The big squeeze: How to get the most out of your wireless plan

Wireless subscribers are paying more for mobile data and getting less. In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers advice on getting bang for your buck when it comes to smartphone service.

The economy may be slowly recovering, but that doesn't mean you need to hand over more of your hard earned cash to your wireless provider.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help two different readers figure out how to get the most value out of their wireless service. Of course, cheaper isn't always better. If the service doesn't work or doesn't offer you enough data for your needs, then the lower price tag is irrelevant. In the first question, I offer one reader some advice about switching from Sprint to either AT&T or Verizon Wireless for the iPhone 5. And for the second reader, I analyze whether he should keep his unlimited data plan with Verizon Wireless and pay full price on a Samsung Galaxy S3 or whether he should take the subsidy and sign up for one of Verizon's tiered data services.

One thing is clear from both of these questions, a one-size solution does not fit all.

Does it make sense to switch carriers?

Dear Maggie,
I have a dilemma. I have an iPhone 4S on the Sprint network. While I am glad that I have unlimited everything, I rarely go over 4GB of data per month. And I barely use my voice minutes, since texting has taken over my life. My problem is that I am really dissatisfied with Sprint's 3G network. I plan to upgrade to the new iPhone 5 in a couple of weeks. But I am not planning to stay with Sprint. Their 4G LTE network is not up and running in the Los Angeles area where I live. So I'm stuck trying to choose between AT&T or Verizon. I realize that by picking either one of these providers, my bill, which is $90 a month will go up. I've been researching to see which of the two company's would suit me better financially. So far, AT&T seems like the better option. But I've heard bad things about AT&T. So my question is, should I take my chances with AT&T or should I pay a little extra to go with Verizon, which is more reliable. The other option is that I could wait for Sprint to get the 4G LTE network up and running in LA. I've heard that should happen in December. Please help!

Thanks a lot,
Fernie

Dear Fernie,
Your question is a good one. There are several factors to consider when switching wireless providers. As I've stated in the past in this column, I think network quality and coverage are very important when evaluating a service. If you can't get a signal, then what's the point of having a smartphone? Right? But price matters, too.

Wireless service doesn't come cheap. And sometimes, you simply can't afford the most reliable service with the broadest footprint. In that case, you may have to make some trade-offs to save some money. But before you start down that path, you need to figure out what services you actually need and compare pricing. If you rely on your wireless service as much as I do, my advice is to get the best, most reliable service you can afford. Because I use my cell phone as my primary phone, and because I also use it for work, a difference of $5 or $10 a month is not enough for me to put up with crappy service from a lower cost provider. That's only $60 to $120 a year. But once the cost difference is $20 or more a month, which is $240 per year or higher, I might be persuaded to switch, even for a lower quality service. You have to determine for yourself what your own cost threshold is.

With this in mind, the first thing you need to do is to actually price out the service packages from all three carriers based on your specific needs. This is a little more difficult than it used to be in the past, because AT&T and Verizon Wireless no longer offer unlimited data plans. So you aren't able to truly compare apples to apples with Sprint. Instead, AT&T and Verizon offer what many consumers find to be a confusing array of options of tiered or capped data plans. What this means for you as you evaluate your options is that you'll have to do a little bit more homework to examine your typical usage patterns in order to find the best plan that fits your needs. Once you understand how much data you use and you're able to estimate how much you think you'll need going forward, you'll be able to compare actual prices.

What's your average usage?

You mentioned that you rarely exceed 4GB of data per month. But it would be helpful to know how much data you are using on average. If in most months, you use more than 3GB of data, but less than 4GB on a regular basis, then a 4GB plan is probably a good fit for you. But if you use considerably less than that most months, say 2GB of data per month, then you could subscribe to a less expensive plan. After you've figured out your typical usage patterns over the past several months, you should look at ways you could cut that usage.

Try going on a "wireless data diet" for a month or two. For instance, if you aren't using Wi-Fi when it's available, you should start. This is particularly easy if you have Wi-Fi at home or at work. You may also want to download a data compression app, such as Onavo or Hotspot Shield, onto your smartphone. (I wrote about data compression apps last Friday in Ask Maggie. ) These apps can reduce your data usage by half. One thing to note is that the compression apps do not compress audio or video. So if you're streaming a lot of video onto your smartphone, these apps won't help much. But if you're also checking Facebook, tweeting, or posting Foursquare updates every chance you get, then these apps can make a significant difference. The apps are free to download, and they provide you with all kinds of useful information about your usage.

