Here's a little secret from inside the wireless industry: Several companies that offer cellular phone service have in excess of 20,000 variations on their rate plans -- from promotions for families to discounts for the elderly. Sifting through them all requires a couple of aspirin at the ready. But you can avoid the headache by using three criteria to choose a wireless plan: price, customer service, and network quality. I've experimented with service from each of the nation's six major carriers, and it's clear that the two largest, Verizon Wireless (VZ) and Cingular Wireless, come out on top.
The first question to ask when picking a provider is which company has the best network near your home and workplace. The most likely answer is Verizon. And not just because the guy in its TV ads keeps wandering around asking: ``Can you hear me now?'' In a September study of 25,000 wireless households by researcher J.D. Power & Associates, Verizon ranked highest in five of the six regions of the country by excelling in call quality, customer service, and service-plan options.
Cingular is my second choice. It ranked No. 3, behind Verizon and Nextel Communications (NXTL), in a J.D. Power survey of 16,800 users on network quality. But service is improving, thanks to new investments by parent companies BellSouth (BLS) and SBC Communications (SBC). Plus, it offers a good mix of value and consumer-friendly features. Many of Cingular's plans allow free roaming, and it's the only major provider that lets you roll over unused minutes to the next month.
If you want to tap the Web with your phone, certain carriers make more sense than others. Sprint PCS Group (PCS) offers mobile Internet connections that are good for sending and receiving e-mail and pictures from your phone, PDA, or laptop. Like Verizon, it's based on a digital standard called CDMA, which zaps data at a rate of about 60 kilobits per second -- a little faster than GSM providers such as Cingular, AT&T Wireless Services (AWE), and T-Mobile International.
WATCH OUT FOR FEES
For value shoppers, two operators rise to the top. Both T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless have standard plans that allow up to 600 minutes of calling at any time for $40 a month. At less than 7 cents a minute, with features such as voice mail included, it's a good deal.
If you're a power user, you'll want a big bucket of minutes. AT&T offers supersize deals -- up to 5,000 minutes a month. But watch out for the 69 cents-a-minute fee for roaming off the AT&T network. Chicago resident Christopher Bell, a partner at Northcoast Capital Management, racked up fees that sent his $149 plan soaring to twice that amount. Then he saw an AT&T promo in a newspaper ad that knocked his monthly bill to $99 for unlimited calling and e-mail.
Several Web sites let you compare service plans. At LetsTalk.com, you can compare different carrier plans based on your calling habits, and J.D. Power's site provides customer-service rankings by region. With so many wireless options, remember that by focusing on the right criteria, the hunt for good service doesn't have to be a pain. By Roger O. Crockett