MONEY Tech

How to Cut Your Wireless Bill Down to Size

stack of phone bills
Christine Balderas—Getty Images

Cell phone carriers are battling for your business by cutting prices, ditching contracts, and offering to pay your fee to switch. Act fast to lock in your savings.

If you’re unhappy with your cell phone service—and really, who isn’t?—now might be a unique time to either renegotiate your contract or move to a new carrier.

Your window of opportunity may be short, however, as carriers have reached a crescendo in an escalating battle over prices and plans.

The mobile business started to change about a year and half ago, when T-Mobile first said it would ditch contracts and stop subsidizing phones.

In April, after some tit-for-tat between companies, T-Mobile said it was getting rid of its data overage charges and doubled the data that consumers were allotted, among other changes, and offered to pay the often-steep switching fees carriers can charge to break contracts.

AT&T responded by lowering some of its package prices and debuting a new line of no-contract plans. Verizon last month began offering a new $60 plan that previously would have cost users $90. Both companies also offered deals involving data shared by a family of users.

Then, last month, Sprint changed its offerings to include more data usage than its rivals were delivering at the same price. T-Mobile countered with a low-price starter plan of $45 that comes with 2GB of data. And with the iPhone 6 launch on the horizon, carriers are trying to lure in new business—or keep existing clients.

The result of these changes? Savings can be dramatic.

James Pillow, 41, of Orlando, Fla., was lured recently to switch from AT&T to T-Mobile’s $50 unlimited text, talk, and data plan (which limits users to 1GB of data over its 4G network).

Pillow, president of the sports apparel company FanCastle.com, says he had been spending $98 a month on cell phone bills and didn’t want to constantly worry about extra data usage. Now his bills are $57. He had evaluated smaller companies, but says he was concerned about the reliability of their coverage.

“Since I travel with my job and with my family, it made sense to chose a national company with a national tower network for better coverage,” Pillow says.

To best take advantage of the offers, you need to go through the complicated math, as cell phone carriers notoriously make their packages difficult to compare.

Also, the best plan for you depends on how much data you want, whether you already own a phone and the number of users tied to your contract.

Here’s how to evaluate the offers:

Study Your Bills

What if you merely think you’re getting a bad deal? To know for sure, take the last six to 12 bills from your current service and see what you really use, says Jon Colgan, who runs a service called Cellbreaker.com that helps consumers break their contracts.

Ask yourself: How many minutes a month do you use the phone? How much do you text? How much data do you consume?

Pay attention to the fine print. A $100 plan doesn’t necessarily mean your bill will be $100. To know what your charges will actually be, you can go to a website like MyRatePlan.com or Whistleout.com to sort out what options you have within the parameters you’ve set.

Negotiate First

Changing plans isn’t always necessary, says Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based industry analyst. The first place to start is with your own carrier. Make a simple, friendly phone call asking for a better deal.

“Don’t go in as an adversary. Go in as a partner,” he says.

The typical customer can expect to see their rate drop by 20% to 30%, Kagan says. If you have a particularly poor deal for your usage pattern, like paying per text when you’re a serial texter, you should be able to save far more.

Make the requests annually, Kagan says, rather than waiting for the end of a contract.

Shop Around

Your business could be worth something to a competitor, and without penalties, moving could be in your best interest.

“The ideal person to take advantage of this is someone whose commitment has ended,” says Northeastern University finance professor Harlan Platt.

That’s what Holly Johnson, 34, of Noblesville, Ind., did to find a good deal for her cell service last year. Johnson, who writes the ClubThrifty.com blog, switched her husband’s phone for the second time in two years, from Verizon to a local discount carrier to Republic Wireless, a carrier that relies on the use of WiFi to control costs.

Johnson says the bill is now $25 a month for a plan that includes unlimited talk, text and data, while the previous Verizon bill topped $100 a month.

One warning for consumers is that even though some carriers have limited-time offers to offset costs you incur for changing plans, there may be other hidden charges. Platt warns that carriers now try to lock in consumers by selling them phones on a payment plan.

Instead, you can go to a retail website that sells prepaid phones, like Amazon.com, and purchase one that will work on the company’s network that you’ll be using. That will ensure you’re a free agent and can move to another carrier of there’s a more tempting deal.

“There’s nothing special about AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon,” Platt says. “They provide a commodity. What consumers need to do is make those phone calls and get the bills down.”