Once you have one of these apps on your phone, use the reports and monthly comparison charts to see what your average usage is and to determine if you can significantly reduce your former usage patterns. Based on this information you can determine, which data plan works best for you. When it comes to the new "share" data plans, AT&T and Verizon are comparable on price. They differ by only $5 or at most $10 a month, depending on how much data you need.

Since you mentioned you rarely use more than 4GB of data, I'm going to assume that you regularly exceed 3GB of data per month. So we can use a 4GB cap as a start for this comparison. (If you find you need less than 4GB of data, you will have to rethink and recalculate this comparison.)

Comparing the plans

This summer Verizon and AT&T introduced new share plans that allow you to either share your data with other people on your plan or with other devices on the same account. Verizon requires that all new subscribers sign up for one of these new share plans. AT&T is more flexible. Customers can either sign up for individual voice, text, and data plans or they can sign up for a share plan.

Verizon charges $70 a month for a 4GB data plan that includes unlimited voice and text messaging. It will cost you another $40 to connect your smartphone to this plan. The total per month is $110.

As I mentioned, AT&T offers two options. If you buy voice, data, and texting separately, you can get the cheapest voice plan, which offers 450 minutes, for $40 a month. Since you said you text a lot, you should get the unlimited texting plan. (It's the only texting plan offered other than a pay-per-text option. I don't recommend this for people who text a lot.) The text plan is $20 a month. And the data plan is $30 a month for 3GB of data. If you need more data, AT&T also offers a $50 per month plan with 5GB of data. This plan also includes free Wi-Fi hot spot functionality on your smartphone, so you can share your data with other Wi-Fi enabled devices. In total, the 3GB data plan with voice and texting is $90 per month. The 5GB plan with voice and texting is $110, the same as Verizon's 4GB share plan.

AT&T also offers a 4GB share plan. Its pricing is identical to Verizon's pricing. For $70 per month, you get 4GB of data, plus unlimited talk and text messaging. And it's $40 a month to attach a smartphone to this plan. The total is $110.

What this means for you is that if you really need 4GB of data per month, you will be paying $110 regardless of whether you choose Verizon or if you choose either of AT&T's two options. But if you can get your data usage down to under 3GB of data per month, you can subscribe to AT&T's individual plan with 3GB of data per month and pay $90 a month, which is the same as what you currently pay on Sprint's network.

Which service should you get?

I know you are unhappy with Sprint, but it seems like you're willing to still consider staying with the company if the price is right and if the 4G LTE network is a big improvement. Looking at the numbers, you will definitely get more for your money if you stay with Sprint. But the big unanswered question is how well the 4G LTE network will perform and whether it will be available where you need it. I can't answer that for sure. I can tell you that, in general, jumping from 3G EVDO service to 4G LTE is like going from dial-up Internet to broadband. And if you can get LTE where you need it, you should see a huge improvement in performance of Sprint's network. You said it's expected in your area in December. So one option is to keep your existing phone and wait until December to see if the network is deployed. Then you can ask around to see how well customers like the service and if it will work for you. Keep in mind that whenever you aren't on LTE, you'll revert to Sprint's slower 3G network, which you've already said is too slow for you.

If you decide that Sprint is definitely not for you, then it's down to AT&T and Verizon. If you can get your usage below 3GB of month, you can save $20 a month on your service by choosing AT&T's individual plan with the $30 a month 3GB service. For me, $20 a month or $240 a year might be enough to make me overlook some spotty voice service or gaps in AT&T's LTE coverage. But if network coverage is a must and you find that Verizon's service is superior, then go with Verizon.

If you absolutely need 4GB of data and Verizon offers the better service, then go with Verizon. As I explain above, it's the same price as AT&T.

I'm sorry this answer was so complicated. But figuring out which wireless provider is best for you depends on a so many different variables. The best way to figure out which one works best for your budget is to sit down and compare plans based on which services you expect to use. I hope this advice was helpful. Good luck!

