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best cell phone plans and service

The Best Cell Phone Plans and the Best Cell Phone Providers for Good Service
Change Is In the Air


Cell phone plans can be complicated, and the companies that provide cell phone service may be difficult to deal with. Here we clear up your questions about how a cell phone works, cell phone providers, 3G and 4G technology, which cell phone plan is best for you, avoiding the early termination penalty, the small print in your cell phone contract, roaming charges, long distance charges, rollover minutes, locked phones, how to keep your cell phone number, international travel, wi-fi capability, and how to avoid hidden fees and penalties. The more you know about your cell phone plan, the more money you'll save.

How a Cell Phone Network Works

A cell phone is a little portable radio telephone. Radio waves are used to transfer signals to and from the cell phone. The area where you live is divided into cell sites with a transmitting tower in each. Each cell site has a range of 3 to 5 miles and overlaps other cell sites. All of the cell sites are connected to cellular switching exchanges which can detect the strength of the signal received from the telephone. As the telephone user moves from one cell area to another, the exchange automatically hands the call to the cell site with the strongest signal.

Cell phones use radio wavelengths in the band of 1mm to 300mm, which are called microwaves. Microwave ovens use the same frequencies to cook food, but at much higher power. Cell phones have antennas to send electromagnetic microwaves from base station to base station. When you drive down the road you often see the high towers with the satellite dishes. These are microwave towers for wireless cell phone communications.

Features of the Best Cell Phones

Cell phones provide exciting and useful functions. Depending on the cell-phone model, you can:
  • Talk to others;
  • Send and receive e-mails
  • Send and receive text messages
  • Send and receive photos
  • Send and receive music
  • Send and receive videos
  • Browse the Internet for information, news, entertainment, or stock quotes
  • Take photos and videos
  • Store contact information
  • Make task or to-do lists
  • Keep track of appointments
  • Set reminders with the built-in alarm
  • Use the calculator for simple math
  • Play games
  • Watch TV
  • Integrate other devices such as PDAs, MP3 players and GPS receivers

Who Are the Major Cell Phone Service Providers?

The following companies are major cell phone service providers with broad areas of coverage: Alltel Wireless, Verizon, T Mobile, AT&T and Sprint. Where you live ultimately determines which service provider you choose. Cellular phone service offerings vary a lot from region to region. Coverage is the most important criteria when you choose a service provider.

Which Cell Phone Service Plan Is Best?

To get the best service plan for your cell phone, consider the geographical calling area you need and the minutes of talk, data and text you will use. Most carriers offer plans with local, regional or national calling areas. If a plan offers a large calling area, the rate per minute will be higher. It is up to you to decide which plan will be least expensive, based on how much you travel, and where you call. If you get the local coverage plan and travel to another area of the state, expect to pay expensive roaming and long distance fees every time you use your cell phone. Service plans that are limited to your home usage area are the least expensive, as long as you stay in that area.

If you make frequent calls, you need a plan with a lot of minutes and flexibility. But if you only make a few personal calls each month, the basic plan could be right for you. If youíll only use your cell phone for emergencies, say 20 minutes or less a month, you can save money with a prepaid wireless service. The rate will be higher, say $.25 per minute, but your total cost will be less each month. Thereís no need to pay for service youíre not going to use.

Is There a Free Trial Period for Cell Phone Service?

Often you can get a free trial period so you can evaluate the cell phone service provider? Take advantage of the free trial period offered, often two weeks to one month. During this period you can cancel service without a penalty. Check for good audio and voice quality. Check the signal strength out on the street where youíll be making most calls. Most carriers provide a map of their coverage areas, if you ask for it.

Is There an Early Termination Penalty for Your Cell Phone Plan?