TIME Gadgets

iPhone 6 Wireless Plans Compared

Over at Yahoo Tech, Rob Pegoraro has taken up the unenviable task of comparing iPhone 6 wireless plans from major carriers AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

This was all a somewhat simpler endeavor back when a phone cost $200, you picked a minutes/data/text messages plan, and signed a two-year contract. But newly-added pricing plans have saddled up alongside traditional pricing plans, resulting in a far murkier melange of minutes and megabytes.

The assumption with this exercise is that you’ll be buying a base-model iPhone 6 and will need two gigabytes of monthly data. All of these plans include unlimited minutes and text messages and, aside from network quality, your biggest decision is whether or not you want to be able to use tethering. Tethering lets you share your phone’s data connection with another device such as a tablet or laptop. It’s good for road trips and other instances where you’d get a cellular signal but wouldn’t have access to an open Wi-Fi network.

If you don’t care about tethering:

  • Verizon can be had for $1,640 over two years
  • Sprint can be had for $1,680 over two years
  • T-Mobile can be had for $1,730 over two years
  • AT&T can be had for $2,120 over two years

If you want to tether:

  • T-Mobile can be had for $1,730 over two years
  • Sprint can be had for $1,920 over two years
  • AT&T can be had for $2,120 over two years
  • Verizon can be had for $2,360 over two years

These figures don’t take into account network quality in your area, family plans, equipment trade-in bonuses, taxes or other stuff like that. Each carrier offers a trial period, though, so make sure to exercise your right to return your phone if you’re not happy with it.

Check out Pegoraro’s post for more info on the various plans and pricing schemes.

[Yahoo Tech]

MONEY Apple

iPhone Orders Start Today: Here Are the Best Deals

The new Apple Inc. iPhone 6 is displayed.
What everyone is drooling over right now: Apple's new iPhone. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

iPhone 6 pre-orders start Friday, and carriers (and some retailers) are fighting tooth and nail for your business. We've compiled the best deals of the bunch.

Preorders for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus begin on Friday, and that means every major carrier, and even a few retail chains, have special deals on the new iDevice. We’ve collected them all below so you can snag the best ones.

Verizon

Verizon Wireless is offering what might be the most attractive promotion for customers who haven’t upgraded their phone in a while. The company promises a $200 gift card—the price of an entry level iPhone 6—to anyone trading in an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S. That’s compared to the $60 Apple will give you for an iPhone 4 in good condition.

AT&T

Don’t have an old iPhone? No problem. AT&T will give new and existing customers a $100 bill credit when registering a new iPhone for service, provided they do so by September 30 and sign up for the AT&T Next plan. Next sells the phone to customers through installments, allowing them to upgrade again in the next 12 or 18 months, depending on the monthly installment they choose. New iPhone buyers who pick Next can also get $200 off an iPad (as long as the iPad is purchased with a 2-year wireless agreement). Finally, the carrier says it will buy your old iPhone for up to $300 and apply that credit to a new iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus.

T-Mobile

America’s most iconoclastic carrier is promising to beat any iPhone trade-in deal offered by AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint. Find a better value for your old phone than T-Mobile is offering, and they’ll match that deal and give you a $50 credit toward your bill. Plus, switch from your old carrier to T-Mobile and they’ll also give you up to $350 per line to get you out of your old contract.

The company also just announced that certain models of its phones—including the iPhone 6—will be able to make calls and send texts over Wi-Fi. And for frequent flyers, any plane with Gogo Air Wi-Fi will give free access to T-Mobile users starting September 17th.

Sprint

Sprint has introduced a new plan for iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus customers that offers unlimited talk, text, and data for $50 per month. Buyers can also jump on Sprint’s own leasing program, iPhone for Life, which offers unlimited everything plus a new iPhone every two years for $70 a month (assuming you pick the base model iPhone 6). If you’re switching from a competitor, Sprint will give you another hunk of cash, up to $350 per line, to pay off your contract or current device. The company has also “struck back” with their own trade-in price-match promotion, and vows it will beat any trade-in offer from another major carrier.

Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club

The big-box giant is cutting prices on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus out of the gate. CNET reports that Wal-Mart is selling the 16GB iPhone 6 for $179—a discount of $20. The iPhone 6 Plus will get the same discount on September 19th. Sam’s Club locations will give an addition $2 off both phones’ prices.

