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Five extreme ways to lower your cell phone bill

by Brad Spirrison

The average wireless phone bill jumped more than 50 percent between 2006 and 2011. According to market research firm JD Power & Associates, this figure is approaching $1,200 per year. Ouch!

While many of us are getting value from our mobile phones by surfing the web, watching videos and playing games, spending more than a grand a year on these and related activities is difficult to justify. There can be considerable price relief, however, if you are willing to modify your cellular consumption with some new and/or unorthodox services.

Here are five extreme ways to lower your cell phone bill.

Try the “hybrid” approach

When new cell phone service Republic Wireless debuted last year, many people wondered if its $19-per-month rate for unlimited voice and data services was too good to be true. The early returns from users fortunate to participate in the company’s beta membership program are positive, albeit with significant caveats.

The good? Republic Wireless keeps its rates low by using wireless Internet connectivity whenever possible for voice and data services. So when you are in your home, office or areas with access to a strong Wi-Fi signal, voice connections are solid and web/data services are fast. When you are on the road or otherwise not near a Wi-Fi connection, Republic Wireless switches you to the Sprint network, which it is authorized to resell for its service. No extra software or application is required to connect to Wi-Fi, and in most cases users can port their preferred telephone number to the service.

The not so good? Users are consistently complaining of dropped calls when switching from Wi-Fi to Sprint’s 3G network. While Republic Wireless eventually reconnects you in these cases, a dropped call while leaving the house and driving away from your Wi-Fi network can be a drag. If you’re looking to bring your fancy iPhone or high-end smartphone to the plan, think again (at least for now). Republic Wireless requires members to buy a middle-of-the-road Android phone (the LG Optimus) as part of its initial $199 membership cost. Also, the company’s claim of “unlimited” voice and data is misleading. As the service is predicated on users accessing Wi-Fi most of the time, Republic Wireless retains the right to cancel memberships if it deems usage to be beyond “normal” smartphone activity rates. As well, there is also no guarantee that Republic Wireless will offer unlimited services after its early testing period concludes.

While users are complaining of a few other nitpicks including poor audio quality and delayed transmission of text messages, all of these flaws may not outweigh the immense savings potential Republic Wireless offers. Stay tuned.

Keep your phone, but use Voice Over IP services

If you’re uncertain about Republic Wireless and its prospects or want to have choices about what smartphone you own, connecting a Voice Over IP (VoIP) service to your mobile phone is another option. The primary restraint here is that calls and data transmission will only work when your device is connected to the Internet. Services like Vonage, Skype, Line2, and Fring all have applications you can download to iPhones and Android-powered smartphones (Vonage, Skype, Line2, Fring).

The good? Monthly bills for unlimited calling in the United States and Canada typically range between $3 and $10. For Vonage customers, this rate includes landline connections. Skype and Fring offer video chatting among other benefits. Line2 is primarily marketed as a second line or resource if you want to add a business number to your phone. In these cases, this is much cheaper than buying another voice or committing to another contract. Line2 also provide the ability to switch between Wi-Fi and cellular connections.

The not so good? Most of us need the ability to use our mobile phones even when we are not within a Wi-Fi connection. As well, if you are in the middle of a carrier contract, you can’t just suspend access to its network (and monthly bills) without incurring a significant penalty. So, to get the full savings benefit of going VoIP, you either have to wait out your two-year contract, pay top dollar for a new device not under contract, or purchase a used model that is not connected to a carrier. A more practical way to save money through VoIP apps is to reduce your minute plan to the lowest option, use Wi-Fi whenever possible, and don’t go over your allotted carrier minutes. If you restrict data usage to Wi-Fi (a big compromise), you could end up saving a few bucks per month depending on your plan.

Try another upstart carrier

Ting is a new cell company that launched its service earlier this year. Like Republic Wireless, Ting piggy-backs off of Sprint’s network, and also provides faster 4G connections depending on your device. The company’s biggest selling point is that it offers more flexible monthly packages, many with considerably lower rates.

The good? Ting’s monthly voice plan starts at $3 for 100 minutes of talking (Ting also has a $6/month fee). If you exceed this plan (or any other), Ting doesn’t penalize you. Rather, it simply bumps you up to the next level of service. Further, if you are not using all the minutes you paid for, Ting will modify your plan so that you are paying for the cheaper option that suits your needs and also credit you for unused minutes. If you go beyond the 3,000-minute plan ($52), you will not be charged an overage penalty but rather pay by the minute thereafter. The same practice applies for data and text messaging. There is no long-term contract required.

The not so good? Because there is no long-term contract required, you are forced to pay for a new device without a subsidy. Ting has seven smartphones to choose from ranging from the $105 Sanyo Zio to the $545 Motorola Photon. For that money, you’d like to have more options. Also, while most users will see savings benefits if they switch their plans, this won’t be as extreme as other options noted above.

Go with a prepaid option

AT&T Avail GoPhoneAll four major U.S. carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile), as well as most smaller and regional networks, offer non-binding prepaid voice and data options for users who don’t want to commit to a long-term plan.

The good? With a prepaid plan, you only pay for minutes that you use and there is no real chance of getting hit with overage penalties. This is far and away the best option if you use your cell phone infrequently and don’t really text or have data needs like email, apps and web browsing. Also, if credit is an issue this is a viable option as (unlike carrier contracts) no credit checks are required to purchase prepaid minutes.

The not so good? In most cases, prepaid plans have a higher per-minute price than longer-term contracts. So if you use your phone frequently, you will ultimately spend more money with this option. While there is a wider selection of phones available through multiple carriers, owners accustomed to higher-end models will likely find the options lacking. Also, data and texting options will likely cost you extra. Finally, prepaid minutes typically have an expiration date. So if you don’t use them in a set period of time, you’re out of luck.

You can always skim and haggle

Make sure you are only using services on your phone that you need. So if there are entertainment services you are subscribed to but don’t really benefit from, or are paying for navigation assistance but don’t own a car, make sure they are removed from your plan. Avoid dialing 411 and paying the $1+ fee to find a telephone number or address, especially if you’re connected to the Internet and can find the same info online. If you think you are on the wrong plan, call your cellular provider and insist on getting a better deal. Also, it’s not impossible to get out of your contract if you think you have a legitimate complaint. This can free you up to find a cheaper and perhaps more extreme alternative.