Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than talking on a cell phone with awful service is shopping for better service.
Websites fail to answer many questions. Salespeople can confuse you with phrases like text messaging, voice dialing and cell-to-cell minutes, while neglecting to tell you that you’ll have spotty service and hundreds of dollars in roaming charges.
“I threw mine out the window about two months ago somewhere around El Paso,” says Mitchell Middleton, an owner-operator from Loxley, Ala., who hauls furniture. “I had an $800 phone bill, and I decided I didn’t need it anymore.”
Many owner-operators – among Overdrive readers, 92 percent – reached the opposite decision. However, plans and features are constantly changing, so it can be hard to know if you’re getting a good deal. If you know what’s offered, what you need and don’t need, and your calling habits, you have a better chance of ending up with a service that fits your operation at the lowest possible cost.
For any cell-related expenditure, consider checking prices and incentives of signing up online before heading to the chain stores. As you shop for a service plan, here are the topics you should be familiar with.
There are generally two types of plans: local and nationwide. Local coverage will probably include your home state and maybe some surrounding metropolitan areas. Some local plans, also called regional plans, allow you to call anywhere in the nation as long as you call from your home area.
Actual coverage area varies. Most companies plant their towers so that customers get reception on the interstates and around major metropolitan areas, but if you venture too far off the beaten path, you face two potential problems – losing your connection or getting bumped to another company’s towers and being charged high fees for roaming, such as 69 cents or 79 cents a minute.
“Most days it’s useless because I can’t get a signal, or the signal drops off in the middle of a conversation, or I roam half the day,” says Michael Hutchings of Bossier, La., a company driver who hauls liquids for LTC in Indiana. “I hate my service, but I’m not very technical, so I don’t really know what to look for in my next one.”
All companies provide a colorful map of coverage areas, but pay close attention to the color variances, which may signify an “extended” coverage. This means roaming for some companies, but not for others.
Plans can range from $29 to $200 a month. Unless you have a plan with unlimited minutes, note the cost for going over your allotted minutes. Extra minutes can cost from 25 cents to 79 cents each, and most companies charge for a whole minute whether a call lasts 10 seconds or 59 seconds. So it’s often worth an extra $10 to double the daytime minutes you expect to use.
“Every time I get on it, I’m scared of going over my minutes,” Hutchings says. “I’ve been out for two weeks now, but I only get to talk to my wife a few minutes a day because I don’t want to run up my cell phone bill.”
Most services have plans with a tremendous number of night and weekend minutes, but that’s of limited value because truckers, like most people, use their phones more during weekdays. Some companies allow you to roll over your unused daytime minutes to the next month for up to 12 months.
Typical cell phone nights start at 9 p.m. and end at 6 a.m., and typical weekends run from 9 p.m. Friday until 6 a.m. Monday. Make sure you know how a plan defines nights and weekends.
Another option is buying a prepaid plan that allots a certain number of minutes. The cost per minute is significantly higher and options are more expensive, but if you need a phone only for emergencies, prepaid can be a great way to get around yearly agreements and to avoid the cost of unused minutes.
Most companies offer family plans in which you can purchase more than one phone and share minutes. Having a second phone on a plan may be a great way to keep in touch with your family at home – especially if you find a plan that has unlimited, free cell-to-cell (calls between two cell phones under the same account or under the same company) minutes. But if your cell-to-cell minutes are not free, you’ll be burning double the minutes. In addition to the regular monthly charges of the plan, you’ll probably end up paying about $20 additional for each extra phone that you put on the plan. You’ll also have to purchase the phone outright and pay the activation charges for that phone.
Some companies distinguish between primary phones and secondary phones and give different minute charges and available minutes to each phone. Some companies allow you to use your cell-to-cell minutes to call any same-company customer, so it might be a better option to buy a separate plan with fewer minutes for the second phone under the same company. That also ensures that a second phone user doesn’t use up all your minutes and run up the bill.
Most companies offer some rebate on a phone purchase; others offer a free phone altogether. If it’s a rebate, find out how long it will take and if your account will be credited or if you’ll receive a check.
It’s easy to be wooed by the small, sleek look of many newer phones, but note how big the buttons are and how large the text on the screen is. It’s nice to have a phone that fits in your shirt pocket, but is it easy to use?
A typical phone battery gives you about three hours of talk time and about two days of standby time. Make sure you ask if you should let it die completely before you can charge it, which used to be the case, but usually doesn’t apply now.
A one-year manufacturer’s warranty is common. Salespeople will try to sell you insurance for a few bucks a month to cover a lost or broken phone, but consider that most of those policies also have a deductible, often $50.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
Today’s phones offer many features: voice mail, text-messaging, three-way calling, different ring tones, games, limited Web browsing and a phone directory. Some offer very sophisticated options: voice dialing (you say the name of the party you’re calling), graphics capability, color screens, GPS capabilities, and the ability to take and send photos.
Chances are you’ll pay extra to use these and other extras. Common monthly fees are: $3 for text messaging, $4 for sending photographs, $10 to start your night segment at 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., $5 per phone for phone insurance and $5 for Web browsing. Expect a one-time fee of $30 or so for activation of each phone.
Manufacturers offer colored faceplates, downloadable ring tones and graphics, signal-boosting antennas, leather cases, belt clips, hands-free kits, car chargers, and speaker phone kits.
After you’ve picked a phone, features and calling plan, companies will often offer you incentives, such as a further discount on the phone or a waived activation fee, if you sign an agreement for two years instead of one. It might not be worth signing up for another year because plans frequently change for the better; you could lose by locking yourself into a two-year commitment. Terminating your contract usually isn’t wise because companies will smack you with a $150 to $200 fee.
A more recent trend is allowing you to change your plan from month to month, such as if you want more or fewer minutes. Verify that such changes include no penalty charge. If your company begins to offer a plan that’s better than yours, ask for yours to be updated. Because the cellular market is very competitive, don’t be afraid to work companies against each other by comparing rates and features.
Don’t let someone talk you into a plan or a phone that doesn’t fit your needs. A cell phone can play a major role in an owner-operator business, so you should treat it like any other business purchase: with lots of research and a hard look at the return on your investment.