Selecting The Right Cell-Phone Plan

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If you're thinking of joining the cell-phone generation, get ready to be bewildered by the array of phones, features and service plans available to you.

The first thing you're bound to notice is that there's nary a cell phone company in the nation let alone the two which now serve Payson, Alltel Wireless Communications and Verizon Wireless that isn't looking to snare your business with "free" minutes, free "roaming" and long distance, and sexy new equipment.

The only way to maneuver this jungle and maintain sanity at the same time, suggested Dave Mullis of Alltel, located inside Wal-Mart, is to begin by honestly assessing your wireless needs.

"You have to consider how you're going to use the phone whether you're going to be traveling all over or using it primarily in the Payson area, what your calling patterns will be, how much you tend to talk, and what kind of extra functionality you want out of a phone," Mullis said. "Once we know all that, a plan can be designed to fit your specific needs."

According to a poll of local cell-phone vendors, and information provided by Alltel and Verizon, here are the most important considerations you should make:

Average users make 155 minutes of calls per month some while "roaming" outside their home area and few long-distance calls. If that's your profile, look for services that cost less than $40 per month and include at least 150 minutes of calls at any time of day. But don't overbuy: It's easy to be attracted to the contract that offers more included talk time because the cost per minute will generally be lower. If you don't use all those minutes, though, your per-minute rate will be higher than you expect.

If you're going to be on your cell phone a lot, you're going to want a lot of so-called "free" minutes which on a cell phone are the minutes you pay for up-front as part of your basic monthly charges.

For a bigger up-front monthly fee, you get more "free" minutes. Again, you don't get a refund for the minutes you don't use, so these "free" minutes aren't really free. But they're a whole lot cheaper than the regular cell phone minutes you pay for after you've used them.

To be safe, overestimate your usage and sign up for more minutes than you think you'll need. It's better to have a few extra minutes left in your monthly allotment than to pay the heavy per-minute charge when you go over your "free" minutes.

Like companies, families can benefit from buying in bulk. Both Alltel and Verizon offer family plans that allow you to share a huge cache of minutes among mom, dad and the kids and get a handful of phones at a significant discount or for free. Of course if there's a particularly talkative teen in your clan, you might find that your free minutes allotment disappearing faster than the college funds you have to borrow from to pay their cell-phone bills.

Every major provider offers plans that are "tiered" (local, regional and national) and that revolve around "local" home territories. If you spend a lot of time traveling around the country, you'll want one with free nationwide coverage.

If you opt for a "regional" plan, be sure you understand how your provider defines your region and that it covers all the places where you spend time. You don't want to end up having to pay roaming charges when you call home from work.

Watch for the cell phone and service promotions that waive activation fees and provide free or heavily discounted phones. You might see a good deal from a cell phone company on its website or in a newspaper ad. But pay attention to the definitions of "off-peak" hours. Plans often allow you to use lots of "nights and weekends" minutes, but while some define "nights" as the period from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., others define "nights" as the period from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Also check how "minutes" are defined for billing purposes. Are you charged two minutes if your call is only one minute and one second? Some carriers offer billing based on fractions of a minute rather than whole minutes. This is better, especially if you tend to make lots of short calls.

But here's the best advice: Before you make any decisions, poll your friends on the quality of their services. Just asking around may be the most important research you do.

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