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With the wrong service plan, a mobile phone is little more than an overpricedpocket watch. Before selecting a service plan, think carefully about howyou want to use your phone. Are you replacing a land line? Protectingyourself for roadside emergencies? Using a walkie-talkie unit to stay inconstant contact with colleagues on the other coast? Forecasting is an inexact science, but absolutely worth the effort. Signingon for a year with the wrong plan can leave you choosing between riding itout, at a loss, or paying a steep service termination fee. To help you make some initial distinctions between service offerings, wesurveyed several plans. For the sake of a level evaluation, we looked at national plans that offerapproximately 600 “anytime” minutes per month, to be used with a singlephone, by a single user. Most all plans include caller ID, call waiting, andvoice mail. All plans include nationwide long distance (i.e., no “roaming”fees). This roster reflects rates and plans available in March 2004. SPRINT For $45 per month, Sprint Communications Co. offers 500 anytime minutes,unlimited nationwide long distance, and unlimited night and weekend minutes(starting at 9 p.m., during the week, a staple crossover time for mostservice providers). PCS Service Plan users may elect to start unlimitednight minutes at 7 p.m., but there’s a catch: a two-year contract, alongwith an extra $5 per month. PCS Vision Picture Phone customers who want to take, upload and send anunlimited number of pictures using Picture Mail can tack on an extra $5 permonth; and $5 more on top of that for users who want to take, view, storeand send 15-second video clips. Walkie-talkie users (with a PCS Vision ReadyLink Phone) can connect with colleagues elsewhere on the Sprint NationwidePCS Network for $15 more each month. NEXTEL The Nextel National Instant Connect 500 plan, for $49.99 from NextelCommunications, includes 500 anytime minutes, unlimited night and weekendminutes, and unlimited Direct Connect minutes — the walkie-talkie minutesthat Nextel ads have made iconic For $69.99 each month, users can opt for 600 anytime minutes, and unlimitedfree incoming calls (a nice feature that allows for actual conversations,midday). CINGULAR Cingular Wireless adds an interesting concept to the mix — the rolloverminute. For users of Cingular Nation Plans that run $45 or higher,customers receive rollover minutes. Unused anytime minutes roll over for upto a year. An important caveat: Night and weekend minutes do not roll over.The Cingular Nation 500 with Rollover plan provides, for $55, 500 anytimeminutes, and 5,000 night and weekend minutes. News watch: Cingular has agreed to acquire AT&T Wireless, and says it expectsto complete the acquisition by year’s end. Once merged, the company willthen cover 97 of the top 100 U.S. markets, it says. AT&T Meanwhile, AT&T Wireless reports that any new subscriber who signs up beforethe deal with Cingular goes through can count on their service plan runningits duration, unaffected by the merger. AT&T Wireless’ most popular plan provides 600 anytime minutes, unlimitednight and weekend minutes, and includes long distance, for $39.99 per month. The company has also announced the availability of “Early Evenings.” Users’nights start at 7 p.m. instead of 9p.m., when they choose a plan for $59.99or more, with a two-year service agreement. T-MOBILE T-Mobile USA’s Get More plan includes 600 whenever minutes, and unlimitednight and weekend minutes (local or long distance), for $39.99. Thecompany’s Three-Day Weekend Plan — also for $39.99 — includes 600 wheneverminutes, and unlimited weekend minutes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Thesnag is that there aren’t any night minutes included during the week. T-Mobile is also tied to Research in Motion — maker of the BlackBerryhandheld computer. The T-Mobile BlackBerry Minutes & Mail plan includes1,000 whenever minutes for voice calls, unlimited wireless e-mail and 300inbound/outbound text messages each month, for $69.99. The BlackBerry Unlimited E-mail plan is only $39.99, but voice calls arebilled on a pay-as-you-go basis for 20 cents per minute. VERIZON The America’s Choice 500 plan, from Verizon Wireless, offers 500 anytimeminutes, unlimited nights and weekends, and 1,000 mobile-to-mobile minutes,for $49.99 per month. The company also offers walkie-talkie style “Push to Talk” functionality.America’s Choice with Push to Talk plans start at $59.99 per month. Theyinclude free unlimited group calling, unlimited one-to-one Push to Talk,unlimited night and weekend minutes, and 1,000 national in-network calling minutes. Contributing editor Richard Peck is a graduate student at SyracuseUniversity. E-mail: [email protected] .

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