TIME Companies

Sprint Ends T-Mobile Bid, Ousts CEO

A Sprint Store Ahead Of Earnings Figures
A pedestrian passes in front of a Sprint store in New York City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Resistance from regulators was the last straw for merger talks

Sprint will both end its pursuit of T-Mobile and replace chief executive Dan Hesse, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The $32 billion deal between Sprint and T-Mobile — the U.S. carrier arm of Deutsche Telekom — collapsed after it became clear that U.S. antitrust regulators would not allow it to go through.

CNBC said that the two companies faced steep opposition from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in making joint bids for spectrum.

“The FCC told them last week that the two companies will not be allowed to bid on spectrum together,” Scott Nations, chief investment officer and president at NationsShares, told CNBC.

Shares for SoftBank, Sprint’s Japanese parent company, tumbled 3.5% in Tokyo on Wednesday. Deutsche Telekom’s shares were down 2.38% by Wednesday midmorning in Frankfurt.

The nine-month-long merger talks between Sprint and T-Mobile were carried out in the hopes of boosting sales and competition against dominant market players Verizon and AT&T. Sprint has failed to see above the red line for years — having lost money annually since 2007.

But Sprint isn’t the only T-Mobile courtier to see merger plans fall. AT&T’s $39 billion bid for T-Mobile was prevented in 2011 after the U.S. Justice Department sued the second largest telecom company.

News reports indicate that Hesse will be replaced by Marcelo Claure on Wednesday. Claure is the CEO and founder of wireless service company Brightstar Corp. He has also been a Sprint board member since January.

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

Meet the Woman Keeping Silicon Valley in Check

Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez Cade Martin 2014

Edith Ramirez is probably not the most popular person in Seattle right now. As the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, she’s currently suing two of the city’s biggest tech companies: Amazon, for allegedly making it too easy for kids to rack up in-app purchases on their parents’ Kindles, and T-Mobile, for allegedly cramming unwanted charges into customers’ phone bills. That’s to say nothing of the recent settlements with Snapchat over false marketing and Apple over in-app purchases. It’s all come under the watchful eye of Ramirez, who assumed the chairwoman’s position in March 2013 and has taken a laser focus to the activities of tech companies, particularly in regards to mobile.

The new FTC head talked to TIME about the hidden permissions lurking in terms of service agreements, Facebook’s controversial mood study and whether Americans should ever expect a “right to be forgotten” online. An edited version of the conversation is below.

TIME: How important is the technology sector as a whole for the FTC right now? Is it an area of focus for you personally?

Ramirez: Our fundamental mission is to protect consumers and promote competition and so we are going to be wherever consumers are. The reality is that technology has been playing a critically important role for the agency for a number of years. Because we see consumers really gravitating to mobile devices, it’s crucial that the agency be very much informed about and keenly aware of what’s happening in the mobile sphere.

TIME: What are the biggest challenges or dangerous that consumers can face with the rise of mobile?

Ramirez: You want consumers to be able to partake in all of the terrific innovation we see in the marketplace. One way to assure that is to make sure the products that are out there take into account what’s of concern to consumers—that includes, among other things, taking into account concerns about data security and privacy, and also making sure that some of the basic protections that we’re all used to when we walk into a grocery store or a local convenience store, that we also have those basic protections available to us when we’re engaging in a transaction on our smartphone.

Data security is paramount in my view. The more connected we are, the more information and data that is being gathered by all sorts of different companies. It’s crucial that this personal information that is being collected and being used, that companies take reasonable steps to ensure that data is protected.

TIME: We live in this era now where people sign up for services and they don’t read the fine print. Do you think there’s a base level of privacy or control that Internet companies should be affording their customers?

Ramirez: I do. We realize that consumers aren’t going to be poring over long, confusing privacy policies. Now that we’re in a mobile world, what’s the likelihood that anyone’s going to be scrolling through on a mobile device some lengthy privacy policy? That’s become increasingly unlikely.