Radio Shack

It’s still in business (for now), and buyers who put their faith in “the Shack” will get a free $50 iTunes gift card with any iPhone purchase. And yes, they’ll buy your current phone from you as well.

Target/Apple

These two retailers aren’t offering any special deals on the iPhone 6—each has the standard $199 carrier-subsidized option (and Apple also offers a no-money-down option for AT&T Next customers)—but both are taking preorders and will give you some money for your old phone. Not a whole lot of money, mind you, at least compared with other options. But, if these are the most convenient stores for you, they’re at least a one-stop shop for trade-ins and preorders.

Related:
The Apple Store Is Now the Last Place You Should Buy Your iPhone
Why Only Apple Has What It Takes to Disrupt Our Wallets

MONEY

3 Ways to Get Online When Your Internet Is Down

Teen using laptop, tablet and smartphone
Dina Marie—Getty Images

What to do if your internet service cuts out? Here are 3 ways to prepare so you'll always have a way to connect.

Early Wednesday morning, a massive Time Warner Cable outage left customers across the country without internet access. While the cable company reports most service was restored by 6 a.m., data from downdetector.com, a website that tracks internet outages, showed nearly 10,000 complaints at the height of the blackout. Time Warner services about 11.4 million high-speed internet customers nationwide.

So what do you do if your internet goes down and you absolutely, positively need to get online? You can’t just run to Starbucks in your pajamas if the outage hits in the middle of the night, as this one did, so the best strategy is to plan ahead. Putting one of these backup methods in place ahead of time will keep you connected the next time your ISP decides to cut out.

1. Tethering. As any smartphone user knows, wired internet isn’t the only internet available. As long as you have a working cellular data connection, you can transfer your phone’s internet access to your laptop or desktop computer via a method called tethering.

Both Android and iOS phones can tether, although the costs may differ. The only option for iPhone users is to purchase a tethering plan from your carrier, which can add around $20 a month to your bill. On Android, it’s possible to tether for free by installing third party apps, but carriers may add a charge if they notice increased data usage. For more, check out these iOS and Android tethering guides.

2. Mobile Broadband. Mobile broadband is similar to tethering in that you’re using cellular data to get your computer online. But instead of through your phone, it works via a separate device that provides a mobile internet connection, generally by generating a wifi hotspot.

One advantage to mobile hotspots is that many offer prepaid plans. For example, Verizon offers plans for its 4G LTE Jetpack that allow users to buy as little as a week of service at a time. Another service called Karma provides pay-as-you-go internet for $14 per gigabyte. That means if your internet cuts out unexpectedly, you can jump on your hotspot’s wifi for a relatively small fee. However, the devices themselves can cost around $100 for the initial purchase.

3. Public Wifi. If all else fails, there’s always mooching off Starbucks or other free wifi locations. Apps for Android and iOS provide maps of publicly available wifi hotspots that can work in a pinch. But most people don’t know their internet or cell provider might also provide a network of wireless hotspots.

Optimum, AT&T, and other ISPs provide maps of their wifi locations. In some cases, access is included in your pre-existing internet or cell service contracts. In other cases, wifi access might require an additional subscription. Services like Boingo also offer a mixture of free and paid-wifi hotspots, and map apps to help locate them.

 

TIME wireless carriers

The Best Family Smartphone Plan

Family Plans
Stephen Simpson / Getty Images

If you’re paying a large cellphone bill for a large family, then you’ve no doubt noticed all the ads on TV and the Internet about the latest, greatest “family plan” offering huge discounts for families of four or more. Every carrier has a family plan, and yes, some of them are solid deals.

But as you can imagine, there’s fine print to every deal. Joining a family plan is harder than it sounds, and you might need to put up a lot of cash up front first. Here are all the details on each of the major carriers’ family plans, fine print included.

Verizon

Verizon’s most affordable family plan is called MORE Everything with Edge. It offers a family of four unlimited talk, unlimited text and 10GB of data for $160 ($15 per line x 4 + $100 data access). That price doesn’t include fees, taxes and data surcharges, which could add another $10 to $20 to your bill per month.

There’s a catch, however: Verizon’s Edge plans require you to surrender your two-year phone subsidies. If you’re a current Verizon customer, you can join an Edge plan with your own phone when your current contracts expire. But you’ll have to pay full price for phones from that day forward.

