Tag Archives: at&t

Cell phones

23 Feb

Cell phones, those amazing little gadgets we’ve all become so dependent on, to the point that many of us no longer have a traditional land-line based telephone in our homes.

They are also something we’ve begun to get increasingly aggravated with, as carriers lock us into long term contracts with high financial penalties if we attempt to cancel the contracts for any reason.  Those contracts can look very attractive initially, but as time moves forward, and our lives change, they often become increasingly unwieldy monkeys riding on our backs.

Especially in the economy that has plagued us the last five years.

Faced with shifting fortunes, rising costs, and shrinking incomes, many people are desperate to reduce their monthly expenses, to get them to the point that their outgoing bills are less than their income.  That’s something our government isn’t very good at, not only for themselves, but for their constituents.  Corporations, however, seemed to have perfected the art of extracting blood from turnips.

With your cell phone carrier, they often have you over a barrel.  You can’t afford the monthly expense, but you certainly can’t afford the cancellation fee, or the negative notation on your credit history.  There aren’t a lot of options available, especially when you desperately need that cell phone, whether because it’s your sole connection with the outside world, or because you are searching for a job.

There are a few things, especially when faced with a temporary financial crunch, as well as some other things you can do to prevent being caught in the contract bind, while not causing undue financial hardship.

First, resist the urge to “upgrade” your phone at a reduced initial cost and renewing your contract.  This is where the cell phone companies are dangling a carrot out there, intending to keep you on THEIR treadmill.  Resist the temptation, and either continue using your old cell phone or buy another outright.  To keep costs down, you can often buy a used phone via Ebay or other outlets.  Do your research, make sure that the make and model is compatible with your carrier, as well as has some kind of guarantee from the seller that it will arrive in good condition.  You’ll still have to pay an activation fee.

If you don’t actually need a smart phone, skip the trend, stick with a basic function phone, which often can be used on a smaller data package.  These smaller plans without large data packages can save $10 or more per month, which can quickly add up.

Don’t add lines.  Each line comes with an additional contract, usually 24 months long.  If you have a need for additional phones, consider a prepaid option instead.  Then, if it turns out that it’s not needed anymore, you aren’t faced with an unnecessary bill.

If you are locked into a contract situation, and desperately need to cut your bills, there are a few options available.  Check to see if you can change the plan itself without altering your contract.  This option exists with many cell phone companies, and by switching to a basic phone with fewer bells and whistles, you can often cut your plan as much as a hundred dollars a  month.  Don’t cut it so short that you end up going over your limits however, overages are very expensive with many companies.

There is also the option of “suspending” your contract temporarily, usually up to 3 months.  This may have a monthly service charge, but it will allow you time to get your finances under control.

If you are not locked into a contract, you may want to explore other options, even if your finances and job situation looks bright and cheery.  By avoiding the contracts, you are free to explore other options as they become available, without having to wait.  That means everything from the latest iPhone to the different packages available.  It also means that if you are suddenly offered the perfect job in some exotic location, you won’t be biting off a chunk of that “early termination fee.”  Numerous companies offer prepaid plans, some even have iPhones and other smart phones available, complete with unlimited data and minute plans.  Straight Talk, available through Walmart, is one of them.  It is also serviced by the Big Three in cell phone providers: AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, depending on your location.  If you move and your old phone isn’t served in the new area, the problem is solved by simply purchasing another phone, and you are never stuck with a two year contract that leaves all of the cards in the cell phone company’s hands.

Contracts, ranging from one to three years, have become the bane of the consumer’s life.  They are everywhere, increasingly restrictive, designed to reduce competition for our dollars for years at a time, and ultimately reducing the level of service we manage to choke out of the various corporations.  Once you are locked into their services, its virtually impossible to change suppliers, no matter how terrible their service becomes.  It’s not a good trend, especially in a world that has increasing numbers of monopolies to which the consumers are becoming enslaved.