Companies need to be thinking about privacy from the get-go, when they first start conceiving of any new product or service. If you’re developing an app that’s a flashlight app, do you really need to have access to my contacts? Do you really need to have access to my geolocation? If they want to access information that goes beyond what one would expect, they ought to be asking for permission to do that.

I think we’ve seen a tremendous improvement, even in the course of the time I’ve been at the agency. We’ve seen companies realize that consumers really do care very deeply about maintaining their information [security] and they want to also exercise greater control. At the same time I think a lot more needs to be done in this area. A lot in this area still continues to take place behind the scenes in a black box. Consumers may not fully appreciate the extent of data-sharing that’s taking place.

TIME: Last month people were upset because Facebook did this experiment where they were altering people’s News Feeds to change their mood in some way. Do you think that experiment was appropriate for them to do?

Ramirez: I can’t really comment on the specifics of what Facebook did, but I think what it does show is again the need for consumers to be in the driver’s seat. They want to know what companies are doing, how they’re using the information that they’re sharing. It just goes to show that consumers don’t want to be in the dark about this. That’s a basic responsibility companies have—they ought to be transparent about what they’re doing, they ought to give consumers an opportunity to have control over how their information is being used, what information is being collected. Simply because [consumers] are receiving a service, and even it happens to be free, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be in control.

TIME: Does the FTC plan to investigate the Facebook issue formally?

Ramirez: We can’t comment on how investigations we conduct. What I can tell you is these are issues we are concerned about and we are monitoring the marketplace.

TIME: In Europe, the courts recently enshrined a “right to be forgotten,” so people can delete articles about themselves from search results. Do you think that’s something Americans should have the right to for privacy reasons?

Ramirez: Of course we’re operating here in the U.S. under a very different legal regime than folks are in Europe. An expansive “right to be forgotten” is not something that’s likely to pass Constitutional muster here in the United States because there is a First Amendment right to both access to public information and freedom of expression. At the same time, I do understand the need for us to think about controlling our own information. By way of example, I know that consumers want to be able to delete information. If they’re on a particular platform, they will want to be able to be assured that if they close out their account that their information will be deleted. This is exactly an element of an order we have with Facebook. It’s not an expansive right to be forgotten, but there are certain controls and tools that I think U.S. consumers would like to have.

TIME: As we see these tech companies like Google and Amazon getting bigger and bigger, taking up a larger portion of their sectors, do you think there are antitrust issues with these companies as they continue to grow?

Ramirez: With any large company, if they have market power, monopoly power, we would be looking closely at how they use that. We did conduct an investigation relative to Google a couple of years back. In that particular investigation, we opted not to take action.

TIME: A lot of times when FTC settlements come out, people see the dollar figure, and it seems like a slap on the wrist to these companies that are generating billions of dollars in revenue every year. Are the actions you take actual deterrents to stop companies from abusing consumers in various ways?

Ramirez: We do not have general civil penalty authority. We can’t assess a fine when we find a violation of law under our general statute. What we can do is seek to obtain consumer redress or we can, if appropriate, ask a company to disgorge any unlawful gains that resulted from the unlawful conduct.

In any particular case, the amount that you may see, you may think, ‘Well how does that compare to the profits of a company?” But that’s not really the analysis. The analysis on our end is, “Are we successfully recovering money that would compensate consumers for the damage that they have suffered.”

I think our enforcement work is sending important signals to the marketplace. In the privacy arena, Facebook, Google, Twitter [are] under order. It’s sent important signals to them, and I think as a result of the action that we’ve taken, companies are more aware of what their responsibilities are.

TIME: How are you able to strike a balance between this goal of consumer protection and allowing companies to innovate and try new things?

Ramirez: Whether it’s having information about what you’re paying for, whether it’s knowing what information an app might want to have access to when I’m downloading it—all of these things really work side by side with innovation. I don’t think consumers should have to sacrifice their privacy, the security of their information…when they avail themselves of all these terrific products that we see today. In fact I think for companies to flourish, it’s really important that consumers feel they can trust the products that they’re using, that they feel that they know the full extent of what is happening when they download a service. Companies will flourish all the more if they provide basic protections.