If you cancel before the contract is up, will you have to pay an early termination fee? How much is it? $150 to $200 is typical. Ask if the provider will prorate the early termination fee on a month-by-month basis, if you must cancel the contract early? A fee is prorated if it is reduced for every month you are signed up. Early termination fees are used to discourage customers from changing services. If you want to terminate the service contract early because of poor reception, or because the company has merged, request that the early termination fee be waived for cause.

Automatic Contract Extensions You Didn't Know About

If you make changes to your service, will the company require that you extend your contract longer? And will the company disclose to you that the contract is being extended? Some carriers will require that you extend your contract when you want to make simple changes to your service plan. And when you renew your contract, early-termination fees will be included in the contract again. This may happen when you order batteries, or make a small change to your phone plan. Thatís how they can pay for those free, exciting new phones.

Customer Service Problems

Are your friends satisfied with this company? Fewer than half of cell phone owners are very satisfied. Cell service is rated poorly by users. On customer surveys, Verizon and Alltel score better than other service providers. There are customer complaints about early-termination fees, calculation of airtime, the requirement to arbitrate disputes rather than sue, rebates and class-action prohibition. Poor network coverage also requires users to switch cell phone providers. Some networks have static and some are famous for circuits-full problems, service failures and dropped calls. Others providers have a reputation for billing errors, failing to credit rebates to your account and poor customer service. One carrier even terminated 1,000 customers because they complained frequently about the their cell phone service. Just donít expect too much.

Does the Provider Have Special Calling Plans for Faves?

Your cell phone service provider may have special calling plans that can save you money. For example, Alltel Wireless has offered unlimited free calls to 10 designated phone numbers, either wireless or landline, on any provider's network. T Mobile may offer myFaves plans with unlimited free cell phone calls to five people on any network.

Does the Plan Rollover Unused Minutes

Does the company rollover your unused minutes from month to month? If so, how long is it before rollover minutes expire? One year is typical.

What is the Charge for Long-Distance Calls?

Are you using your cell phone to call long distance from your home area? If so, your plan will charge a long-distance rate. And if you are calling long distance from outside your home area, your long-distance rates may vary depending on whose cellular system you are on at that moment, what long-distance carrier it uses, and any agreements it may have with your carrier. If this sounds complex, you're right. To save money, request a plan with a fixed long distance rate.

Roaming Charges Can Be a Surprise

Your cell phone plan defines a geographical area called your home area, which can be a city, state, region or the whole country. If you use your phone outside this home area, you are said to be roaming. All phones have some visual display to let you know that you're no longer in your home area. Roaming airtime rates are usually much higher than the normal rate on your cell phone plan, and you may even be getting your service from a different carrier. In addition to your roaming rate, long-distance charges and other usage fees may apply as well.

Do You Have to Sign a Contract for a Cell Phone Plan?

Perhaps you want to avoid signing a contract, and thus avoid an early termination fee. If you pay full price for your cell phone, typically $100-$200, you can get a month-by-month service plan with the carrier. But some carriers will ask you to prepay for service if you donít sign a contract.

If you don't use your cell phone very often, there are prepaid service plans offered by TracFone or Virgin Mobile which do not require a contract. Check out the per minute rate, the per-day fees and whether or not the minutes expire.

When Does Unlimited Calling Start on the Cell Phone Plan?

Typically, unlimited calling starts at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. The minutes are not charged to your account for calls made during this period.

Will the Provider Unlock Your Cell Phone?

Willthe cell phone provider lock your phone, so that you can't use it if you switch to a different service provider? Verizon and Sprint, both CDMA carriers, have agreed to provide the software code to unlock cellphones, but only after customers have completed their original contract. Other carriers will not unlock your phone.

Can You Keep Your Cell Phone Number If You Switch Providers?

Yes, it is now possible to switch between U.S. cell phone services and keep your phone number. This process is called Wireless Number Portability. You can initiate a number portability request at any time by filling out an application request with your carrier. You should sign up with your new wireless carrier and complete the number porting process BEFORE canceling your current service. Don't cancel your current service before the porting process is complete, or you will lose your current cell phone number.

