Cutting through the cellular clutter

In 10 years, the cell phone has gone from being a novelty to a necessity for many owner-operators. But with hundreds of available plans, choosing a service isn’t simple.

Before you look at plans, learn your calling habits. Check your records or spend a month or two keeping track of the calls you make. Note the time of day, the length of calls, the origin and destination.

Armed with your calling patterns, research by using the Internet or by calling major providers. Draw a grid so you can compare service options, minutes, rates, geographic coverage and any other information.

A plan’s home calling area – the geographic region within which you can make calls without being charged a roaming fee – might include a local area, a region or the whole country.

The national plans, which most over-the-road truckers prefer, offer a certain number of nationwide minutes at a flat monthly rate, with no restrictions on local, roaming or long-distance calls. These plans generally offer the best value if you need a cell phone daily, regardless of where you might be.

But even these nationwide plans have limitations. The national rates may apply only in areas that are served by the carrier you select. Some service providers leave large blocks of the map uncovered. Where coverage isn’t available, you may be billed for calls at the roaming rate.

Things to remember when comparing plans:

· Always convert the monthly rate into cents per minute to give you a comparison with other plans.

· Pay attention to the fine print. Make sure roaming, coverage and long-distance charges are explained.

· Be careful about extras. E-mail, voice mail and any Web browsing can devour your minutes.

· Curb your appetite when considering plans with big chunks of free minutes. Unused time remaining in your account at month’s end cannot be carried over, inflating the per-minute cost of calling time you do use.