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.

MONEY Tech

Want to Dump Your Cell Service Provider? Do These 4 Things First

Smartphone in the dirt
khoa vu—Getty Images/Flickr

Switching to a new carrier is getting easier. Thinking about a swap? Take these steps before you make the move.

1. Make sure you won’t regret ditching your current plan.

If you are one of the lucky ones who still has a true unlimited data plan, you may want to hold onto it. AT&T and Verizon no longer offer unlimited plans, and users who run over their allotted gigabytes can rack up big charges. Sprint still has a plan it refers to as “unlimited,” but the carrier has started slowing data speeds for its heaviest users. Many smaller carriers will also slow your data speed if you go over your plan’s monthly allotment. T-Mobile still offers an unlimited plan, but at a starting rate of $80 a month, it’s not cheap.

Of course, you may not actually need all that data. Before you make a decision, look back over your monthly bills to get a sense of how many gigabytes you actually use. It may not be as much as you think. “Most of the time people don’t use gobs of data,” says Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecom services at J.D. Power. “Between 1 and 2GB, that’s the sweet spot.”

For light or average users, a new, data-limited plan may meet your needs and cost less than what you pay today. In that case, make a move. On the other hand, you could discover that getting a new plan with a large enough data package would actually increase your monthly bill. If so, sit tight.

2. Find out what a switch will cost you.

Watch out for the dreaded early termination fee. If you’ve signed a two-year contract with one of the big four carriers, you could be on the hook for between $100 and $350, says Jon Colgan, founder of Cellbreaker, a startup company that helps people break their cellphone contracts.

Fortunately, there are a few ways out. A few carriers have started offering early termination fee “buyouts” to encourage customers to dump their old carriers. For example, T-Mobile promises to rebate your fee if you switch. The catch? You have to turn in your old phone and buy a new one from the carrier.

You may be able claim that the carrier breached the terms of the contract, which could allow you to switch without paying an early termination fee. Some examples: your carrier increases your bill or changes the terms of your service, or your phone constantly drops calls. For a price, Cellbreaker will help you through the process.

Now that noncontract plans are offered by most carriers, you no longer need lock yourself into another two-year contract if you’d prefer to have more flexibility in the future.

3. Determine whether your current phone is compatible with the new carrier’s network.

Until recently, if you wanted to jump to a new carrier you often had to buy a new phone. That usually meant paying the full price upfront (an iPhone runs about $650 ) or signing a new two-year contract and paying off the phone over time.

Now there’s another option. Sort of. Assuming your current device still works, you may be able to continue using it, since many providers now allow you to set up other phones on their network. But there’s one big caveat: not all phones will work on every carrier’s network. Today’s big providers (and thus the smaller carriers that buy into their networks) use different technology. So an iPhone you buy from Sprint is wired slightly differently than one purchased from AT&T, says Roger Cheng, the executive editor of technology news site CNET.

Before you make a move, even if you’ve read that you can bring your old phone to the new carrier, call or visit the carrier’s retail store to confirm that your device is good to go. Typically, phones that run on AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks use the same GSM technology and can be used on either provider, says Cheng. However, Verizon and Sprint phones often cannot be used elsewhere. But nuances exist, so it is always worth double checking.

4. See how well the new carrier’s network works in your area.

Obviously, you don’t want to switch only to find yourself dealing with dropped calls or limited web access. But don’t just rely on what you’ve heard from friends about a carrier’s service (or lack of it). This is a rapidly changing area.

Nationwide, Verizon and AT&T still offer the broadest and fastest coverage. But T-Mobile is gaining ground in many cities, where it is at its fastest. You likely care less about the national network, though, than how well the carrier performs where you live. Your best source of local data is RootMetrics. The firm tests call, text, and data coverage, analyzing both reliability and speed, from smartphones across 125 urban areas. For the rest of the country, RootMetrics relies on crowdsourced reports. You can type in any address at rootmetics.com to see the results.