Should I keep my unlimited data plan?

Dear Maggie,
I'm thinking about switching to a Samsung Galaxy S3 from an iPhone 4. I have an unlimited data plan from Verizon Wireless. I know if I upgrade my data plan, I'll have to get a "share everything" plan. I currently use about 2GB to 3GB of data per month on my plan. I've been reading that 4G phones use more data, due to more surfing, more downloading, and higher quality streams from apps like Netflix. I was curious if it would be better for me to buy a phone outright and not "upgrade." That way, I'd get to keep my current plan of unlimited data. This would mean double the cost of the phone. But I'm not sure how much more data I would gobble up when using 4G?

Thanks,
Confused

Dear Confused,

Let's look at the numbers. You didn't mention in your question how much you are currently paying for your Verizon service. Let's assume that you have the lowest amount of voice minutes, which is 450 voice minutes, and an unlimited text plan, plus the unlimited data plan. Under Verizon's old plans, it charges $40 a month for 450 minutes of voice, $20 for unlimited texting, and $30 for unlimited data. The total for this plan is $90 a month.

No matter which shared plan you get, you will be paying more for data than you are currently paying. The 2GB share plan will cost you $100 per month ($60 for 2GB of data and $40 per smartphone). If you need more than 2GB, the next step up is the 4GB plan, which is $70 per month. Add the smartphone fee, and you're up to $110 a month. A 16GB Samsung Galaxy S3 costs $600 without a subsidy. Verizon will only make you pay $200 of that fee if you take the subsidy. That's a difference of $400. If you subscribe to the 2GB plan, you'd spend $240 in extra data fees over the life of a two-year contract. If you get the 4GB plan, you'd spend $480 in extra data charges over that period.

Keep in mind that whether you subsidize your phone or you pay full price for it, you will be out at least $200. But if you keep your unlimited data plan, you'll be saving money each month on the service. And over that period of time, the money you save defrays the cost of buying the phone upfront. The more data you expect to use, the more it makes sense for you to just buy your new smartphone without a subsidy.

But there is another option. Since you are already a Verizon customer, you have two options if you decide to give up your old unlimited plan. You can get a share everything plan, or you can get the old plan with a tiered data offer. This means you can keep your current voice and text plan. And you can still get a $30 a month data plan. But instead of getting unlimited data, you will get only 2GB of data for that $30 price tag. The total on this plan would still be $90 a month, which is the same price you are currently paying. (And it's $10 a month less than the same amount of data would cost you under the share plan.)

This means you could keep your service price the same as it is now and take the phone subsidy. Of course, the biggest drawback to this option is that you will now have to start thinking about your data usage. If you exceed the 2GB cap, you'll have to pay.

As I just mentioned, the general trend is that people will use more data. And as you pointed out in your question, LTE often leads to more data consumption. With LTE you're more likely to use your Internet connection more often, which leads to more consumption. But what if you could use your device more and not consume more data? Well, it is possible. It just requires you to take some action to conserve data. For example, you can use Wi-Fi hot spots to offload data consumption whenever possible.

You can restrict app downloads and updates so that you are only doing this when in Wi-Fi hot spots. You can also download a data compression app like Onavo or Hotspot Shield, which can reduce your data consumption by more than half. These apps won't compress audio or video, so streaming music or movies will still eat up a lot of bandwidth and if you're on a "data diet" you should engage in those activities sparingly while on a capped data service. But because these apps can compress images, you'll conserve data when you're looking at pictures on Facebook or posting images to Instagram. Text is also compressed, so you'll use less data when tweeting or checking in via FourSquare. And since these apps also compress mapping and navigation information, you'll save loads of data when you're out and about and using Google Maps to find and navigate toward a nearby restaurant.

So which one makes the most sense for you? The absolute cheapest option is to take the subsidy and switch to Verizon's older tiered plan and then become a data miser. But if you simply aren't willing to worry about data consumption and you expect to use a lot more in the future, then it could make sense for you to buy a full-priced smartphone and keep the unlimited data plan. I can't guarantee you that Verizon will keep this unlimited plan forever, but you can try to hang onto it as long as you can. I hope you found this advice helpful. Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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