Mon, Dec 29, 2014 - Page 14 News List

US telecoms’ billing plans fluster users

DATA STASH:T-Mobile’s recently announced service will allow subscribers to roll over leftover data month to month, a move designed to help users decide on a plan

NY Times News Service, SAN FRANCISCO

One cellphone billing plan allows customers to upgrade to a new device in less than two years. Another allows a pool of data to be shared across multiple devices. Yet another offers unlimited data, but only at slower Internet speeds. All these perks are there for the taking, yet the average wireless telephone bill continues with its monthly sting.

Confused yet?

Welcome to the confounding world of cellphone billing plans. Even executives at wireless telephone companies say their industry has created a Tower of Babel of competing plans, with highly specific requirements and offerings and even, in many cases, unique language buried in the fine print.

For cellphone customers, all this competition has meant they occasionally receive more for their money, or they might even obtain a better deal when they switch to a different phone carrier. However, with that savings opportunity has come the risk of telephone bill surprises, even for knowledgeable consumers.

“I think we’re propagating some confusion in the marketplace — us as an industry,” AT&T Mobility Inc chief executive officer Glenn Lurie said in a recent interview. “There’s been so much noise that customers are getting confused.”

It all started nearly two years ago, when T-Mobile USA Inc killed the traditional two-year contract, a move that shook the wireless industry. In the past, a phone subscriber signed a two-year contract to buy a telephone for a discounted price and paid a flat monthly bill. With T-Mobile’s new contract-free plan, a customer could pay the full price for a smartphone in monthly installments and the bill would be reduced once the phone was fully paid off.

The move set off a flurry of changes among carriers. Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint responded with similar contract-free plans that allowed people to pay for their own devices in exchange for lower rates.

However, that was just round one.

“Since there are new deals every couple of weeks, even if you go with the best deal today, things might change tomorrow,” independent telecommunications analyst Jan Dawson said. “Ultimately, all this is good for consumers, but it takes more work now than it did to figure out the best deal.”

In February, AT&T and Verizon expanded the data packages for their family plans. AT&T offered 10 gigabytes of data for families to share, starting at US$130 per month for a family of two.

However, then there was the fine print: Brand-new customers signing up for the family plan would have to choose AT&T’s contract-free plan, Next, and pay off a telephone in monthly installments. Or they would have to provide their own device, like an iPhone bought from Craigslist. Or they would have to buy a new cellphone at full cost from AT&T.

Existing customers could sign up for the new family plan, but they would have to meet the same criteria once their contracts were up.

Also in February, Verizon sweetened its family plans, but it offered discounts only for certain types of customers. For example, subscribers to Verizon’s Edge program — an option to pay off a telephone over monthly installments — got US$15 off their bill.

This month, Sprint said it would, for a limited time, cut the bills of any Verizon and AT&T customers in half if they switched to Sprint, with one big caveat: Sprint said it could not promise that customers would be billed the same rates for future device upgrades.

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