Travel a lot? Or live in a rural area with spotty service? Before signing up with a smaller carrier, find out if the firm offers domestic roaming, which allows you to access another provider’s network when your carrier doesn’t have coverage. Many do not, which could leave you in the lurch.

Considering switching to T-Mobile? The carrier recently announced a program allowing would-be customers to test drive their network with an iPhone 5s for a week for free. Learn more here. Just be sure to return the phone undamaged.

Got through the checklist and ready to make a move? See our list of the best cellphone plans to find one that’s perfect for you.

TIME Mobile

‘Cramming’ Suit Could Mean Big Trouble for T-Mobile

T-Mobile's John Legere
John Legere, chief executive officer of T-Mobile US Inc., holds an Apple Inc. iPhone as he speaks during an event in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Wednesday, June 18, 2014. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Allegations that T-Mobile made millions off scam text messages could tarnish its consumer-friendly 'Un-Carrier' image.

T-Mobile has spent the last year and a half telling us again and again that it’s not like the other wireless carriers. Stuck in fourth place in the market after a failed merger with AT&T, the company transformed into the “Un-Carrier” as a way to differentiate itself from rivals Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. The campaign is part disruptive business model, part slick marketing. T-Mobile has ended two-year contracts, eliminated automatic overage fees and prevented its customers from racking up huge data charges while traveling abroad. And T-Mobile CEO John Legere, once a buttoned-up executive at AT&T, now hurls vulgarities at his competitors and crashes their corporate parties, essentially trolling them the way we all wish we could when our phone bill comes in each month. It’s an effective one-two punch that instantly conveys that T-Mobile is a company run by real people that want to help the little guy.

The “Un-Carrier” image is now in peril, thanks to a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission claiming that T-Mobile profited from bogus charges for unwanted premium text message services on customers’ bills. The annoying spam texts for things like flirting tips and horoscopes cost $9.99 per month and were charged to customers via third-party companies in a process known as “cramming.” T-Mobile kept as much as 40 percent of the money from these fees, generating hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the FTC. The Commission also claims T-Mobile buried these charges deep in users’ bills and refused to refund some customers’ money when they complained. T-Mobile could be on the hook for millions of dollars to repay customers for the charges, according to the FTC.

T-Mobile, however, says the allegations are without merit. In a statement, CEO John Legere said the company stopped billing for premium texting services last year and has already launched a program to refund customers for fraudulent charges. “T-Mobile is fighting harder than any of the carriers to change the way the wireless industry operates and we are disappointed that the FTC has chosen to file this action against the most pro-consumer company in the industry rather than the real bad actors,” he said.

Whatever punishment the courts might levy, the real cost to T-Mobile is in how this legal battle could affect its image. The company claims to be on a righteous campaign to save customers from petty charges from their cellphone carriers. Burying unwanted fees for daily horoscopes in customers’ bills is the antithesis of the “Un-Carrier” ethos.

“It does hurt T-Mobile’s brand because obviously it’s built around consumer-friendliness,” Chetan Sharma, a mobile industry analyst, says of the FTC complaint. “I was a bit surprised that T-Mobile didn’t just try to settle it.”

In Legere’s statement, the T-Mobile chief pointed out that deceptive charges from shady third parties have plagued the entire wireless industry for a long time. Last fall, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint all signed an agreement with 45 states to stop billing customers for premium text messages. Verizon did not sign the specific agreement but committed to the same principle. Meanwhile, the FTC is also pursuing non-carriers involved in cramming schemes, like companies that feed wireless carriers false phone numbers for billing, several of which it has already sued.

An FTC spokesman declined to comment on the cramming practices of other wireless carriers or whether the agency would file legal action against them as well.

It’s likely that T-Mobile’s actions regarding cramming were not out of the ordinary for the wireless industry—and the problem itself, a relic of the days when people bought digital goods through SMS rather than through online app stores, has mostly been eradicated. But this is supposed to be a company that’s about flouting the rules, not playing by them. A T-Mobile without the arrogant CEO and the customer-first mentality is just a fourth-place carrier with a wireless network that can’t stack up to AT&T’s or Verizon’s in many areas. Now that the company has been singled out by the FTC, it will be critical for T-Mobile that it proves it has customers’ best interest at heart.

