Ask Maggie: On data plans, iPhone 4, and more

If you've got wireless questions, CNET's Maggie Reardon has answers. Today's doozy is what matters most, phone or provider?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

If you've got wireless questions, I've got answers.

More than 90 percent of the U.S. population now has a cell phone. And as hot new smartphones, such as the iPhone 4, HTC Evo, and Motorola Droid, gain in popularity, consumers around the country are trying to figure out what phone is right for them. Meanwhile, wireless operators are touting faster 3G networks and 4G wireless networks to entice new customers. Carriers are changing service plans and early termination fees. And consumers are confused.

Having reported on the wireless beat for six years, I've fielded hundreds of questions from readers, friends, and family members. After getting flooded with questions about the new iPhone 4, the time seemed ripe for me to make my advice more widely available to all CNET readers. So consider me your go-to source for all things wireless.

If you've got a wireless question burning in your brain, send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. Please put, "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. Every week I will select a few questions from readers and answer them in this column. If I don't know the answer to your question, I'll do some digging and find out. So stay tuned and send me your questions.

Free from my iPhone contract?
Dear Maggie,

I have recently moved and where I live, I have to go outside (which means down two flights of stairs and outside of a locked door) to use my iPhone. It doesn't get any service inside my apartment at all and renders it useless when I am in the house.

I've heard recently that when a carrier changes their terms of use (like with this change in data plan), that is grounds for the customer to cancel their contract without paying the $200 early termination fee. Is this true? And, if so, would the recent changes in the iPhone data plan be grounds for a customer to get out of their contract?


Dear Barron,

I've got some good news for you and some bad news. Let's start with the bad news. Unfortunately, AT&T's service change will not get you out of your AT&T contract. The changes that AT&T has made to the service plan do not require existing customers to switch to the new tiered data service plans. In other words, you can keep your existing unlimited data plan. So that means that AT&T hasn't really changed the terms of your contract.

I contacted a lawyer who has been involved in some of the early termination class action litigation to get his take. Here is what Jay Edelson, a managing partner at the Chicago-based law firm KamberEdelson had to say:

If there is a material change in the service plan, my view is that the consumer should be able to terminate the contract. But the change that the company makes has to be contrary to the customer. It can't be that the service provider is giving the consumer more options. I don't think any court would interpret this as detrimental to the consumer.

Now, for a little bit of good news. Because you are already under contract with AT&T, you are subject to the $175 early termination fee and not the new $325 early termination fee that AT&T is now requiring in its new iPhone contracts. Ok, so that's not great news, but it's something.

Edelson has a tip that might help take the sting out of that early termination fee. He suggests going to a competing carrier and telling the sales representative that you are still under contract with AT&T. The competitor might offer to pay for your early termination fee.

Also, you might be able to get out of the contract without paying a penalty if you can prove that AT&T told you the phone would have service in your new home. If the service map or a sales person indicated you'd be able to get service in your house, Edelson said you may have a case:

If AT&T promised a customer that his phone would work in his home, and it turns out not to be true, then he might have a leg to stand on, because the customer would have been fraudulently induced into the contract. Not many people would sign a contract on a phone knowing that it won't work in their house.


Provider v. phone
Dear Maggie,

Which is more important, the provider or the phone? When do you think it's worth switching companies to get different hardware (asked by the only person in Boston with T-Mobile).


Margaret from Newton, Mass.

Dear Margaret,

I would say that the service provider is the most important thing for a wireless consumer to consider when making a purchasing decision. I know that the Apple iPhone is wildly popular and some people are going bananas for the new HTC Evo, but at the end of the day you need to be able make phone calls and access the network to surf the Web or fire up all those cool mobile apps. If the service is crappy where you live then the phone won't be much good to you. Plus, as more Android phones come on the market, every carrier will soon have similarly cool devices to choose from.

Service quality varies for every wireless operator in any given region. When you are researching a new phone, look at the coverage map for your area online. I'd even ask the salespeople in the local store about coverage where you live and work. And then I'd ask friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, and the person standing in line in front of you at the local Starbucks what they think about their service.

Make sure you consider how well the service works in areas of the country where you plan to travel regularly. For example, I live in Manhattan. All four major wireless operators have good coverage in New York City with some exceptions. But my father lives in Delaware, and only two of the nation's biggest carriers offer decent service there. Even though Sprint's service map claims it offers service in his tiny little town, I have never been able to use a Sprint phone in or around his house.


Glomming on to unlimited data
Dear Maggie,

My daughter and her husband have iPhones (3Gs) on a family plan with unlimited data. If my wife and I each purchase a new iPhone 4, can we be added to our daughter's existing AT&T family plan and have the unlimited data like our daughter and her husband have?


Dear Gene,

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you and your wife will not be able to glom onto your daughter's unlimited data plan even though you are on the same family plan. AT&T is requiring all new iPhone customers to sign up for one of the two new data service plans: $15 for 200 megabytes of data per month or $25 for 2 gigabytes.


Is iPhone 4 4G?
Dear Maggie,

What I haven't been able to definitively determine is if the iPhone 4 is a 4G phone. AT&T does not offer 4G yet. Will this phone be able to use 4G when AT&T eventually offers it? Or will that be on the next iPhone model yet to be released?


Dear Larry,

You are correct. AT&T does not have a 4G network. The company has said that it will be testing the 4G wireless technology called LTE, or Long Term Evolution, this year. It expects to start deploying a 4G network in 2010 with more deployments in 2011. This means it won't likely have a 4G-enabled phone until at least 2011.

The iPhone 4 is simply the fourth generation of iPhone. When AT&T gets a 4G network, this version of the iPhone and previous versions of the phone will not be compatible with the new 4G network. Like the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 operates over AT&T's existing 3G wireless network.

One other thing to note is that AT&T is currently upgrading its 3G network to HSPA+, a technology that can offer theoretical download speeds of 21Mbps. Unfortunately, the iPhone 4 does not support this technology, which means that when AT&T has completed this upgrade in 2011, the iPhone 4 will not benefit from the speed changes. That said, AT&T is upgrading backhaul capacity as it rolls out HSPA+ and those network improvements should help alleviate network congestion, which has caused problems for many iPhone customers.

Even though the iPhone 4 is not operating on a faster AT&T network, it is expected to perform better than previous generations of the product. These improvements will be due to hardware enhancements made to the device, rather than network upgrades. For example, the new iPhone 4 uses a homegrown processor called the A4 chip, which is the same one found inside the iPad. The new chips are expected to make accessing apps and the browser quicker. Also, the new iPhone has a larger antenna than previous versions of the product. The metal band running around the edge of the iPhone 4 is part of the new antenna system. According to Apple, that should help with some of the reception problems customers have experienced.