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Cellular Telephones
Cellular Service Plans - Which is Right for You?

Cellular phones can be extremely useful, but to be cost-effective you must choose a service plan with the options that best suits your needs. Service plans make up the bulk of cellular costs, so it would help to know what to expect when your bill arrives rather than be blindsided by unexpected fees.

Before committing yourself to a provider and its fees, determine how often and when you plan to use your phone, as well as where you typically will be calling. If you only use your phone for social calls after work, you should consider a plan with free night and weekend minutes. But if the bulk of your calls will be during business hours, you may want to check into plans with the greatest number of anytime minutes.

According to Consumer Reports magazine, prices for plans vary according to factors such as home-coverage area, calling periods, and the number of free anytime minutes. The Better Business Bureau advises consumers to consider the following plan offerings:

* Local. This is the most limited plan, typically encompassing a metropolitan area and surrounding suburbs. Most local plans require at least a one-year commitment.

* Regional. These plans cover a multi-state calling area, such as the Northeast. Going outside the area results in roaming fees as great as 50 to 60 cents a minute in addition to airtime charges. They also require a one-year commitment.

* National. These plans are the most expensive, but offer
long-distance calls at no additional charge and the highest number of peak and off-peak minutes. Breaking the contract on these plans could cost you hundreds of dollars.

* Family. This plan offers discounts on two or more phones, each with its own phone number, and a "bucket" of shared minutes. You receive a single bill each month. But you need to keep track of the minutes each member uses. There is no simple way to know when the family quota has been exceeded.

* Prepaid. This is a pay-as-you-go option for those with credit problems, or anyone who does not want to commit to a contract. A prepaid plan is also a way to test out a carrier's services before signing on with them.

No matter which plan you chose, it is important to read your contract carefully. Know your billing period, how much a carrier will charge you after the free minutes end, how much you will pay for roaming charges (making calls outside your designated area), any long distance and overtime charges, and which options are included in a rate plan and which will cost extra. Many rate plans charge extra for voicemail, web browsing and conference calling.

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