Whew! I just finished an exhausting article on cell phone shopping for the New York Times. I was continually amazed at how complicated the process is. Every carrier tweaks its terms and plans in unique ways that remind me of the myriad provisions, exceptions, and exemptions in the income tax code.
At least we can hire accountants to figure out the tax morass for us! With phone shopping, the best we can do is drill salesperson in the stores.
Surprisingly, it wasn't such a scary experience in a day of undercover shopping I did in downtown San Francisco -- along with my friend Vanessa who genuinely WAS shopping for a phone and carrier. Perhaps it was luck, but the salespeople at stores for T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon were rather polite and pretty knowledgeable.
The Cingular store was less pleasant -- a cramped space with overly excited salespeople who conjured up stereotypes of used car salesmen. The woman Vanessa and I met rushed us through the store, stuck phones in our faces, and waived laminated cards with rate plans at us. Obviously I can't judge a whole company based on one experience. Maybe she was new, or just inherently bad at customer relations. I do wonder, though, how she got through the training program. (And it's worth noting that Cingular's phone-based customer support rated quite low in a recent survey of 50,000 Consumer Reports subscribers in 18 metropolitan areas. Full results are in the current January issue.)
Aside from the singular experience of Cingular, I got a lot of good information in my shopping from the sometimes brutally honest salespeople. When I asked the T-Mobile guy about the quality of coverage provided by older carries like Sprint and Verizon, he said "It wouldn't surprise me if they do have a better, stronger network (sic)." (T-Mobile is actually rated high in customer satisfaction by Consumer Reports, right behind Verizon; but it does have the least-sophisticated data services.) I also asked him about "unlocking" a T-Mobile phone so that I could use it with Cingular (which has a technologically compatible wireless network). The fellow told me that I could wait 90 days for T-Mobile to do it, or got to a third party who would unlock the phone any time for about 30 bucks.
Then there was the nice guy from Verizon. While Vanessa and I were looking at phones, he steered us away from the Motorola V276. "I won't sell this phone," he said, with obvious disdain. He also warned us not to buy the Samsung N330 or the Kyocera KX-1. He said that LG and Samsung phones are always good, but that the N330 was "a glaring exception." Now, what about the option of bundling roadside automobile assistance with a service plan? "AAA is going to be cheaper, he said. "I wouldn't recommend it."
You don't find such frank shopping advice on the T-Mobile or Verizon Web sites!
That doesn't mean the reps get everything right, however. The guy at T-Mobile told us his was the only carrier that offers a one-year contract. Not really true -- so do Cingular and Verizon. It's just that you get a better deal on the phone if you sign up for a two-year contract with those carriers. The Verizon rep told me it isn't possible to port a landline to a mobile phone. Not true, at least according to Verizon's corporate office. And the guy from Sprint told me that I can't offload photos from a camera phone to my computer using the phone's USB port. Of course I can.
So you have to cross-check. And it may not be best to do this only on the carriers' Web sites. It took me several visits to Sprint's site, for example, to find information about Internet data plans that I knew existed. And I didn't figure out what the plans actually did until I quizzed two PR reps during my interview for the Times article.
Then there are the mysterious one-year Cingular contracts. They exist, but I found no mention of them on the Cingular site. Only two-year contracts.
A site I did find helpful was LetsTalk.com. They company gets daily updates from 19 wireless carriers about their plans and phone pricing; and it puts all the info into a uniform system that lets you compare the plans side-by-side, apples to apples. (That's how I first learned about the one-year Cingular contracts.) You can also try other comparison sites, like PriceGrabber.
So, if you plan to sit down one day and figure out your wireless services, I suspect you will be disappointed. Or at least overwhelmed. Figure on a few Web sessions and at least one visit to a store. These things take time. But at least we don't all have to sign up for new wireless plans on April 15.