Shopping Tips for Wireless Services

In Maine, the wireless carries with facilities include AT&T, Verizon, US Cellular, and T-Mobile.  Other carriers, such as Sprint and Virgin Mobile, may also own facilities and market their service in limited parts of the State – typically in the Portland area.  In addition, other wireless companies re-sell the services of those facilities-based carriers and typically offer lower prices with no-contract options.  Those include Tracfone (prepaid) and Consumer Cellular (low-volume monthly plans).  Tracfone also markets plans under the brands Net10, StraightTalk, and Safelink (Safelink provides service to eligible low-income customers).

There are two different types of wireless networks in Maine – CDMA and GSM.  Verizon and US Cellular operate CDMA networks while AT&T and T-Mobile operate GSM networks.  In some areas of the State, one of those networks may offer stronger coverage than the other.  Mobile coverage can vary on a very localized basis so it is important to determine what works where you plan to use your phone.  Friends, neighbors, wireless companies, and town officials may be good sources of that information.  If you sign up for a contract and then find the service to be insufficient, remember to cancel the contract and return the phone within the 15-30 day grace period (depending on the individual company).    Otherwise, you can be faced with a high early termination penalty.

If you plan to use mobile broadband and buy a smartphone, ask the company about the speed – do they offer 3G speeds?  4G speeds?  Also be sure to ask if there is any megabyte limit on data (Internet) usage.  Some companies limit your usage and charge high fees when you exceed that limit.

Finally, you may want to consider which company offers your preferred phone.  Not all companies offer the same models.  As of 2012, iPhones are available only from AT&T and Verizon, but many new models are as feature-rich as the iPhone.  Consumer Reports is a good source to help choose the right phone.

  • Typical Individual Or Family Plans With Contract
    The four facilities-based carriers offering coverage throughout Maine offer many plans and features at prices that are fairly comparable.  The first step is to carefully consider the number of minutes that you will use each month.  If you guess too low, you may see hefty extra-minute charges on your bill.  If you guess too high, you will be committing to a higher-than-necessary monthly fee.  Most carriers require a two-year contract, especially where the phone price is subsidized, but there are exceptions.
  • Prepaid Service
    Consider prepaid service if you use less than 300 minutes per month. Look for prepaid phones that offer double minutes for life. For example, Tracfone offers a one-year card with 400 minutes which may be automatically doubled to give you 800 minutes. The effective rate becomes 12.5 cents per minute and the monthly cost about $8.50 per month. If you make 3 of those 800-minute purchases in a year, you've spent $25 per month for 200 minutes per month. You've also avoided being tied to a contract with potential early termination penalties.
  • Smartphone/Data Plans
    In addition to the plans of the facilities-based carriers, Tracfone offers lower-cost data plans through their StraightTalk brand. StraightTalk offers unlimited voice, texts, and Internet for $45 per month, with no contract – significant savings compared to the contract plans of the facilities-based carriers. What's the catch? Since the low rates do not subsidize the phone as heavily as with contract plans, you will have to pay the approximate market price for the phone when you begin service. Prices vary from $50 to $200, and you won't find an iPhone there. In addition, there are no stores and the quality of web or phone-based customer service may vary. In addition to their website, these plans are marketed by Walmart.
  • Low Volume Plans
    Consumer Cellular is a reseller that specializes in lower volume plans without a contract for those who use a limited, but steady number of monthly minutes.
  • Free Phone And Service For Qualified Low-Income Households
    The federal Universal Service Fund supports a free wireless phone and typically 250 free minutes per month for households that are qualified to receive public support (food stamps, SSI, etc.). This benefit is an alternative to the traditional landline Lifeline discount – it is not permissible to receive both benefits simultaneously. These free services are available from Tracfone (Safelink) T-Mobile (Assurance Wireless), Nexus Communications (ReachOut), Liberty Wireless (Cintex), YourTel, and Sprint (Gulf Coast Wireless). Pending applications have been filed by Next Gen Communications and Telrite (Life Wireless).