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Getting the best deal on prepaid cellular service

Next, take a good look at your potential carriers.

Deal with major league companies whose names you recognize. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau, the public utilities commission and the consumer affairs office in the state where they are based. Run a quick Google search and see what customers are saying about them, too.

Want to get the best service at the lowest price? "Deal directly with the company which is providing the service," says Yale Braunstein, professor of information management and systems at the University of California at Berkeley.

It also makes it much easier to deal with billing or technical problems since "one company, end to end, is responsible for everything," Braunstein says.

Then fine-tune your search. Here's what you want to know:

How's the customer service? Call customer service. How hard is it to reach a real, live person? Are staff members helpful and knowledgeable?

Find out if you will be billed for the time you spend on the phone with customer service if you call from your cell, advises Segermark. And is there a toll-free number in case you want to call from a landline?

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What's the coverage area? "Really what customers want is good-quality service and a [large] coverage area," says Dana Thorat, a senior research analyst with IDC, a market research and consulting firm based in Framingham, Mass. "They don't want to lose the signal."

So what is the designated coverage area, and what happens if you want to make or take a call outside that area?

What's the roaming policy, and what's the charge? Ask "how are the bills calculated, what are the roaming charges, and when are they applied," advises Thorat.

What's the rounding policy? If you make a call that lasts three minutes and 45 seconds, will it be rounded up to four minutes or more? Depending on how many calls you make, a plan that offers more expensive minutes but only charges you for the exact amount of time you use could be cheaper.

Does the carrier offer a low-cost nationwide plan? Would that plan be cheaper for you than incurring roaming charges?

What happens when you run out of minutes? Can you still use the phone to buy more time? And how long can you remain inactive before you have to start all over again?

What's the expiration policy on minutes? "I'd really check on that," says Regas, adding that the quicker minutes expire, the more the plan costs you. While some companies roll the minutes, others kill them off after 30, 45 or 60 days, he says.

And with some plans, the lifespan on minutes depends "on how many you buy and when you buy them," says Braunstein.

How does the company keep track of minutes? And are oldest ones automatically used first?

How easy is it to purchase more time? If you're buying minutes over the Internet, the site should be easy to use, says Thorat. If you're buying over the phone, who pays for the call?

And when you pay for your plan or buy more minutes, always use a credit card, rather than a debit card. That way, says Regas, if anything does go wrong, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.

Do you need advanced math to calculate how many minutes you have? Since prepaid cellular is "largely a youth market," says Thorat, carriers should make it simple for budget-conscious users to figure out just how much they've spent.

Is there a monthly fee? "It is not abnormal to have a fee when the company offers minutes that roll over," says Segermark.

Why do you want a cell phone, and why are you considering prepaid service? Parents may see cell phones as an effective way to keep tabs on kids and view prepaid service as a good way to limit phone bills. Teens may want a phone primarily to text-message their friends or play video games. But whoever's shopping needs to keep all the uses in mind to buy effectively. Not every prepaid provider offers all the techno-options and toys -- and some offer only a limited number of free text messages.

"My bias is that you should really sit back and figure out why you want prepaid as opposed to a regular account," says Braunstein.

New toys
As the market evolves, you'll see a few new twists on service, says Thorat. For instance, one company aiming for the youth market is offering a prepaid service billed automatically each month to a credit or debit card.

"To be a prepaid customer takes an action on the part of a customer," says Thorat. Pre-arranged monthly billing, on the other hand, "is an automatic thing, no action required."

Cellular customers change companies regularly, averaging just over three years with one carrier, according to figures from IDC. And prepaid customers are viewed as the least loyal of the lot.

"I don't think carriers look at prepaid customers as long-term customers," says Mahla.

You can use the transitory nature of prepaid cellular to your advantage.

"You might consider prepaid cellular for a short period of time," says Mahla. "It gives you the option of trying [service] without a contract. You can use it as a way of figuring out what's best for you."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Posted: July 15, 2003
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See Also
Getting a deal on a cell phone
Cell phone plan comparison worksheet
Frugal U. definitions
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