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On Call: The right to end your carrier contract early

Most carriers will allow you to leave your contract without a fee if they make big changes to your service. But then most carriers aren't clear about when that can happen.

On Call runs every two weeks, alternating between answering reader questions and discussing hot topics in the cell phone world.

Here is the coverage map that's currently on Sprint's Web site. Sprint

Last month, a CNET reader named Greg told me in an e-mail that the coverage map currently on Sprint's Web site shows a dramatically changed voice and data network than a similar map from a couple of years earlier. Since carrier maps are never reliable, I didn't think much of it at first. But as this Sprint user forum shows, Greg wasn't exaggerating. Sprint's home coverage area (look for the green areas) on the newer map is much smaller, which goes against the conventional wisdom that a carrier's network would grow as time goes on. The worst-hit states stretch from North Dakota to Nevada, but even densely populated areas like California and the Northeast were adversely affected.

What's going on?
When I asked Sprint about the changes, spokeswoman Candace Johnson acknowledged that as of March 1 the carrier reduced native EV-DO (3G) coverage in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming and replaced it with 1xRTT (2.5G) data roaming. According to Johnson, the changes are a result of the 2008 merger between Verizon Wireless and Alltel (a former Sprint partner). Because Verizon had to divest some Alltel markets, Sprint had to change roaming agreements after that divested Alltel spectrum was purchased by AT&T. As a result, Sprint had to find new CDMA partners.

So what's the problem?
Though you can still make calls when using voice roaming, subscribers will see changes if the new carrier partner couldn't support all of Sprint's services. For example, you may find coverage isn't available everywhere and some features of your voice mail may be unacceptable. Fortunately, you don't have to pay extra for calls when roaming domestically--Sprint and other carriers have largely done away with such calling plans--but even Sprint admits that it's not the carrier's intention "to have roaming be the primary source of your network coverage."

Data on a roaming network also involves challenges. Beyond the aforementioned loss of 3G, you won't be entitled to unlimited data (even if you're on such a plan); the data will be more expensive; and you can lose services like Sprint Navigation, Sprint Family Locater, and the Sprint Music Store. So any way you slice it, the switch to roaming is a big deal.

So what to do?
Like all carriers, Sprint has a clause buried deep in its contract that addresses a customer's right to end a service agreement early without paying an Early Termination Fee (ETF). In Sprint's case the relevant clause says, "If a change we make to the Agreement is material and has a material adverse effect on services under your term commitment, you may terminate each line of service materially affected without incurring an ETF." You're awarded that right, however, only if you call Sprint "within 30 days after the effective date of the change" and "specifically advise" that you wish to cancel services because of the "material changes."

That may sound great, but the trouble with such a clause is that carriers rarely define exactly what constitutes "a material adverse effect on services." It's not spelled out in your contract, and the answer varies by situation and by who you ask. In this case, however, I was glad to hear that Sprint waived ETFs for the affected customers (Johnson said the carrier notified affected customers in their January and February invoices). Yes, they would have to go through the proper channels described above, and I'm not downplaying the inconvenience that Greg and his fellow customers experienced, but at least Sprint gave them an out in this case.

I have no problem with the basic concept of an ETF. Some customers may grumble, but signing a service contract does get you a new cell phone at a discount. And if you skip out on the contract early, it's only fair that the carrier should be able to get some of that discount back. Yet, I'd also call on carriers to clearly lay out when and how you can get out of your contract and to skip any "30 days" stipulations. That would be only fair as well.