Cell Phones and Wireless Communication
Before you sign a contract and choose a plan and a company that meets your needs, you should ask these types of questions:
Where can you make and receive calls? Most providers now offer a choice of local, regional, or national plans. A local plan offers low-cost options if most of your calls are near home. Regional plans generally offer a larger geographic area - sometimes several states. If you call outside the area covered by these plans, you will pay long distance and roaming charges in addition to the airtime used. National plans are the most expensive, but they let you use your phone anywhere in the country for a single per-minute price.
How frequently will you use the phone? If you just want a phone for emergencies, an economy plan with a few minutes a month may be all you need. On the other hand, if you are going to be a heavy user, a plan with several free hours and the lowest airtime charge is a wiser choice. If you plan to use texting, pick a plan that will meet your needs and avoid surprises on your billing. Most services allow you to upgrade a plan without an added one-time charge.
Is a family plan option available? Instead of individual cell phone plans for each member of the family, you can share one cellular service plan and a pool of monthly usage minutes among several phones. The cost of the additional numbers per month is usually less than if you purchased individual accounts.
Is there a trial period? Many people experience "dead spots" where a cell phone doesn't work. A trial period lets you test your service and try the features of the phone without incurring a termination fee.
Know your options. Make sure you are only buying the options or features you really need. It is always easier to upgrade a plan later if you feel you need another feature.
What happens if you want to cancel your service? Most providers have a penalty. This is a concern if you have to move out of the area covered by your plan.
Smart phones are like miniature computers; they provide basic phone functions, along with advanced features, including browsing the Internet, accessing e-mail, interacting on online social networks, listening to music, watching videos, uploading pictures, and managing your calendar. They also allow use of a QWERTY keyboard to facilitate texting and e-mailing. (The keys are arranged the same way they would be on your computer keyboard.)
When shopping for a smart phone, consider these tips:
- Consider the shape and size of the phone.
- Make sure you can easily use the keypad to make calls or send messages.
- Do you need to access the Internet with your phone? If so, ask whether a data plan is required and how much it costs; compare options carefully. Data plans govern use and costs associated with mobile access for e-mail, text messaging, web browsing, social networking, and other applications.
- Take advantage of special pricing and promotions.
- Learn the return and cancellation policies.
- Be wary of buying phone insurance, which may sound tempting, but consumer groups generally advise against it.
If there is a particular phone model you are interested in buying, investigate which service providers actually carry the phone. If your service provider carries the phone, they may require you to renew or extend your current contract; you may also be required to upgrade the service plan you have in order to access all of the phone’s features. Some phone models are available exclusively with only one service provider. This may require you to terminate a contract with your current provider and start a new contractual agreement with a new provider. Under the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) local number portability rules, so long as you remain in the same geographic area, you can take your phone number with you when you move from one service provider to a different one.
Apps for Your Smartphone
“Apps”, short for applications, are tools that help you accomplish tasks or find information when you are on the go. Apps are designed to work on smart phones and may be downloaded or accessed using your phone’s web browser. Some apps are designed for specific platforms (Android, Blackberry, or iPhone), so make sure that you purchase apps that are compatible with your phone’s software requirements. While some apps are free, many of them do charge a small fee. Before you click “download”, keep in mind that the cost of your purchases are automatically deducted from your bank account or charged to your credit card or phone bill. Keep track of the amount of money that you spent on apps, to avoid shock when you receive your bill.
Visit the Apps gallery on usa.gov to download free apps from the government. Look for some of the consumer apps for product recalls, fuel economy, food safety, nutrition, and health information.
Privacy and Safety Concerns
Since smart phones are like miniature computers, many of the same privacy and safety concerns apply; however, unlike computers, these devices do not have anti-virus software to protect your phone from malware attacks, spyware, or text message spam. Therefore, you should take precautions with your phone, including:
- Protect your passwords for websites you visit from your mobile phone, particularly financial institutions.
- Refrain from posting your mobile phone number or email address publicly online.
- Many mobile phones come with an email address that includes your mobile phone number in the address. Contact your service provider to have this email address changed.
- Delete texts or emails from people that you don’t know. Don’t click any links in these messages.
- Be careful about clicking on ads, as they can contain viruses.
- Be careful about unlocking your cell phone from the manufacturer or service provider; this makes the phone more vulnerable to attack from malware.
- Turn off your Bluetooth when not in use. They can be used by hackers to compromise your phone.
- Encrypt passwords and other sensitive data saved on your cell phone.
For more information on how to protect yourself from these concerns, read more about online privacy.
If you want cell phone service only for emergencies or aren't sure how much you will actually use a cell phone once you get it, you may want to consider a prepaid cell phone before you commit to a long-term wireless contract. With a prepaid cell phone, there is no contract to sign and no monthly bill to worry about. You will know exactly how much you spend. The down side of prepaid plans is that you pay more per minute, and if you don't use the phone for an extended period of time, you could lose the money in your account.
Disposing of Your Old Cell Phone
Even after you get a new mobile phone you may be wondering what to do with your old phone and charger. There are safe ways to dispose of your cell phone that can even be helpful to others and not hurt the environment. Before you dispose of it, make sure to clean the phone to protect your privacy:
- Remove the subscriber identity module (SIM) card from the phone.
- Delete the contacts in your phone book, text messages, voicemails, saved photos, and web search history.
- Clear out your call and text history (both calls and texts received and made).
After you have taken these steps, you can now determine how to dispose of the phone. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that you not throw out electronics with your other trash, because they contain chemicals that can be harmful to the environment. It is recommended that you:
- Recycle it. Many wireless service providers will accept your old phone at their retail stores. Similarly, you can send the phone and accessories to the phone manufacturer.
- Donate it to an organization that can use it for charitable purposes.
- Resell it.