We don’t really have a choice about our electric, natural gas, water, cable, or land based telephone service, yet these companies want to often lock us into contracts to continue receiving their services, and leave the consumer with early termination fees if they decide to move out of their service area.  Cell phone companies do the same thing, using the carrot of reduced cost cell phones to entice customers to their two year enslavement.

To make it even worse, a cell phone is locked to a specific carrier, preventing the consumer from going to another carrier and acquiring service for that phone.  That means even if you aren’t locked into a contract and have a $500 cell phone, you have to buy their service, or buy another cell phone.  Is this really fair?  After all, you bought the cell phone, not leased it.  The cost was not subsidized by the cell phone company.

Something has to be done about all of these corporate monopolies with their abilities to turn us into their indentured serfs for years at a time.  In the meantime, the only way we can avoid that trap ourselves is to carefully read the fine print, avoid contracts with penalties for early termination, and learn to pay as we go.  Prepaid cell phones are one option, and unlike the early days when their fees were outrageously high, they have become increasingly competitive.  Today, Straight Talk, one of the larger prepaid companies, is part of TracFone, and it is marketed through Walmart.  Their unlimited voice and data plans are $45 per month, with no contract and no penalties if you don’t like it, but you do have to purchase the phone, which range in cost from about $19 to nearly $500, depending on features, models, and brands.  Their customers seem to be about equally as satisfied as those who are paying $110 or more for the same service with a contract.

So what does a person really get with the additional $65?

You get a two  year contract, and a reduced price on your phone, plus a $35 activation fee.  That means that at $110 per month, you will pay an extra $1595 for that cell phone in lieu of just purchasing it and going with a cheaper prepaid plan.  Outside of that, there is little difference between companies.  Sure, there is “tech support” with your contract phone, but have you ever used it?  Did it offer you any help?

There’s another reason to consider the no-contract phone.  In the case of a Straight Talk phone, Walmart offers a protection plan that includes water & humidity damage, and costs from $6 on up, depending on the initial cost of your phone.  With most companies, the “insurance” on your phone is about $7 per month, and in the event of water or humidity damage, the replacement can cost you $100 or more, as well as has to be mailed to you anyhow.  With Walmart’s protection plan, there is apparently no deductible on the phone, which means that the difference (in 2 years) can be over $160 per month for better coverage.

Then there are the hidden charges on contract cell phone service, all of those mysterious taxes and service fees that really will surprise you, as they approach increasing the price 20-25% per month.  Without the contract, the fees are included, providing you with a manageable price per month that can be adapted to  your budget.

Sure, there are no “discounts” on the phones initially.  They have to be paid for, along with shipping (if you don’t pick it up in the store) and taxes.  But…in the first two years alone, assuming you don’t damage the phone or get a huge desire to have the latest iPhone or smart phone, you will save $1757, minus the cost of your phone.  Even the phone’s cost may not be as high as you think–it isn’t uncommon for the phone from the carrier to cost $100-300 more than your “discount”, leaving you with a big bill.  The same phone or a similar phone with similar features, may be available from a no-contract program at roughly the same price.

The no contract phones are also an excellent idea for parents with a child acquiring their first cell phone, a teen with a new cell phone, or even a college student’s cell phone needs.  It means no surprise overages resulting in bill shock.  An inexpensive phone for calls and simple texting can be a solution for a child, who is more likely to lose or damage a phone.  (Loss is not part of the coverage from Walmart’s protection plan.)  If a cell phone is lost, there are also no worries that there will be calls to Dubai and Hong Kong suddenly appearing on your bill either.  These cheap cell phones can also be considered a temporary or “throw away” solution to a short term cell phone need–if an additional phone is needed during an emergency or travel.  They also offer international plans, handy if calling out of the country, as well as plans for 3 months, 6 months, or a full  year.  Imagine trying to pay a year in advance on your contract phone!

