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Never before have there been so many options and so many mobile cell phone plans to choose from, creating a big, confusing headache for many consumers.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

Time for wireless phone poker. You’re going to ante Sprint PCS, 500 shared minutes and a free phone? I’ll raise you Nextel, Kristen Davis and free incoming calls. You’re tossing in ring tones? I’ll see you that and raise you a built-in walkie-talkie. Want to fold — or are you too confused to decide?

Never before have there been so many options for service at prices so affordable. The array of options is dizzying — so much so that wireless companies have tried everything from “American Idol” tie-ins to hot pink phone covers to differentiate themselves.

But with that popularity have come a flood of consumer complaints. In response, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., proposed a “bill of rights” for cell phone users last month. “Dropped calls, jammed networks, poor call quality and rigid contracts are quickly transforming an excellent modern convenience into a nightmare for consumers,” Schumer wrote in a letter to FCC chairman Michael Powell.

Key among Schumer’s proposals is a standardized information box to be included on sales pitches and contracts, outlining service requirements in simple terms. The bill would also require federal monitoring of service quality so customers could check providers’ reliability.

States want similar protections. Their approach is to oversee the industry as if it were a utility.

But wireless companies have largely avoided regulation for two decades by arguing they are a young, still growing industry working out a successful market model.

At the same time, argues the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, consumers have “reaped the benefits” of a competitive, mostly free-market system with plummeting prices and new services. The FCC seems to agree. But watchdogs worry.

“The industry should be held accountable for the customer service issues whether it’s a young industry or not,” says Adam Goldberg, a policy analyst with Consumers Union.

You could make a parlor game of comparing wireless services, but the trick is to find one that best serves you. You’ll want to comparison shop. Friends and co-workers will certainly have recommendations. Depending on where you live, you may be overwhelmed by carriers — or limited to just one. A quick glance through your local paper will surely turn up some options, whether it’s Catherine Zeta-Jones touting T-Mobile or Cingular’s “Spider-Man” marketing blitz.

If you’d like to avoid ubiquitous pitches, try going online for side-by-side comparisons. Telebright and Letstalk.com let you search by ZIP code and offer direct links to sign up for service. (Canadian readers can try Compare Cellular.)

The real issue in choosing a service, though, is deciding before you start which features are most important to you. This is tricky. Carriers are keen to focus on their unique features, and apples-to-apples comparisons are nearly impossible.

Where to start
You can purchase service directly from providers or from resellers. There’s no clear argument for one or the other, but one thing is obvious: Buy it online.

If you’re intimidated by the notion, and you’d like to have an actual person to ask questions, most providers have retail stores you can visit. That can be helpful if you’d like to hold a phone in your hand before you buy. But the complexity of options makes it unlikely you’ll be able to get all the information you need in person.

Still, as a consumer, the best advice is take your time and compare.

Most companies’ online stores let you compose a full package before you give payment details, so you can choose options and get cost estimates without leaving your desktop.

Can you hear me now?
Just because a service is available in your area doesn’t mean it will be available when you’re travelling, or will have a decent signal where you need it. Though most services offer coverage maps, they’re not always accurate or comprehensive. Providers often downplay the maps, arguing that new cellular towers are going up each day. The FCC last September repealed a requirement for services to even provide maps

Check Deadcellzones.com for lists of local spots that don’t receive service. If you want regional or national service, make sure you get maps that show you overall service boundaries.

Still worried? Then ask the companies specific questions. And if they can’t or won’t answer, factor that into your decision. Again, it’s worth talking to friends and colleagues: They may know of service holes that you’d find particularly frustrating.

Hatching a plan 
An endless array of billing plans is testament to providers’ scramble to drum up new business. The percentage of customers who switch services has dropped from nearly 40 percent to 24 percent, according to In-Stat/MDR, which tracks industry trends. That’s both good and bad for providers: They’re keeping customers, but even low prices aren’t peeling users away from the competition.

Still, you can reap the benefits.

It’s easy to be lured by attractive promotions, but if you opt for one, make sure you know how long it’s for.

Also, find out the provider’s rules for changing coverage areas, expanding or contracting minutes and switching plans. Most make it easy, but some customers have reported “penalties,” like having to change numbers if they switch plans.

It’s also wise to review your home phone bill before settling on a cell plan to see who you’re calling and get an idea of how much time you’re spending on the phone. That’s especially important if you plan to use your wireless for long distance.

You do not, of course, need a contract to have a wireless phone. Most major carriers offer a prepaid service: You buy the phone, you pay in advance for a certain number of minutes and that’s it. While it’s often used by customers whose credit won’t pass muster, it may also be useful if you just want emergency service or just need a phone for a short time. You’ll still have to buy a phone, though.

Otherwise, you’ll face at least a one-year contract from most providers. As with any contract, read the fine print carefully. Most services make it relatively easy to find their terms online, so you can print them out to read before you buy.

OK, so which carrier?
Nice try. With so many options and so many choices, no single carrier will best serve every customer. Consumer Reports surveyed almost 22,000 subscribers to its Web site for an extensive review of industry service overall and of specific carriers. It ranked the “big six” national providers on a 100-point scale, using a range for each.

The peak score of 72 went to Verizon, which was praised for no “noteworthy service problems.” The lowest peak score went to Sprint PCS (“Worst customer support”), though the lowest low score went to Cingular, which was hit for overloaded circuits and poor customer service. (Cingular outranked Sprint in its high score by two points.) AT&T Wireless, Nextel and T-Mobile fell in the middle.

Here, there and everywhere considerations
You may also pick a service for its unique technology. Each wireless provider operates a slightly different network, using an alphabet soup of different technology standards and protocols. Keep in mind:

If you live in a rural area, it may help to get a service that gives access to analog cell towers, since the digital network still has large holes. This is especially crucial to ensure you have access to 911.

If you want to use your phone outside the United States and Canada, you’ll need to get GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) service. Only Cingular, T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless offer full GSM, and you’ll have to specifically request overseas roaming. Because the U.S. GSM system operates on different frequencies than almost any other country, you’ll also need to buy a dual-band or tri-band phone that picks up the other spectrums.

You may want to ask your provider about their plans for third-generation, or 3G, service. New wireless systems are being built to allow for high-speed data and all sorts of improvements to the current patchwork. But carriers are on different timelines to upgrade and will still use different protocols. Make sure to find out their plans so you’re not stuck with an expensive phone or a specific service that’s about to be phased out.

Beyond that, you’ll be hard pressed to beat the value of word of mouth. Even the comprehensive Consumer Reports study relied on readers to share their experiences, and it still summarized service in just a few key markets. Whether or not your neighbor wants completely different features, a few minutes querying her on how well her service works could save you a chunk of cash and a load of frustration.

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