AT&T

AT&T’s most affordable family smartphone plan is called Mobile Share Value. Like Verizon’s plan above, it also offers unlimited talk, unlimited text and 10GB of data for $160 ($15 per line x 4 + $100 data access). Fees, taxes and data surcharges are extra.

AT&T’s Mobile Share Value plan has the same limitations that Verizon Edge plans do: You need to surrender your two-year phone subsidies. If you don’t already have AT&T compatible phones, you’ll need to buy the four at full price.

Sprint

The pricing of Sprint’s Unlimited Framily Plans is a bit complicated, as your price per line decreases as you add new ones. For a family of four, Sprint’s Framily plan offers unlimited talk and unlimited text, but just 1GB of high-speed data per line, for $160 total ($40 per line x 4). Larger families save more – the cost drops by $5 per line with each additional line until you hit $175 for a “framily” of seven ($25 per line x 7). Fees and taxes are extra, but there are no data overage charges. Sprint throttles your speed when you hit your max, instead.

Sprint no longer offers contracts, so the only concern with switching is obtaining the four or more Sprint-compatible phones you’d need.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile’s new family plan, which became available July 30, is called T-Mobile Simple Choice. It offers unlimited talk, unlimited text and 10GB of data (2.5GB per line) for a total of $100. With T-Mobile, the first line you activate costs $50/month, the second $30/month and then $10/month for each line thereafter. Fees and taxes are extra, but there are no data overage charges. Like Sprint, however, T-Mobile throttles.

T-Mobile no longer offer contracts, either. You can purchase new phones at full price, or make a down payment and have the remaining cost added to your monthly bill in equal monthly payments.

Which family plan is best?

If you look simply at the raw plan numbers, T-Mobile has the best deal for a family of four. Plus, T-Mobile is willing to pay your current carrier’s early termination fees, But making the switch to the carrier isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk for your family. You’ll have to pay for new phones to join if your current phones aren’t compatible with the T-Mobile network. If they aren’t compatible, check the trade-in value of your phones to see if you can get enough cash to cover enough of the cost of the great low-cost Android devices currently available.

Or maybe skip the family plan entirely…

Alternatively, you may decide that it’s in your family’s best interest to skip these family plans entirely. They’re cheaper mainly because you need to give up your lucrative new phone subsidies to join them. If you’re a current Verizon or AT&T customer who enjoys cutting-edge phones like the rumored iPhone 6, it may be in your best interest to avoid having to pay for several $650+ devices up front.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

More from Techlicious:

TIME Tech Policy

Netflix Is Paying AT&T To Make Movies Stream Faster

Netflix Garners Two Top Show Nominations With 'Cards,' 'Orange'
The Netflix Inc. application (app) displays the "Orange is the New Black" series on an Apple Inc. iPhone 5s in this arranged photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

After already making similar deals with Comcast and Verizon

Despite its public war against interconnection fees, Netflix has signed another paid peering deal with an Internet Service Provider to improve the quality of its streaming and reduce buffering for its subscribers.

“We reached an interconnect agreement with AT&T in May and since then have been working together to provision additional interconnect capacity to improve the viewing experience of our mutual subscribers,” Netflix spokesperson Anne Marie Squeo said in an emailed statement. “We’re now beginning to turn up the connections, a process that should be complete in the coming days.” AT&T spokesperon Mark Siegel offered a nearly identical statement. Netflix will pay AT&T for this additional capacity, but the payment amount hasn’t been disclosed.

Such fees have become a hotly debated topic among Internet giants this year. Netflix believes it shouldn’t have pay ISPs like AT&T to deliver its video content because consumers are already paying for Internet access. The streaming service argues that these tolls could be used to discriminate against certain Internet companies, and it has conflated the issue with the ongoing debate about net neutrality.

The ISPs disagree. In a March blog post, AT&T executive Jim Cicconi called Netflix “arrogant” for trying to dump its cost of doing business on all subscribers to an ISP. “When Netflix delivered its movies by mail, the cost of delivery was included in the price their customer paid,” he wrote. “It would’ve been neither right nor legal for Netflix to demand a customer’s neighbors pay the cost of delivering his movie.”

For now Netflix has come to an uneasy truce with AT&T in a deal similar to those already established with Verizon and Comcast. But the company is lobbying to get these tolls outlawed when new rules for net neutrality are drafted by the Federal Communications Commission later this year.

