The shiny new gadget you're showing off to friends is probably the least important part of your wireless service. • Sure, it lets you browse the Web, take pictures and even talk to other people. But your choice of carrier will cost you more — in dollars and, potentially, misery caused by an inadequate network — than the phone ever could.
Evaluate a carrier's coverage first. Verizon offers the most extensive coverage and T-Mobile the weakest, with AT&T and Sprint in between.
If you want Web access on your phone (more on that later), you'll have to check two maps: one for little-faster-than-dialup "2G" service and another for "3G" broadband. Here Verizon again comes out first, Sprint's not far behind, AT&T's limited 3G network holds it back, and T-Mobile, despite upgrades in progress, also suffers from patchy 3G coverage.
These four companies differ in their choice of wireless standards. AT&T and T-Mobile's GSM (Global System for Mobile) technology lets you browse the Web and talk simultaneously and use a phone in most other countries or on another compatible provider here. Sprint and Verizon's CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) lacks those advantages but comes with better domestic coverage.
If you don't use a mobile phone often, prepaid service may be more cost-effective than subscription plans. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon sell prepaid packages directly, while Sprint does so through its Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile brands.
Among contract-required subscriptions, Sprint's start at $29.99 a month for 200 minutes; AT&T and Verizon's start at $39.99 a month for 400 minutes; and T-Mobile offers 500 minutes for $39.99.
Because all these plans include unlimited or nearly unlimited night and weekend calls, many people will never exceed even those seemingly scant allotments.
Each carrier's pricing quirks can help shave costs. AT&T rolls over unused minutes into the next month's allotment. Higher-end Sprint plans include free calls to other mobile phones, and most begin night billing at 7 p.m. instead of the usual 9. Some Verizon plans provide free calls to five friends. T-Mobile offers a similar option, plus contract-free "Even More Plus" plans that don't include any hidden subsidy on a new phone (bring your own or pay more upfront) but cost $10 less each month.
If more than one person in your household needs mobile service, shared-use plans will cut your bill even further.
Add-ons add up
Text and picture messaging can inflate your bill. At the usual per-message fees of 20 cents each (far above the cost to deliver each text), even moderate usage would be ruinous. Instead, add a texting option to your plan: AT&T, Sprint and Verizon charge $5 a month for, respectively, 200, 300 and 250 messages; T-Mobile charges $10 for unlimited messaging.
Mobile Web access can rip another hole in your wallet if you let per-megabyte charges accumulate. Web access on simpler "feature" phones can run $10 a month at T-Mobile and Verizon, $15 at AT&T and Sprint. But if you carry a more capable smartphone, you'll pay $30 a month. At AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, that doesn't include texting, while at Sprint it does.
Smartphone buyers also need to consider which carriers sell which devices. Only AT&T offers the iPhone. Smartphones running Google's Android software are carried by Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon; AT&T will join that club in March. Sprint and Verizon sell Palm's Pre and Pixi, and all four services sell BlackBerry and Windows Mobile models.
With a smartphone, wireless costs can easily exceed home broadband charges. But you'll be able to look up almost anything online, carry around your music library and choose from thousands of extra applications. You might even find an app to calculate which wireless plan you should have signed up for in the first place.