I’ve talked to customers that have used Straight Talk, and they are generally happy with the service they have received, whether it was their first cell phone or a replacement for the contract cell phone.  I also know people with a number of other carriers, including Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and C-Spire.  The ones with other carriers are usually not as happy, and often are chafing at the bit for their contract to end, whether for financial reasons or because another company offers a desirable service or phone that is not available with their current carrier.  Sometimes it is due to relocation, and the service available in their new area is not as good as it was in the old area, leaving them paying for substandard reception or perks such as a local store that repairs their phone.

With a no-contract service, you are still free to choose to use a traditional contracted service at any time, if it turns out that you aren’t happy with it.  The sole complaint that I have noticed with no-contract services is number portability–it can be expensive, not available, or a pain.  If this is not an issue, one way to test the waters is to buy an inexpensive phone from one of the companies and try it before terminating your contract.

The phones can be served by one of three carriers, and not all carriers are available in all areas, and even in the areas that they are available, they may not offer the same type of reception.  There are also many issues with both 3G and 4G service, especially in small towns and rural areas.  Read reviews, find out which phones are served by the company that offers the best service for your area, as well as the areas in which you frequently travel.  In my case, I know that Verizon does not service the area in which my daughter lives, and therefore, I would not consider using Verizon as a contract carrier OR via a prepaid program.  Unfortunately, both AT&T and Sprint have spotty coverage throughout the rural areas of my home state, so either one could also leave me without a signal while traveling elsewhere.  That problem is true for most of us in the United States–no carrier provides complete coverage anywhere.

In addition to prepaid plans from companies like TracFone, the cell phone companies often offer a prepaid plan.  Unfortunately, they often don’t let you use the same phone that you may have used with their contract service, requiring you to purchase a different phone (at full price, with limited choices.)  Even with that, for many people, their services may be a better option.

Avoid the contracts when possible, and keep your independence and freedom of choice–it’s the best choice for your financial future as well.  Never set yourself up to end up with a big bill by adding friends or relatives to  your contract service unless you truly are independently wealthy.  Instead, opt for the no-contract version, even if you purchase the phone and plan, you will protect yourself from unexpectedly large bills in the future.

Write your representatives and senators, asking them to offer the consumer relief from these unwieldy contracts that favor the corporations, as well as to legally unlock cell phones and make them able to work with any carrier, and removing the monopolies that plague us all.  It’s high time that corporations began being accountable for their services, rather than able to rape the consumer with high rates, poor service, and long contracts with large penalties.

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Cellphones, companies, contracts, and our budget

5 Jul

I’m only about six months from having my current contract with Sprint finally expire.  I’ve been with that company for years, but I have reached the point where I deeply and devoutly resent the contract situation with cell phone providers.  I feel as though the contract means they don’t have to deliver great service to keep us as customers for years…and then only play nice when its time to renew, offering new phones and upgrades that are really pretty much worthless.

They package the darndest things with the cellphone contracts, and then limit other things in mysterious business moves that do nothing for my enthusiasm for the contract.  Do I care about pro football,  NBA, or NASCAR on my phone?  Do I honestly want to try to watch a movie on a 3″ screen with a tinny little speaker?  How many ways can we ruin a good song by reproducing it on the crappy cell phone speaker?

Seriously.  I want a smart phone, but I don’t want it to be a reading comprehension/IQ test just to change the ringer volume.  I got so disgusted with the whole Blackberry scene that  after BB#4, we went to a dumb phone: the LG Lotus.  I have to admit…I notice its lack of “smartness”, but it IS much more reliable as far as being a phone.

That’s the key.  I want the phone function to WORK, no mysteries, no glitches about the ringer, no mysterious missed calls when the phone was laying on the desk in front of you as you worked & waited for it to ring.  That’s #1, that phone function.  It should get a decent signal where there is a decent signal (some phones don’t like anything but STRONG signals and won’t work without it.)  It shouldn’t drop calls.  It shouldn’t pocket dial when its not even in my pocket.  In other words, it should act the way its supposed to, not like some Stephen King inspired demonic device.

