Softening the Hard 'Cell'

For consumers trying to sort through the hype on cell phones, confusion seems to reign supreme.

It's virtually impossible to compare prices when one carrier offers a free phone, another touts low monthly fees, and a third offers a cheap per-minute rate if you sign a three-year contract.

The marketing game is called "packaging." And the best way to find the best deal is to determine which package fits you, say the experts.

Will you use the phone for:

Emergencies only. This one's easy. Get the lowest monthly rate and a free or nearly-free phone from a traditional cellular carrier (typically $15/month for 30 minutes of air time).

Talking with family members. It depends on where you live, where you work, and where your children go to school. Traditional cell service usually reaches farther than newer PCS (personal communications service) networks. So if you want access from a far suburb, stick with cellular. Closer to downtown, PCS usually costs less.

Lots of business calls. This is where PCS shines. It typically offers not only telephone, but also voice-mail, caller ID, and sometimes paging service for one rate. Because you're willing to pay $50 or more a month, companies give you lots of minutes. If you roam all over the metro area, consider a newer flavor - digital cellular: many PCS features, often with greater geographical reach.

Domestic travel. Pay special attention to roaming charges: a surcharge tacked on to every minute when you're not in your home area. National PCS and cellular carriers have cut roaming rates and sometimes offer special deals for calls to a city their network serves.

Foreign travel. Forget it. Cellular and PCS phones in the US don't work overseas. Rent when you get there.

Don't want a monthly bill. Try a prepaid phone plan, available from cellular or PCS companies. It helps those poor-credit parents with overly talkative kids who run up the bill.

Be careful about multiyear contracts, analysts warn. A great deal today could look expensive in a year.

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