Can Emergency Vehicles Locate Your Cell Phone?

With a land line, the 911 emergency service can automatically determine your location and send help. New cell phones are required to have a chip for GPS, Global Positioning System. This allows the 911 operator to locate your phone and dispatch emergency services to you. Older cell phones lacked this feature.

Can You Transfer Your Home Phone Number to Your Cell Phone?

Yes, you can transfer your home or office phone number to your cell phone, as long as the wireless carrier you use provides coverage in the location of your land line.

Do You Get Credit for Dropped Calls?

Ask if the credit for a dropped call is applied to my cell phone account automatically? Or must you call the service provider to request the credit. If so, how user-friendly is the voice menu they provide?

Do You Need a Walkie-Talkie Cell Phone?

Do you need a walkie-talkie network? Only Sprint has a push-to-talk network , which is a separate walkie talkie service using the IDEN technology. It is a half-duplex network, which means that only one person can talk at a time. Workers in many occupations rely on walkie-talkie communication. Over and out, good buddy.

What Other Fees Does Your Cell Phone Plan Charge?

In your plan, there may be a separate cost for text messages. If you want Internet access from your cell phone, there will be an additional monthly fee. There may also be separate charges for multimedia messages you download, like photos, videos and other files.

Does Your Cell Phone Plan Offer a High-Speed Wireless Data Network?

Ask if the service offers a high-speed wireless data network for faster Internet browsing and downloading. If at all possible, try to choose a phone that has WiFi built in or available as a SD card. This will save on your data charges if your service provider does not offer an unlimited data plan.

Do You Need Cell Phone Service When You Travel Abroad?

Do you travel often to other countries? For calling in another country, your cell phone must use its system. Most other countries use the GSM system. A few countries use the CDMA system. T-Mobile and AT&T networks use GSM and are more likely to provide coverage for you overseas.

Do You Need a Cell Phone With Wi-Fi Capability?

Many new phones have Wi-Fi capability. If wireless Internet access is available in the hotel or coffee shop, the phone can switch from the carrierís cell network and send your voice call over the Internet. It uses use VOIP, Voice Over Internet Protocol to do this, just like Skype. You wonít even notice the cell phone switching back and forth. However, you probably wonít save any money with this feature, unless you are a very heavy phone user.

If you want Wi-Fi phone access for your laptop computer or other device, in addition to your handset, a separate plan is usually required.

New Cell Phone Technology

Cell phone networks are classified by their technology and speed. First generation analog networks have been phased out. Digital networks, also known as second generation technologies, are clearer, more secure and can handle more callers in a cell. Each carrier chooses which technology it will use on its network. The most widely used technology for digital cell phone networks is GSM, Global System for Mobile communication, popular around the world. Other cell phone networks are based on CDMA , Code-Division Multiple Access, or on TDMA, Time Division Multiple Access. All these network technologies are available from different providers in the United States. Each service provider makes cell phones proprietary, so they cannot be used on the network of another cell phone provider.

The newer digital service is not yet available in some rural areas, which still rely on analog service. If you travel to these rural areas, make sure your phone will handle both analog and digital service.

How Cell Phone Networks Carry Your Voice and Data

The first wireless networks created a physical path between receiving and sending devices, much like your land-line telephone network. But 4G, fourth generation data networks, use packet switching, the same approach used on the Internet. This protocol breaks your voice into small data pieces called packets, which are transmitted individually.

3G and 4G technologies were created for the smart phone, the true multimedia cell phone. There are two popular technologies used to get data over a cell phone, EVDO, Evolution Data Optimized, and UMTS, Universal Mobile Communication System. They offer more bandwidth and faster transfer rates to accommodate Internet-based applications, audio files and video files. The technology used on the network to carry data is different from the voice technology. For example, GSM / UMTS uses Universal Mobile Communication System mobile data technology in the GSM phone.

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