I’ll admit, I have some peculiar requirements for voice.  It has to transmit our voices clearly, because we use it to broadcast our radio programs.  We have to be able to hear it too, and some phones aren’t easy to hear, even though Greg & I both have hearing in the normal range.  (LG Lotus is that way, even with a head set it can be hard to hear.)  We also need to use it with both wired and bluetooth headsets, because time and time again, bluetooth headsets fail to deliver good audio quality for the radio programs, so we stick to wired headsets with a boom mic for that.  Bulky, space-cadet-ish, but reliable.

Then come the other features.

QUERTY keypad.  I like a querty keypad for texting, and I would call us ‘average’ text & picture mail users.  Greg isn’t as picky about the keypad, but he likes to be able to easily access multiple email accounts.  I suspect he’d like to sync it with Outlook, which there are no words to describe the level of hate I have for Outlook.  He loves it, I think it causes far more problems than it has solved since way back when…I think I liked the version that was with Office 2000 or something around then.  I didn’t like it with 2007 or 2010, that much I DO know!  I like to be able to occasionally check email–if I’m expecting something important via email and have an appointment, etc. it allows me to stay in the loop without hassles.

Internet.  Web access is something I find has very limited usefulness in my book.  I occasionally use it when I need something from a website or am searching for a business in an unfamiliar area.  It has limited use then too, as many times the connection is too slow, lost, I’m roaming and it won’t connect at all, or the webpage is unreadable on the phone.  I don’t think I have ever updated Twitter or Facebook using my phone, even in the Blackberry days.  There again, it’s a feature Greg uses more than I do.

GPS.  GPS is something I do like…if it works.  I hate Sprint’s Navigation software.  It’s glitchy, inaccurate, annoying, and frequently loses its signal for whatever reason.  Usually, it puts me within 1/2 mile of what I want…but I better have line-of-sight to what it is!  It also does not work in huge chunks of the area, so it becomes useless if we’re more than a mile or two from the interstate.  We will still often have voice and data connection…but no GPS function.  Go figure!  On the Blackberry, we used a Google map app that was much better.  I don’t know if the Google app now includes bike routes, but if it did…ULTRA cool!

Camera.  I do use it.  Not as much as I could or should maybe, but I do use it.  I wouldn’t want a phone without it again.  (Blackberry lacked it on ours.)  It’s handy, we are never without it.  Therefore, I’d like it to perform reasonably well.

Laptop sync.  It’s so much easier when there is a way to sync with your laptop and exchange information.  Phone numbers, pictures, video,  maps, etc.

Calendar.  Yeah, that would be fantastic, especially if it syncs with the laptop.  My life organized, what a novel thought!

WiFi hotspot.  I miss the days when we could use our phones as modems.  We don’t travel as consistently as we used to, either one of us, but occasionally, it would be nice if there was a way to tether the laptops.  It’s just not cost effective to use either the prepaid or the contract data cards ($67 per month with device protection)  for our occasional use.  It’s also nice as a back up in case of an internet outage, like say during a radio show.  (That happened to us with Cable One a couple of weeks ago just after my show started, and it was out over an hour.  Our current cable provider does not score well for reliability or speed–it’s throttled down during the hours between 4-12 midnight, and has been known to be down (here, not necessarily area-wide) for several hours a day at random times of the day, even while the television signal remains functional.)

Applications.  I haven’t used any since the Blackberry days, but they can be useful assets, especially if they don’t come with a monthly fee or outrageous download fee.  I’m cheap–I have to justify any extra expenses.  Inexpensive apps means it has to be a common/popular operating system with maximum number of users on that platform.