TIME technology

Comcast, AT&T Say They’re Not Big Enough Yet

Comcast
The Comcast Corp. logo is seen as Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., right, speaks during a news conference at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Cable Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

At a Senate hearing ahead of major merger melees

Two of the biggest players in the telecom industry faced off against a public interest group, a trade group and a satellite company at a Senate hearing Wednesday in a debate that will help set the stage for upcoming battles over the future of broadband, television and streaming video.

The hearing comes just as federal regulators are staffing up to review two mammoth mergers: One between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and another between AT&T and DirecTV. To some degree, the hearing was only ceremonial: Congress won’t have any direct say over whether federal regulators approve or deny the mergers. But political winds in Washington can affect regulators’ moods, and the back-and-forth gave members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation a chance to publicly speak their minds on the mergers.

While the discussion at the hearing was unflaggingly respectful, it touched, just below the surface, on what has become a fiercely ideological war with regard to the future of TV, with each side presenting a vision incompatible with the other’s.

Comcast and AT&T argued that massive consolidation in the telecom industry is good for consumers, good for innovation, and good for the free market. They warned that if the government does not allow the mergers to go through, incumbent telecom companies would no longer be able to invest in basic Internet infrastructure, leaving consumers to pay more for fewer Internet and TV options.

Representatives from advocacy group Public Knowledge, a TV writer’s guild, and satellite TV company Dish made the opposite case. They said that recent consolidation in the telecom industry has been terrible for consumers, driven up prices and driven down the quality of customer service. They also said the lack of competition has squashed innovation and investment in broadband infrastructure.

At the center of the discussion was Americans’ shifting TV-viewing habits. When Americans want to watch TV, they’re increasingly bypassing traditional set-top boxes, instead opting for their smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Online video consumption grew by 71% in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, according to Nielsen.

That trend has been the driving force behind skyrocketing broadband subscriptions—a major cash cow for cable companies and for telecom companies that offer services faster than DSL. AT&T’s revenue from its U-Verse high-speed broadband business was up 29% from last year according to a recent quarterly report, for example. Comcast, which already has more than 21 million broadband subscribers, says the broadband business is one of its fastest-growing offerings.

That so many Americans are streaming more video online has also made online TV and video content companies, like Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo, fundamentally dependent on telecom companies’ pipes to reach customers. Public Knowledge’s Gene Kimmelman argued that no online video streaming company can exist without going through broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast, whose services are necessary to deliver streaming content to consumers. That sets up a potential problem, as Comcast could be incentivized not to carry Netflix or YouTube content as quickly as its own video offerings (Comcast owns NBCUniversal, a major content production company).

“Everyone who wants to make the online video system works needs to make a deal with Comcast,” he said.

Also addressed during the hearing was many Americans’ frustration at having to pay large bills for pay-TV—bills that have risen faster than inflation—to receive hundreds of channels. The non-profit consumers rights group, Consumers Union, has said that at least two-thirds of pay-TV customers [PDF] would prefer to pay less for a handful of programs that they actually watch. The disconnect between these two methods—known as “bundling” versus “a al carte”—is at the heart of the future of online video.

“The younger generation doesn’t want to spend $120 for 500 channels,” said Jeffrey Blum, a senior vice president of Dish, the second-largest satellite company in the country after DirecTV. But fixing the problem, he said, requires going up against incumbent telecom companies, like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, which rely on bundling to underwrite their pay TV services, and would lose out if most Americans simply cut their pay-TV bill and began streaming shows online. Popular networks like ESPN would also lose out; in the current system, the telecom companies pay them large fees to redistribute their content.

Still, Blum said, there is already “too much power in the hands of too few” in the broadband space. A combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable “will have the incentive and ability to stifle competition,” he said.

Both Cohen and AT&T’s senior executive VP John Stankey dismissed concerns about anticompetitive behavior. In previous testimony before Congress, Comcast’s executive VP David Cohen has said that the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable will not affect competition since the companies do not currently compete in any geographic region, and that Comcast has “only to gain” from more people streaming video online. The more demand there is for online video, “the more demand there is for our broadband service,” he said at a previous hearing.

In February, Comcast made a bid to buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion; in May, AT&T’s bid for DirecTV was worth $48.5 billion. Neither deal has yet to pass regulatory muster.

