Don't Let Pre-Paid Wireless Plans Empty Your Wallet
Rebecca Rohan

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Wallet Watch: Many Are Called, But Few Are Frozen....At Regular Airtime.

You can prevent or minimize huge pre-paid minute cost leaks by understanding these two common lines from the ads:

The " network " line can torpedo the "cents" line and rip the bottom out of your minutes balance like a sea serpent emptying the hold of a fishing boat. Why? The cents per-minute rate advertised is for "regular airtime" unless otherwise stated. The plans do tell you if and under what circumstances you go off "regular airtime" and into the stratosphere financially. It is often a simple phrase relating to not being "on our network," "on our prepaid network," "on the Pay-Now-Be-Happy Network," etc. See how they phrase it? This is where you get to roll up your sleeves and dig in a bit with: a) what they don't say, b) knowledge of your own life, and c) the carrier's network coverage map (or pre-paid networked coverage map) right on the Website . It's not hard to figure out somewhere on its Website when you carrier of choice is going to take your wallet, turn it over and shake out some extra cash.

First, drop your current concept of "network." Where you're going, a network ain't a "thing." Network coverage maps may be completely different for various plans within one company. For example, you'll find three-plus network maps at Alltel, which starts with its own small network and builds out based on agreements with other carriers. One Alltel non-prepay map almost blankets the nation and includes free long distance and free roaming. The next Alltel non-prepay map is similar, but roaming is only free near major cities. The Alltel Prepaid Wireless Coverage Area map with "Free roaming and long distance within our network" plainly shows its strength with things best for local calling. Prepaid minutes only work in a few states, turning these a comforting full coverage dark blue. The rest of the country is light blue indicating credit-card-only only roaming agreements with no clear statement of the rates you can expect. An Alltel spokesperson said, "Roaming and long distance off the Alltel network is based on rates the carrier serving that area determines."

Verizon Wireless owns its own network, but its pay-as-you-go map shows huge areas, including almost entire states, not covered by Verizon's pay-as-you-go rate. Nobody covers everything. Verizon's rep pointed out that its phone contains a "visual indication" when you are roaming. At Verizon, that costs 69 cents a minute. Virgin Mobile USA uses Sprint's network, and charges no roaming. A Virgin Mobile USA spokesperson said, "Wherever the Sprint network is available, Virgin Mobile phones will work. The overarching plan really is as simple as the Web site shows." With no roaming charges, and the phone working wherever the Sprint network is available , the Virgin reps answer begged the question: Where Sprint customers have to roam, what do Virgin Mobile customers do for service? After the same happy song again, we got to the fact that you get no service there. There's no option to roam. It's one thing to consider before boarding the otherwise charming Virgin-Mo-beel.

On To The Plan-tation

Here's more detailed information about plans from Alltel, Cingular, T-Mobile, Verizon and Virgin Mobile USA so you can start smelling and feeling the pay-as-you-go fruit for yourself.

Conclusions: Wrapping It All Up Before Pre-Paying It

The biggest secret to protecting your phone financial future is to assess and predict your needs in the long term, and take the time to see how well the " network coverage" of a plan will accommodate you as you communicate with your family, friends, and business associates. Remember, the phone you buy with that plan probably won't travel to another vendor.


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