Operating System.  I think Android looks like the latest and greatest.  I’ve never used it, so I don’t know for sure.  Android is also the ONLY OS that offers the ability to act as a hotspot out of Sprint’s current offerings.  Greg dislikes Android and regards Google as invasive and nosy.  He likes Microsoft, who I regard as invasive and  nosy.  (Obviously, we have some interesting discussions here.)  At least neither of us are suffering from iPhone-envy–we both regard that as expensive and invasive.

Cost.  If we stay with Sprint, and purchase our new phone outright, we can go ahead and upgrade now, even though we’re not out of contract, and just not renew the contract at that point.  If we’re going to change carriers, then there are some very tangible reasons to wait.  Basically, if we can replace our phone with a desirable model, whether new or used, for under $150, we’re going to come out way ahead by staying out of contract.  If the cost is $250 or above, it might do us good to consider renewing the contract, although we may suffer from buyer’s remorse later.  I’m all for staying out of contract–it gives us a lot  more flexibility in a very chaotic world.  Who knows if the next place we call home will even be within Sprint’s signal range?  That did happen to my daughter, after years with Verizon and rarely finding any location that didn’t have a signal with their company…her new house has NO signal, requiring her to go at least a mile from home to pick up a signal.  I laughed, because my Sprint phone with its notoriously spotty coverage…DID have a signal there.

So looking at the phones available with Sprint, I thought both the HTC Evo 4g and HTC Evo 3D looked like great options.  I was not interested in the 3D effect for the phone, but the other features are upgraded from the 4g model.  They are both Android phones, and apparently come with a large assortment of pre-loaded (and unremovable) applications from Sprint.  Getting Greg’s input from searching and reading isn’t easy–I may end up dragging him to a Sprint store just to look at their phones, and then coming home to see what the real deal is on them.  After a phone is checked out via reviews, I then hit Ebay to see what kinds of prices the phones are getting there.

Buying from Ebay does have some risk.  Ensuring the seller has a good rating is the first criteria.  I don’t like to buy with relatively new sellers, or ones with too many negative reviews.  No one can please everybody, and some people can’t be pleased even with a free lunch, so a few negative nannies aren’t a complete turn off.  It’s consistent complaints that throw up warning flags.  I want the seller to specifically state that the phone has a clean ESN, that it is a Sprint phone, etc.  Most sellers will stand by their products as long as you are reasonable too, which is what I am looking for in seller reviews.  I’m also cheap though.  I refuse to pay an Ebay seller the same amount I’d pay in a retail store with an established reputation and clear return policies.  One example is that by renewing my contract with Sprint, I can get the HTC Evo Shift 4G for $99.  Granted, I expect to pay more if it doesn’t include the contract, but that price is also for a new phone with a warranty.  That means that is as much as I will pay for a “like new” used phone unless it comes with additional accessories or something extra that appeals to me.  I am also unlikely to go over $150 for a new, no-contract phone.  The Evo 3d phone however would cost me $199, so I would pay proportionally more via Ebay without complaint.  That means that I may opt to drop the idea of the Evo 3D because of the price tag–our budget says we need one under $200.

That means taking another look at the Blackberry offerings.  We liked the Blackberry–it’s one thing we agreed on.  We didn’t like its tendency to pocket dial, it’s finicky nature, or the frequent glitches it experienced.  But…we’re several generations down the road since our Blackberries were released, and logic says that a lot of them have been addressed, especially the pocket dial issue with the Blackberry Style 9670 from Sprint.  A flip phone (I like) with BlackBerry software (Greg likes) and all of the functionality of the old Blackberries?  Hmmm quite attractive.  Plus, if we renewed a contract, that’s one smartphone that costs $0 to upgrade to.  It doesn’t offer some things, like 4G (not available anywhere even close to here), some of the fancier interfacing options for Outlook, Facebook, etc. (we don’t care), the ability to act as a hotspot (shucks).  It has basically all of the other features we are hoping to have though.