Both Cohen and Stankey also reiterated their companies’ commitment to the Federal Communication Commission’s now-defunct rules on “net neutrality,” the notion that broadband providers treat all content that passes over their pipes equally. While both expressed their opposition to some public interest groups’ hopes that the telecom industry would be recategorized as a “Title II” industry, giving the FCC much more regulatory control over broadband, they said they supported the FCC’s newly proposed net neutrality rules.

Those rules have come under fire because they allow broadband companies to redirect some content to a “fast lane,” while relegating most content to a slower, regular lane. Cohen said that while he “didn’t understand” what “fast lanes and slow lanes” even were, he said it was a non-issue. “We don’t have any,” he said. “We don’t have any plans to develop any.”

MONEY Customer Service

How To Break Up with Your Cable Company

140716_EM_cable_1
Getty Images

...or at Least Drive a Hard Bargain

If your relationship with your cable provider is driving you mad like this man, brace yourself. It’s only going to get worse.

The average monthly cable TV bill is rising 6% a year. It’s projected to hit $123 a month next year and top $200 by 2020, according to market research group NPD. To be fair, part of the surge is because the cost cable providers pay to license shows is getting steeper. But the near-monopoly that cable TV companies have in many places is to blame, too.

Most areas have just one or two pay-TV providers. And even if you’re lucky enough to have more choice, that will probably change if the Time Warner Cable-Comcast and AT&T-DirecTV deals are approved. And less choice means that the providers that remain don’t have to go above and beyond on customer service. As if they did already.

Can’t live without your favorite programs but fed up with the bill? Here are four moves you can make to cut the cost—and not all require you to cut the cord.

Downsize. How many of the 700+ channels that you get do you actually watch? A growing number of pay-TV providers are offering pared-down packages. Verizon recently rolled out its Select HD no-sports package that’s $15 a month cheaper than its $65 a month standard Prime package. Last year, Time Warner Cable launched Starter TV, a bundle of 20 premium channels plus HBO for $29.99 a month—40% less than its 200-channel, no-HBO option. And Cox Communication’s TV Starter is $24.99 a month for 155 channels vs. $49.99 for its Advanced package of 220 channels.

Play hardball. Despite their dominance, pay-TV providers are still loathe to lose customers, says digital media analyst Dan Rayburn. Call the cancellation department to talk with a retention specialist trained to hang on to customers. Ask about promotions or a discount if you’re a long-time customer. They’ll try hard to keep you, but if they don’t give, you can likely get a better deal as a new subscriber if you have a satellite dish or cable competitor where you live.

Go a la carte. Even though the Aero service that delivers low-cost broadcast TV via Internet shut down thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling, there are still plenty of other lower cost alternatives for those who want to cut the cord, says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan. Hulu Plus costs just $7.99 a month and shows many current programs the day after they air. If you can wait a season or two to catch up with your favorite shows, Netflix is $7.99 a month (though will go up $1 or $2 for new subscribers). Amazon Prime Instant Video, which comes with Amazon’s $99 a year Prime membership, gives you unlimited streaming movies and TV shows.

NetFlix, Hulu and Amazon are also spending millions on high quality original content. In May, Hulu announced that it would be tripling its budget for exclusive programs and launching six new shows this year, including the much-buzzed-about reality show parody Hotwives of Orlando, which premiers tonight.

Get an antenna. Today’s antennas aren’t the rabbit ears of your parents’ generation. An HD antenna for your roof or TV set top will cost you about $30 to $100,and you can get local TV channels for free. You won’t get cable programs, but you’ll pick up more than 30 broadcast networks (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX). And picture quality is even better than cable, says Kagan.

MONEY Tech

QUIZ: What’s Your Perfect Cellphone Plan?

Fed up with your cellphone carrier? There's most likely a better, cheaper plan than the one you have today. Take our quiz to find the right one.

Check out all of MONEY’s Best Cellphone Plans of 2014. Thinking about switching cellphone carriers? Do these four things first.

MONEY Tech

The Best Cellphone Plans of 2014

No matter what type of cellphone user you are, MONEY found a mobile plan that's right for you.

201407_CEL
Paul Windle

Haven’t shopped for phone service recently? You’re in for a shock. “In the past year plans have changed more than in the previous five,” says ­Logan Abbott of comparison site Wirefly.com.

