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(File photo | The Associated Press) Following T-Mobile’s lead, AT&T has introduced a new but costly phone upgrade plan that eliminates the need to wait every two years to get a new mobile device.
Oh My Tech!: Trying to make sense of those puzzling mobile plans

By vince Horiuchi

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Apr 11 2013 08:06 pm • Last Updated Apr 11 2013 09:15 pm

I don’t envy anyone who has to get a new cellphone plan. The resulting research might end up melting their brain.

Earlier this week, The Tribune published my story about T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan, a new option that doesn’t require a two-year contract. I compared it with similar phone plans from the other three major carriers, Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. It was the hardest story I’ve ever researched.

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I had to pore over the plans from all four companies in an effort to analyze and compare their relative values, and to break down the choices available to customers. I then tried to simplify the plans so readers could understand the differences. I had an easier time doing my taxes.

Anyone who has to shop for a new smartphone plan is bound to get swept up in a tornado of tiers, itemized fees, multiple lines and special deals. It’s no easy task to sort it all out. All of the companies allow you to pick and choose different plans based on your needs — how many voice minutes you use, how many phones you have, how much data you want and how much you’re willing to pay.

I like that carriers give you some flexibility to shape a plan, but there has to be an easier system that lets you mold the plan to your needs but that doesn’t lead to mental exhaustion.

Mired in all of the particulars, most customers just give up and rely on the expertise of the carrier’s sales representatives, but as we know they are trained to sell you the most expensive plan, so it’s hard to trust them with a decision that ultimately costs you anywhere from $70 to $150 per month for just one phone.

The best plan would be one that allows the customer to freely set exactly how many minutes and how much data per month he or she wants to purchase, instead of choosing a series of tiered plans. So, you could just tell the salesperson, "I want 200 minutes and 6 gigabytes of data per month. How much would that cost?" And in a perfect world, all carriers would use the same system so you could easily make an apples-to-apples comparison in pricing. But in a free market, companies can use whatever formula they want (as it should be). I just wish the various mobile plans were easier to comprehend.

As an alternative, it also would be ideal if all the companies offered only one plan — unlimited voice, text and data for one affordable price so you never have to worry about running out of anything during the month. I emphasized "affordable" because only T-Mobile and Sprint offer an unlimited-everything plan, but they’re pretty expensive. Sprint’s, for example, costs $109.99 per month for one phone.

So, is T-Mobile’s new Simple Choice Plan really ... simple? Sort of. It’s much easier to decipher than those from Verizon or (especially) AT&T, which potentially has hundreds of configurations. With T-Mobile, you have unlimited voice and text no matter what, and you choose how many phones are in the plan and which tier of data you want for each phone. The carrier touts that the new plans don’t require a two-year contract if you come in with your own phone. But all carriers do that, so don’t be swayed by the marketing.

According to my comparisons, T-Mobile’s plans are definitely cheaper. The monthly cost for unlimited voice and text with 2.5 gigabytes of data is at least $25 cheaper than the other carriers with comparable plans.

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The disadvantage with Sprint is that its coverage is not as good as Verizon’s or AT&T’s, and Sprint doesn’t have a 4G LTE data network up and running in Utah.

T-Mobile’s new plans are a step in the right direction, and maybe their emergence will rattle the cages of the other carriers to a point they will try to compete in pricing and simplicity. Competition is good.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he’ll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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