So why am I going through all of this even when I’m not ready to buy it today?  Several years ago, I was seeking specific features from my cell phone.  I went through five phones in a single month, all of which Sprint told me would perform the function but in fact…didn’t and couldn’t and wouldn’t.  It cost me $35 for each activation, even thought the phone was returned, and cost me a lot in hassles due to conflicts in my record about which device I had “upgraded” and which device was “out of contract” for months.  That was my first purchase of a phone via Ebay–I bought the Blackberry, which turned out to be the only phone that Sprint had that could do what I wanted it to, from a private seller for about $80.  It was used, in great shape, reset to factory settings, and included all of the accessories that had originally shipped with it.  To renew my contract with Sprint, I would have paid about $150 for the identical phone at that time.  I used it for over a year without any problems, and the first thing that broke was the scroll wheel that had plagued those models of Blackberry all along.  I don’t want to go through another repeated series of “fails” in search of a phone we can live with for a couple of years.  (We typically use a phone for 2 yrs or longer without a problem.  I have used some of the earlier, simpler phones for as long as 4 years without upgrading.  Our experience has indicated that the smartphones have a much shorter lifespan, typically being lucky to last the 24 months of the contract they come with before becoming progressively more “glitchy” until the FAIL point is reached.)

When our last Blackberry failed, it did so by ceasing to ring with an incoming call.  It flashed…but you had to see it to know that.  We hadn’t budgeted for a new phone yet, and we went ahead and renewed the contract and got the LG Lotus that we are currently using.  We both hate it, although Greg probably does more than me.  It’s very limited after years with a Blackberry, and was bought during a reactionary mood when the Blackberry failed.  Live & learn, right?

Research and forethought can help reduce buyer’s remorse and contractual regrets too.  We are a ways from making a decision, and one more step to the research is necessary.  We need to stop at a Sprint store and take a physical look/touch at the phones.  I’m probably worse about that than Greg, but I want to see how it feels in my hand.

We also need to research other companies.  Sprint has an attractive text/data/talk package with a flat rate.  I’m familiar with them, I don’t have to deal with a contract if I buy the phone elsewhere.  Other companies are a huge unknown, and they all have their fans.  Sprint’s spotty reception and lack of 4G service in not only the state of Mississippi, but also our neighboring states, is a down side.  I would like to have the same price and service…with better coverage and speeds.  I”m not sure anyone can provide that, although I have heard that Cellular South and AT&T have much better coverage.  AT&T is notorious for crappy customer service, however.  Their customer service reviews are enough to keep me away–I would rather pay more and deal with actual customer service than put up with crappy customer service.  With Sprint, I have been reasonably happy, although the few occasions in which I was unhappy–I was REALLY unhappy and intended to cancel my service because of the way my issue was being handled.  I was mad enough that the early exit fee was a small price to pay.  In the end, they offered me a better deal than what I had originally wanted just to keep me as a customer, which seemed very counter-productive.  (I had had a computer die, had bought a new one, and my old data card was not compatible.  I was 2 months from the end of my contract, and I asked for a new data card at the renewal rate.  They originally told me no, that I would have to pay the FULL price–not even a discount for upgrading!  I was livid, and was going to cancel and switch to Verizon for data services, as they were faster and the same price.  In the long run, Sprint gave me a new data card at no cost and shipped it overnight.  So getting mad paid me well–it saved me over $100 in what I originally wanted and even more in terms of what it would have cost to actually switch.)

So its a case of my fingers doing a lot of walking, as I check websites.  I should also remember to check with Sam’s Club and other memberships I have–often there are discounts for cellular services that can really save big bucks…if they apply to something you want and need.  A big part of the process does involve checking user reviews of the provider, and that is equally as important as the phone itself if I am switching companies.  Why move to a company that already has a reputation for not responding to their customers needs?  I know what I have with Sprint, and they meet my minimum requirements.  Changing means that I would expect something more in terms of price, service, and customer service.

Decisions…decisions!