“They should probably put out the data on [cramming] as to how big of an issue it is so people can understand the scale,” Sharma says. “The FTC’s lawsuit makes us believe that it’s a much bigger problem than it might be. Without the numbers, it’s very hard to say which way it is.”

TIME Companies

Feds: T-Mobile Charged Customers for Spam Text Frauds

T-Mobile
A T-Mobile store is seen at 7th Avenue and 49th Street on March 23, 2012 in New York City. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

The consumer watchdog says T-Mobile should have spotted text message scams hitting its customers

Update: July 1, 5:02 p.m. ET

The Federal Trade Commission accused wireless carrier T-Mobile on Tuesday of placing unauthorized charges on customers’ bills for unwanted premium SMS services such as flirting tips, horoscopes and celebrity gossip. T-Mobile generated hundreds of millions of dollars by taking a portion of the typical $9.99-a-month subscription fee charged for such services, according to the FTC.

Wireless carriers often agree to include third-party charges in customers’ monthly phone bills (AT&T customers, for instance, can pay for Beats Music as part of their cell phone plan). However, sometimes these charges are not authorized by customers and are hidden deep within their bills, a practice known as “cramming.” Several cramming companies targeted T-Mobile subscribers, but the wireless carrier continued to let them charge its customers even after there were indications of fraud, according to the FTC, which says up to 40 percent of the customers who were charged for these services asked for a refund. The FTC argues that figure should have indicated fraudulent activity.

Jessica Rich, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said credit card companies typically investigate instances of potential fraud if at least one percent of customers claim they have been wrongly charged from a specific vendor.

“It’s wrong for a company like T-Mobile to profit from scams against its customers when there were clear warning signs the charges it was imposing were fraudulent,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in a statement. “The FTC’s goal is to ensure that T-Mobile repays all its customers for these crammed charges.”

Beyond allowing the charges to occur, the FTC also claims that T-Mobile made it difficult for customers to discover the charges on their own phone bills. The carrier also refused refunds to some customers or told them to try to get their money back from the scammers, according to the FTC.

The FTC will seek refunds for customers who were the victims of fraudulent charges, an amount that Rich says could be hundreds of millions of dollars. The commission will also seek a court order to ban T-Mobile from allowing cramming in the future.

The accusation of subscriber-duping undercuts T-Mobile’s customer-friendly “Un-carrier” marketing campaign the carrier has pursued in the last year. As part of that strategy, the company has gotten rid of cellphone plan mainstays, like two-year contracts and overage charges, while constantly vilifying its competitors as overly greedy.

In a statement, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said the FTC complaint was without merit. “T-Mobile is fighting harder than any of the carriers to change the way the wireless industry operates and we are disappointed that the FTC has chosen to file this action against the most pro-consumer company in the industry rather than the real bad actors,” he said.

The company is hardly the only wireless carrier that has allowed cramming. Last fall Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all agreed to stop billing customers for unwanted charges from third-party services in most states. Legere also pointed out that T-Mobile already has a program in place to provide refunds to customers who felt they were fraudulently charged via cramming.

TIME wireless carriers

T-Mobile’s Unlimited Music Streaming Is the Worst for Net Neutrality

Legere
T-Mobile CEO John Legere speaks during an event in Seattle on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 Matthew Williams -- Bloomberg / Getty Images

"Music freedom" looks like a benefit for subscribers, and that's the most dangerous part.

Most things that T-Mobile has done over the last year have made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but I felt a pit in my stomach on Wednesday when the carrier announced that certain streaming music services won’t count against users’ data limits.

Instead of treating all music services equally, T-Mobile has decided that the most popular streaming music services should get better treatment. If you have a limited data plan on T-Mobile, you won’t come any closer to your monthly cap when using Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, iTunes Radio, iHeartRadio, Slacker Radio and Samsung Milk Music.

