Wireless Phone Service

Shopping for a wireless service can be even more confusing than shopping for long-distance telephone plans. In addition to the usual task of selecting from a number of plans offering different rates and terms, shopping for a wireless service requires that you understand where you will be roaming, where long-distance charges apply, how many minutes will you'll be likely to use each month, and which phone to select. You'll also have to figure in any installation or activation fee as well as the cost of the phone. Since you will probably be required to sign up for a one-year plan, and because the phone itself is usually offered as part of the deal, the best way to compare services is by computing the anticipated annual cost of each plan. It probably makes little sense to sign up for more than a year because prices are generally falling. Low-volume users should consider a prepaid option to avoid monthly charges and to avoid paying for unused minutes. Prepaid plans allow purchase of blocks of minutes without monthly service bills.

The first hurdle is to figure out the number of minutes per month that you expect to use during weekdays and during nights and weekends. Many plans offer a limited number of daytime minutes plus many "free" night and weekend minutes. Once you've determined how many minutes you're likely to use, you must also determine where you will be calling, and if you frequently travel, where you will be. Typically, a plan will offer an area that is free of roaming and long-distance charges and a wider area that is free of roaming charges but not long-distance charges. (Roaming charges can be as high as $.99 per minute and long-distance charges are typically about $.15 per minute). If you use many minutes, look for a plan that offers toll-free and roaming-free minutes in your area of use. Some plans offer national toll-free and roaming free service.

When figuring the total cost of a given plan, deduct any savings that you may enjoy by avoiding regular long-distance minutes or the cost of a second line at home. However, few customers regard wireless service as a substitute for normal telephone service. Disadvantages of wireless services include sound quality (depending upon local conditions), the inability to have extension phones at home, questions about health risks (still an open questions subject to ongoing research), and less reliable access to emergency services (e.g., 911). Consider an ear-piece/microphone set as an accessory (about $20). It frees your hands to make driving safer and may reduce your exposure to radio waves. But at least one article asserts that it could, in some circumstances, increase radio wave exposure.

Although three web sites appear to offer unbiased information about wireless phones and plans, (www.point.com, www.getconnected.com, and www.telebright.com) they offer limited, if any, coverage of plans available in Maine. Therefore, the Public Advocate has compiled details of some of the major plans available in Maine. Low-volume users (under 100 minutes per month) should consider a prepaid wireless account. In July Attorneys General in 32 states settled a suit against major wireless carriers. As a result, many consumers are now entitled to 14-day cancellation option (14 days form the date service begins), and clear disclosures about signal coverage and other terms. In addition, Unicel and US Cellular may be subject to certain rules of the PUC because they have filed to recieve federal subsidied. As with regular phone service, always confirm rates and ask about current promotions before you sign up. Also be sure to ask about the penalty imposed if you terminate a plan before its expiration.

Choosing the right wireless plan can be a daunting task. Here is our advice:

  • Make sure the signal quality is good where you plan to use the phone most. Insist on a no-questions-asked return policy good for at least 7 days (some already offer a 30-day cancellation policy). Wireless phone
  • Companies have not seen fit to provide detailed information about local coverage conditions.
  • Know your designated home area because roaming charges can be very expensive. Some "national" plans are deceptive because roaming can still apply in many areas around the country, depending on the licensed areas of the company. Always check latest coverage maps before signing a contract.
  • Don't pay for a national plan if you rarely leave the regional or local home area - you'll usually get more monthly minutes with a smaller home area.
  • Don't get a plan with too many minutes because the rule is usually "use them or lose them". Don't get a plan with too few minutes because overtime minutes can be very expensive.
  • GSM, TDMA, AND CDMA are different digital modes that can affect service availability and roaming charges. Be sure to buy a phone that optimizes your wireless company's service in your area of use.
  • Low-use or emergency-only customers should consider a prepaid wireless account, but also ask wireless phone companies about their "universal service" or "emergency-use" plans.