Forget choosing among the Big Four and their handful of offerings: Today’s market is made up of an overwhelming mob of carriers and options. And as if that isn’t confusing enough, the recent news that the Federal Trade Commission is accusing T-Mobile of “cramming,” or billing customers for unauthorized services, may have you wondering if your provider is ripping you off. (The short answer: It may have in the past, but these days, probably not. For more, read Time’s story on cramming and how to spot it.)

Perhaps the biggest change to the industry is the shift away from two-year service contracts. Now you can choose a contract plan, with a discounted phone and high monthly rates, or a cheaper option that requires you to pay upfront for a new phone or bring your own. (Phone compatibility varies.) We found that noncontract plans came out on top in nine of 10 categories. Plus, the longer you keep your phone on a noncontract option, the better the deal gets.

The rise of smaller carriers also looks like good news. These firms have finally become a viable option, with access to the newest phones and reliable coverage, thanks to arrangements that let them use big companies’ nationwide networks. One potential downside is that the larger firms usually prioritize their own users, so the little guys’ customers may have to contend with less coverage or slower data speeds, says Mike Dano of cell news publication Fierce Wireless. Unless you use a ton of data, though, it’s not much of an issue.

Overall, cell coverage has improved. Verizon and AT&T still generally have the broadest networks, though “everyone has gotten better in the last six to 12 months,” says Bill Moore, president of service-rating firm Root Metrics. To see which carriers’ networks have the best performance where you live, go to Rootmetrics.com and enter your address.

For cellphone users, this all boils down to one thing: There’s probably a better, cheaper plan than the one you have today.

To help you find it, MONEY parsed more than 75 options from a range of carriers. We started by grouping plans into categories based on features such as talk, text, and data packages. Next, we added up the price of two years of service, plus the cost of a 16GB iPhone 5s for each plan member for all 75+ option. We used the phone price offered by the carrier (full price for non­contract plans and subsidized prices for contract options), then sorted these results by price. Finally, we factored in phone choice, as well as network quality and customer service scores from Root Metrics and J.D. Power.

All family plans are for four people. We consider up to 1GB of data per person light use, 2GB to 3GB average, and 5GB or more heavy. All plans are chosen based on domestic use. For information about international use, read our story on using your cellphone abroad.

Best for Light Callers

If you only use your phone for calls, texts, and occasional web surfing, you likely don’t need more than 1GB of data. Cricket offers you the best price.

Individual Plan:
Cricket Basic
Family Plan:
Cricket Basic
Monthly bill $40* $100*
Two-year cost with phones $1,610* $5,000*
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 500MB 500MB per person
Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
Network AT&T 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Smartphone options start at $50 Includes the option to
pay off new phones over time

Best Individual Plan: Cricket Basic

Sign up for auto bill pay, and this plan drops to $35. Cricket, now owned by AT&T, offers a range of phones, and, like many noncontract options, lets you bring your own. Go over your data limit? The carrier will slow your service rather than charge you extra.

Glitch: Cricket taps into AT&T’s network, but its data speed is slower than that of the larger carrier.

Best Family Plan: Cricket Basic

For a family that doesn’t use that much data, Cricket’s price is a head-turner—especially when you consider that it includes taxes and fees. The carrier’s use of AT&T’s cell towers gives it greater reach than many providers in this price range.

Glitch: Unlike the majority of family options, you cannot add tablets or other devices to this plan.

Best for Typical Users

Do you use your phone to post on social media, browse the web, and get directions when you’re on the move? Chances are you still only need 2GB or 3GB a month. These plans will offer you the best value.

Individual Plan:
Straight Talk Unlimited
Family Plan:
T-Mobile Simple Choice 3 GB
Monthly bill $45 $140
Two-year cost with phones $1,730 $5,952
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 3GB 3GB per person
Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
Network Multiple 4G LTE T-Mobile 4G LTE
Comment Sold at Wal-Mart and online Will pay your termination fee
if you switch carriers

Best Individual Plan: Straight Talk Unlimited

This plan is just $41.25 a month if you pay for a year upfront. Straight Talk uses all four big carriers; the network you’ll use depends on your phone and area, says Dennis Bournique of PrepaidPhoneNews.com.

Glitch: Like most low-cost carriers, Straight Talk may not allow you to tap into another provider’s network if you venture out of its service area.

