.

Erik Melendez, a mechanic in Los Angeles, doesn't usually leave Southern California and needs a cellphone only to make calls -- but he's often on the phone four hours a day.

"An unlimited plan gives me peace of mind," Melendez said.

So he went with a prepaid plan from Boost Mobile, a youth-oriented subsidiary of Sprint, with unlimited talk time for $55 a month.

Although a regional plan may work for many people, the more popular ones are nationwide calling plans that come with various bundles of minutes and, sometimes for $5 or more a month, a designated amount of text messaging -- an important feature for teenagers, especially.

To figure how much talk time you'll need, count the minutes you spend on your current phone in a typical month, then add 25% to 50% as a buffer to avoid hefty overage fees. That should give you an idea of how many minutes you'll need for your new cellphone.

Here are some other tips:

* Usually you can avoid contracts by paying full price for the handsets. You also can check out smaller regional companies, which often let you quit at any time, or prepaid plans.

Some states have legislation pending to lessen the pain. But the California Senate on June 7 rejected a bill that would have required all carriers to offer 30-day trial periods and to prorate termination fees, tying the amount you pay to how much of the contract term remains.

* Get a data plan if you want to use your mobile phone for checking e-mail, surfing the Web and taking advantage of offerings such as music, video and live TV. Be aware that data plans can cost $40 a month or more, and some of the advanced features incur extra fees.

To take advantage of those added features, you'll also need higher-end phones, mainly so-called smart phones.

You usually can get discounts on handsets by signing one- or two-year contracts with a carrier, but look out for hefty penalties if you try to get out of those contracts early.

* Don't bite on buying the latest must-have handset: the Motorola Krazr, the Samsung Blackjack, the LG Sync, the BlackBerry Curve or even the soon-to-be-released Apple Inc. iPhone.

"People get phone envy and go straight to the hottest phone on the market," said industry veteran Jen O'Connell of Atlanta, author of "The Cell Phone Decoder Ring." "Then they end up with something that doesn't work for them or has features they don't know how to use or even want."

* Do basic research on the Internet, then head to the store or pick up the phone to talk to a salesperson.

"If you've got someone at your side explaining all the offerings to you, you're probably going to find out more quickly what each plan has," said Rosa Esquivel, AT&T's marketing director for the Los Angeles area.

You might not spot the website's fine print, for instance, that says the big discount you're getting is good for only three months. A salesperson should be pointing that out immediately. If there's one thing consumers hate, it's getting nickel-and-dimed for the little things that make the monthly phone bill swell by $10 or $20.

If you're confident enough about what you want, you can buy online at your chosen carrier's site or at one of numerous Internet retail stores.

* Figure out which network works best where and when you will use the phone the most.

Most carriers' services generally work fine in much of Southern California. But most have dead spots in some areas.

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