This is the most insidious type of net neutrality violation, because it’s being pitched as a benefit. Most users stand to gain from the free data, so they may not even care about the slippery slope they’re on.

T-Mobile is well aware that it’s picking winners and losers, so it’s telling users to vote on other services that they’d like to make the cut. This by itself is messed up — why should I have to petition T-Mobile to give preferential treatment to a particular music service? — but it also underscores why net neutrality is so important. New or obscure streaming music services will remain at a disadvantage for as long as T-Mobile doesn’t recognize them. This, in turn, makes it harder for these services to take off, enforcing a vicious cycle.

What’s really scary is that some tech pundits don’t even see this as a problem. Ross Rubin, an analyst whose opinions I usually respect, wrote on Twitter that the free music streaming is “not really a net neutrality issue” because T-Mobile isn’t favoring any one provider or setting up a “fast lane” for chosen services. But with wireless Internet, data caps are just as important as speed limits. The incentive to use unrestricted services is just as strong.

The good news, for now at least, is that T-Mobile isn’t charging music services for uncapped data, according to The Verge. And as the smallest of the major carriers, T-Mobile doesn’t pose a huge threat to the streaming music market on its own.

But by going down this road — and getting a warm response for doing so — T-Mobile is signaling to its competitors that it’s okay to dole out preferential treatment as long as customers see a short-term benefit. Once the hooks are in, T-Mobile could easily start charging these music services for their customers’ data use, and other carriers could start doing the same. AT&T has already set up a system to allow “sponsored data,” and Verizon has expressed interest in this business model as well.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. We currently don’t have any net neutrality protections in the United States, and it’s unclear whether wireless Internet will even be included as the FCC draws up new rules that can withstand legal scrutiny. Besides, if enough people feel good about what T-Mobile is doing, it’s hard to imagine regulators getting in the way. T-Mobile tries hard to look like it’s putting an arm over your shoulder, but “music freedom” is actually more of a stranglehold.

TIME Telecom

Streaming Music Won’t Count Against T-Mobile Data Plans

+ READ ARTICLE

Wireless carrier T-Mobile will soon begin allowing customers to stream as much music as they want from services like Spotify and iTunes Radio. The company announced Wednesday that it will no longer count music streamed from select services towards customers’ monthly data usage limits.

The services currently included in the program are Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes Radio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify and Milk Music. These options comprise about 85 percent of the music streaming traffic on T-Mobile’s network, the company said. Customers can vote via social media on other services they’d like to see included as well.

The move will allow avid music listeners to do considerably more with their monthly data allotment. A person that streams music for 50 minutes a day uses about 1.5 GB of data per month just for that task, according to T-Mobile’s own data calculator. If unchecked, such use can lead to huge overage charges on competing carriers’ networks or throttled speeds on T-Mobile (the carrier eliminated overage charges earlier this year in favor of slowing down service for people who use more than their allotted data).

The new feature has similarities to AT&T’s Sponsored Data plan, which alllows companies to pay AT&T to let customers use apps or websites without eating into their monthly data allotment. Some have said that these concepts violate the ethos of net neutrality, which discourages companies from granting preferential treatment in the way they deliver certain types of data across the Internet — though net neutrality rules have not previously applied to mobile Internet use.

Unlike AT&T’s Sponsored Data program, though, T-Mobile will collect no fees from the streaming services that are granted unlimited streaming.

In addition to lifting data caps on music streaming, T-Mobile also announced a new streaming service of its own, called unRadio. The new, on-demand service, made in partnership with Rhapsody, has a catalog of 20 million songs and no ads. It will be free for T-Mobile subscribers with an unlimited data plan and $4 per month for subscribers with more limited plans.

The new programs are the latest steps in T-Mobile’s “Un-Carrier” initiative, which has introduced several disruptive concepts to the wireless industry, such as the elimination of two-year contracts and international data charges. The cost-cutting measures are making T-Mobile bleed money, but they also helped the carrier gain more new subscribers in the first quarter than AT&T, Verizon and Sprint combined.

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