Best Family Plan: T-Mobile Simple Choice 3GB

At this price point, it’s a duel between Cricket and T-Mobile, and for those who seek faster data speeds, T-Mobile wins out. Does someone in your clan have a tablet? You can add it, and 1.2 GB of data to use with the device, free through 2014.

Glitch: This network is fast in many metro areas, but it isn’t as broad as those of Verizon and AT&T.

Best for Bargain Hunters

Users who want a ton of data at the lowest possible price should check out these options.

Individual Plan:
Metro PCS Unlimited
Family Plan:
T-Mobile Simple Choice 5G
Monthly bill $60* $180
Two-year cost with phones $2,089** $6,912
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data Unlimited 5GB per person
Data overage? None Speed slows
Network T-Mobile 4G LTE T-Mobile 4G LTE
Comment Top customer service marks from J.D. Power T-Mobile’s network speed has improved recently

Best Individual Plan: Metro PCS Unlimited

This affordable offering from T-Mobile-owned Metro PCS is one of the few true unlimited plans still available today. “Their data isn’t throttled at all, and it is fast,” says Bournique.

Glitch: The carrier doesn’t sell iPhones, but does offer the popular Samsung Galaxy S 5.

Best Family Plan: T-Mobile Simple Choice 5GB

Finding a competitively priced plan that combines a boatload of data with a fast network isn’t easy. Simple Choice, however, is a good pick, particularly in cities, where T-Mobile is at its fastest. The plan also includes a perk for international travelers: free data when abroad.

Glitch: T-Mobile can be patchy in rural areas.

Best for Power Users

If you’re willing to pay more for the most reliable networks, buy one of these plans.

Individual Plan:
Verizon More Everything
Family Plan:
AT&T Mobile Value Share
Monthly bill $120 $210
Two-year cost with phones $3,080 $7,640
Can you bring a phone? No Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 6GB 20GB shared
Data overage? $15 per GB $15 per GB
Network Verizon 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
Comment iPhone 5s is $200 Option to pay off phones
over two years vs. upfront

Best Individual Plan: Verizon More Everything

The only contract plan in our guide, this More Everything option costs the same as AT&T’s competitive plan (and less than other high-end Verizon options). Given the choice, we recommend the speed and reliability of Verizon’s widespread 4G LTE coverage for heavy phone users.

Glitch: Watch those hefty overage fees.

Best Family Plan: AT&T Mobile Share Value

Though similar in price and features to Verizon’s noncontract plan, AT&T noses ahead because more phones are compatible with its network. Also, note that AT&T bested its big rival in J.D. Power’s wireless customer care survey.

Glitch: Yes, it’s $40 more than you’d pay with T-Mobile, but AT&T has wider coverage.

Best for Frequent Upgraders

Always want the latest phone? Go with AT&T.

AT&T Next 12
Monthly bill $98
Two-year cost with phones $2,340
Can you bring a phone? No
Minutes Unlimited
Texts Unlimited
Data 2 GB
Data overage? $15 per GB
Network AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Only AT&T has the Amazon phone

Best Plan: AT&T Next 12

Insist on having the latest phone? Try AT&T. Next costs the same as a similar Verizon plan, but AT&T wins, since it’s “the leader in getting the hottest devices,” says CNET writer Maggie Reardon. On this plan you lease your phone over 20 months and must return it if you upgrade sooner.

Glitch: If you haven’t yet paid 60% of the old phone’s value, you must pony up the remainder to trade up to a new model. Still, that’s cheaper than buying two phones at retail price.

Best Basic for Couples

If you and your spouse don’t use your phones a lot, Consumer Cellular has the best plan for you.

Consumer Cellular
1,200 minutes/1 GB
Monthly bill $60
Two-year cost with phones $2,740
Can you bring a phone? Yes
Minutes 1,200 shared
Texts 5,000
Data 1 GB shared
Data overage? 25 cents per MB
Network AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Sold at Sears and online

Best Plan: Consumer Cellular 1,200 Minutes/1GB

This Consumer Cellular option is dramatically cheaper than competitive plans, making it a great pick for couples who don’t spend a ton of time on their phones. The carrier also has a reputation for good customer service. A bonus: Consumer Cellular recently added new phones, including the iPhone, to its device lineup.

Glitch: This is one of the few plans that still caps talk minutes and text messages, though you can pay to add more.

Find a great plan that requires you to switch carriers? Read more about how to break up with your current provider here.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser