Make the right call

Change your wireless phone carrier, keep your number and dial up a deal

Your Money

January 11, 2004|By Jon Van | Jon Van,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

For cell-phone users who are not entirely happy with their service, this is a good time to think about changing carriers.

The holidays and their attendant shopping crush are history. Cell phone service providers have been letting customers take their phone numbers along when they select a new carrier for nearly two months now, and many process bugs have been fixed.

So now is the time to seriously consider your wireless phone service. First of all, you need to decide what is good about your current service and what is not so good. Is your goal to get better reception with fewer missed calls? Or lower prices? A phone that looks neater and does more tricks?

While handsets made by Motorola, Nokia and others get the most attention, it's the network that carries the calls that may be most important. These are run by companies such as Verizon, Cingular, AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile, Nextel and U.S. Cellular.

Changing wireless carriers is a complex decision, says Andrea Ayers, a vice president with Convergys Corp. in Cincinnati, a firm that provides support service to several cell phone operators.

"When you decide to get new service, you can keep your same phone number," Ayers notes, "but that may be the only thing about your cell phone that stays the same. Your voice mail will be different. The handset will be different. It's really like buying a cell phone for the first time."

Once you decide to look for new service, first call your current service provider. The number will be on your monthly bill and may already be entered into your cell phone's built-in phonebook.

Find out if your service is still under contract, and, if it is, when the contract expires. Walking away from a contract will cost serious money, $150 or more.

If you're not under contract, or if your contract expires soon, ask your customer representative what kinds of deals - new phones, more minutes or lower rates - your current carrier will offer to keep you as a customer. Some carriers now give out new phones every year or two. Others have expanded the minutes they provide and offer unlimited calling at night and on weekends.

Now you're ready to shop around to see if better deals are available, but beware, service from other carriers might not match up to what you have. The nature of radio technology means that even for the best networks, some signals just do not reach some places. If a prospective carrier does not have an antenna near your home, you may not get a signal in your living room.

Most carriers have a trial period of two weeks or a month when you can cancel new service without penalty, but it is still time-consuming. Ask friends what carriers they use and how they like the service. Better yet, invite them over to see how their phones work in your home.

You can look at print ads or go online to compare prices before visiting a dealer. Some knowledgeable consumers suggest going to an independent dealer who offers service from several different carriers to comparison-shop.

Once you select a new carrier, be sure to take along a monthly bill from your current service provider to supply the information needed to transfer your current phone number to the new service.

If your old phone service was a gift, whoever signed up for the service will have to sign documents needed to transfer the number to a new service.

Expect to carry two phones for a few hours - or maybe a few days - while your number is "ported" from your old carrier to your new one. Once the transaction is complete, your new carrier will send a message to your phone informing you.

Your former service provider should automatically stop your service at this point, but to be certain you do not continue to be billed, call your old provider to ensure that your account has been closed.

Jon Van is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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