Roamin’ Empire

Whatever the bounds of your operation, you don’t need to be a slave to a cellular service that costs too much and fails to meet your needs. Find the right match for your lanes.

Does the bill for your cell phone make you feel like chucking that handy little gadget out the window? A wireless bill detailing expensive roaming and long-distance charges, additional-minute fees and hidden costs can be one more unpleasant addition to the many expenses of running an owner-operator business. And such bills are even harder to swallow if you’re having to put up with dropped calls and weak signals.

Because cell phone plans and rates are constantly changing, finding one that best suits your operation and costs you the least can be a daunting task. You can start by understanding your needs and calling habits, what wireless carriers have to offer and what experts, truckers and the general public are saying about the leading carriers’ service and plans.

Bo Wright of Munford, Ala., a driver for Aviagen Inc. who travels the Southeast and the North, says he has been pleased with Cingular’s coverage. “I’ve had some problems in the backwoods, but that’s the way they all are,” he says. “As far as the interstate goes, it has been good.”

As Wright knows, even with nationwide plans, actual coverage varies. “One company could have good coverage in one area and not so good coverage in another area,” says Janee Briesemeister, an analyst for Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports.

To evaluate a plan, start by consulting a carrier’s coverage map to make sure your lanes fall in that network. If possible, talk to users who travel similar routes to see if they are satisfied with the coverage.

Most coverage maps indicate home calling areas (where you incur no roaming charges), roaming areas (where you can receive a signal from a partner carrier) and no-coverage areas. If the areas you travel are designated as roaming areas, you will pay roaming rates on some plans. However, don’t base your choice of a cell plan strictly on roaming fees. For example, a plan with no such fee might have a small coverage area.

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Next, consider not only how many night/weekend and anytime minutes each plan offers, but also the cost for exceeding allotted minutes. Most of the major plans charge 40 cents for each additional minute, including any calls less than a minute.

Choose a plan with more anytime minutes than you think you’ll need because extra minutes can quickly lead to more expensive phone bills. For example, the Cingular Nation plan with 800 anytime minutes allows you to talk for approximately 26 minutes per day during peak hours. If you average 27 minutes a day, that extra daily minute can add $12 to your monthly bill, based on 40 cents per minute.

Roy Flower, a driver for Grayson Mitchell from High Point, N.C., says he gets around 2,000 anytime minutes for approximately $75 under his Sprint plan. “Sprint is good for what you get and what you pay for,” he says.

Generally, leftover minutes at the end of a billing period are lost. Cingular’s Nation Plan is one that allows you to roll anytime minutes into the next month for up to 12 months. Such minutes can add up significantly and can benefit truckers who use their phones irregularly or more during weekdays.

Under most major national plans, 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. With a two-year contract, many carriers are offering nights that start at 7 p.m.

Many plans offer cell-to-cell minutes, which apply to calls made between two cell phones under the same company. If you make frequent calls to someone with the same carrier, this is a useful feature, especially if the plan includes unlimited cell-to-cell minutes.

Each plan’s monthly fee does not include several dollars’ worth of taxes, fees and surcharges. Such charges vary according to where you live and the amount of your bill before taxes. Ask carriers to give you an estimate of the taxes, fees and surcharges with typical usage of each plan.

After you choose a plan, take advantage of the 14- to 30-day trial period offered by most carriers to make sure you get coverage in the areas where you need it. Companies typically do not offer full refunds on phones, and you still have to pay the charges you incur during the trial period if you decide not to leave, but such fees are significantly less than the fees for breaking a contract, usually $150 to $200.

Although carriers are beginning to offer perks for signing two-year contracts, most consumer experts recommend sticking with one-year contracts because the market continues to change quickly and you never know when you might want out.

If you switch carriers in the same geographic area, you now have the right to keep your phone number, thanks to the federal “local number portability” rules. Contact your prospective carrier to start the process, and ask if they pay for or reimburse you for the old carrier’s porting costs.

Once you know the offerings of different plans, you’re ready to choose one. “Consumers need to take everything into consideration – reputation, coverage, price, calling plan – and make their decision,” Briesemeister says. Having made an informed choice, you should have much less cause for a blood pressure spike when your next monthly cell bill shows up.

These websites help you find a cell plan that’s most suited to your needs. Each site allows you to enter your ZIP code, as well as calling pattern data, and returns plans in your area with the cheapest rates.

AT&T Wireless, an early leader in nationwide cell plans, has been the favored cell service for Overdrive readers in recent years.

However, Cingular’s pending acquisition of AT&T Wireless is expected to be finalized by the end of the year, and no one knows what impact that will have. “Cingular has made it clear that the combined company will be called Cingular,” says Mark Siegel, vice president of media relations at AT&T Wireless. “Until then, AT&T Wireless and Cingular must act as companies in competition with each other.”

The merger will consolidate the market from six major companies to five, which could lead to higher prices and diminish quality of service in the wireless market, says Janee Briesemeister of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. “Consumers could potentially see that options for service are fewer and those options are not the best options.” Also, she says, when companies merge, customers often encounter billing problems.

The carrier that has the best track record among customers, most of whom have more urban usage patterns than long-haul truckers, is Verizon Wireless, ranking at the top of several public surveys. “Consumers are most satisfied with Verizon,” Briesemeister says. “That includes everything from customer service, coverage, billing and the whole package.”

In a survey in 12 metropolitan areas, participants were asked to rate overall satisfaction, dropped calls, no service, static and overloaded circuits. Verizon had the highest level of customer satisfaction and had fewer problems with service availability and overloaded circuits.

In addition to the survey results, Consumers Union in May released data, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federal Communications Commission, indicating that Verizon had the fewest complaints per subscriber of the top six wireless companies.

Verizon also came out on top most frequently in the J.D. Power and Associates 2003 U.S. Wireless Regional Customer Satisfaction Index Study. The company polled households on 42 cellular service-related issues, then ranked carriers in six regions.

The study indicated that Verizon came in first place or tied for first in every region except the Southeast. Nextel ranked next highest, tying for three of the four regions covered, including the Southeast. T-Mobile tied in two regions, and AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless each tied in one region.

Northeast: Nextel, Verizon
Mid-Atlantic: Verizon
Southeast: Cingular, Nextel, T-Mobile
North-Central: Nextel, Verizon
Southwest: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon
West: Verizon