Shopping for Phone Service
You may live in an area where many telecommunications service providers compete for your business, giving you many options and the opportunity to save money by choosing solutions that meet your needs. The keys to shopping for telecommunications services are to know your needs and understand your options. Whether you use a traditional landline, wireless service, Internet-based phone service, or a combination, every residential and business customer will have different calling needs.
Many telephone service providers offer “bundled” local and long distance services for a monthly flat rate. Bundled plans may benefit consumers who make many long distance calls, want convenience or want a number of optional services such as caller ID, voice mail, etc. For other consumers, combining separate plans and service options may be the most cost-effective option.
Wireless telephone service providers usually offer "family plans," which may offer substantial savings based on phone usage in your household, while "unlimited" calling plans involve no usage limitations or overage charges. If you consider such a service, it is helpful to know how many minutes you average per month and to research whether a current or different plan may actually be more economical.
Some telecommunications service providers also offer service packages that combine cable/satellite television, Internet and telephone services into a bundled plan. These packages may offer some consumers substantial savings on their telecommunications services. However, consumers should study all of their needs to ensure that they receive the services they have chosen in the most cost-effective manner. The OUCC Website offers publications and links that can help with these decisions.
To understand your telephone service needs, review your monthly phone bills to determine your calling pattern. Begin by reviewing:
- The average number and length of calls you make or receive each month.
- The time of day you make or receive most calls.
- The people and places you call.
- The location(s) from which you make or receive calls.
- If you use both landline and wireless service, which do you use more frequently?
- Do you use one or the other for specific types of calls?
- Your budget.
Once you understand your calling pattern, compare the different options (such as landline and wireless companies, prepaid calling cards, Internet service providers, and 10-10 "dial-around" numbers). Review provider Websites and request written information on companies’ offers to ensure there is no misunderstanding. Keep in mind that you may be able to select different companies and different services for different types of long distance calls such as state-to-state calls and local long distance calls. (A "local long distance call" is a call made outside your local calling area but within an industry-defined region known as a "local access transport area [LATA]." There are 10 such regions in Indiana.)
When considering your needs for local telephone service, determine the average number of calls you make or receive each month and the optional services you would like to have. Check with providers to compare their flat-rate plans and per-call plans, as well as any packages of optional plans.
As with any contract or purchase, read the fine print.
- Whether you are using a landline or wireless phone, rates for different types of long distance calls – especially international calls – can vary considerably. Be sure you know whether a calling plan’s rates vary for different times of the day and days of the week.
- If a wireless or long distance calling plan includes a set number of minutes, ask about the charge for any minutes used above the packaged amount. Monitor your minutes and know whether you can switch to a different plan at no charge.
- If you sign up for a new service through a special promotion or advertised discount, know when the special rate expires and what you will be charged afterward.
- If you're considering eliminating landline telephone service altogether and relying solely on wireless service at your home or business:
- Test the wireless coverage on your property. Walk through every room - especially basements - to make sure your wireless phone has a strong signal and that you can hear and be heard clearly. This includes calls you make to, and receive from, both wireless and landline phones.
- Check with your service provider to confirm whether your number will be available from directory assistance.
- Understand how your phone will work if you call 911 in an emergency. Technology at 911 call centers continues to improve, but some call centers can pinpoint wireless phone locations more precisely than others. Your wireless service provider should be able to provide more information, as well as your police and fire departments (at their non-emergency numbers).
- If you rent and want to go without a landline, make sure it doesn't violate your lease.
- If you're considering phone service through an Internet service provider - branded as digital phone, Internet telephone or VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) - confirm whether your number will be available from directory assistance and how your location will be pinpointed if you call 911.
- Ask what monthly charges are required for service, and what late fees, taxes and other charges might appear on your bill.
- Know the billing interval for calls. (For example, does the provider round the calling time up to the next full minute for billing purposes?)
- Some prepaid calling cards and some 10-10 dial-around numbers require you to pay for a minimum number of minutes per call. The OUCC’s Prepaid Calling Cards fact sheet lists additional things to consider.
- Can you choose when and how you are billed? Do some options carry discounts or additional fees for quarterly billing, Internet billing, etc?
- Will the company’s customer service employees be helpful and available when you need to contact them?
- State and federal laws require phone companies to contribute to universal service funds, which are described in the OUCC’s Understanding Your Phone Bill fact sheet. Some companies recover these charges through their base rates while some charge a flat fee and others base their fees on a percentage of the bill amount.
- Some wireless plans require two-year or one-year contracts, while others may allow you to go on a month-to-month basis without a contract. The most common trade-off is that without a contract, you are not likely to receive a free or discounted phone.
- If you use a wireless phone infrequently, a prepaid phone or pay-as-you-go plan may be worth considering.
- With wireless services, be careful with “add-ons.” Charges for text messages, data, Internet access, music, ring tones, games and other extra features can add up quickly. If you’re likely to use these services regularly, strongly consider buying them through a bundled plan.
If you are changing from one wireless service provider to another, be aware of whether you are violating the terms of an existing service contract. Early termination penalties are likely to apply and may be considerable.
Various calling plans from telephone service providers (including landline, wireless and Internet) offer unlimited long distance calling with no per-call fees. Some plans offer completely unlimited long distance calling while others offer unlimited calling under certain conditions (certain times of the day, wireless-to-wireless, etc.).
An unlimited plan may help some customers save money, but not all. If you clearly understand your calling patterns and typical telephone usage, you can determine whether such a plan is right for you.
If switching providers within a local calling area, you may be able to keep your current telephone number. Be sure to ask about this and visit Websites on wireless local number portability (linked from the OUCC site) for additional information. Regardless, do not cancel your existing phone service. Allow your new provider to handle the changes, and be ready to give your new provider a copy of your most recent bill. Also, be aware that only specific phones will work on a specific wireless provider’s network due to technological restrictions. If you need a new wireless phone, find out about the costs and possible discounts.
Telecommunications services, options and billing plans are constantly evolving. By monitoring current trends and visiting provider Websites on a regular basis, you may find a better deal (or deals) than what you currently have. Reducing your telephone bill may also be as simple as contacting your current provider and requesting a lower rate.
Regardless of which service(s) you choose, be sure to shop for the best deal. Remember that a provider should be able to answer any questions you may have about its services, and always remember to read the fine print.
Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor
115 W. Washington St., Suite 1500 South
Indianapolis, IN 46204