Which cellphone provider is right for you?

Expert offers pros, cons of considering discount carrier

By Scott Johnson - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Practically everyone has a cellphone these days, and with so many providers, it can be overwhelming trying to find a plan that offers the features you want for the lowest price.

The big four providers -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile -- are constantly competing  for your business by offering discounted plans.

The trick to knowing whether you should go with one of those plans -- or perhaps try a discount carrier, like Metro PCS or Cricket Wireless -- is knowing exactly what you want in a phone service, Consumer Reports Smartphone Editor Bree Fowler said.

For instance, do you want unlimited data or just enough to cover talk, text and a little social media?

Beyond knowing how much data you want, you should be aware of how your carrier handles “throttling” data, Fowler said.

Once you hit a certain data usage point, carriers won't shut off your data flow, but they will slow it to 2G levels -- which are basically good only for checking email, not streaming, Fowler explained.

She said the discount carriers often have a lower threshold for when data gets throttled. And she pointed out many of the discount carriers are just arms of the major carriers.

WATCH: Picking best cellphone plan for you

“Cricket is part of AT&T,” she said, offering one example. “With these (discount carriers), you really have to add that extra layer of homework, because while on the surface they may look cheaper, you’re going to pay more for just being nickeled and dimed."  

Some popular, more economical plans include Metro PCS -- which offers unlimited everything for $50 a month -- and cellphone plans you can purchase at Walmart. 

Hari Ljubijanskic said he was drawn to Metro PCS by an advertisement of unlimited data and no contract requirement.

“I got a signal everywhere. I went to a wedding -- my cousin’s wedding in Virginia -- and I got to say, it was a connection through the whole time,” Ljubijanskic said.

But the technological advances of smartphones aren't enough to tempt some consumers away from their simple flip phones, which are cheaper and can be found at most cellphone stores.

When a phone breaks

One reality of smartphones is that all that technology is often housed inside a delicate device -- which means one drop can leave you with a cracked screen or other damage.

So how much will screen repairs set you back?

News4Jax asked some Jacksonville stores that specialize in smartphone repair and got a range of $79 to $140 for iPhone 8 screen repair and $149 to $399 for Galaxy Note 8 repairs.

A worker explained that Android phones cost more to repair because “the parts are a lot more expensive and also you do have to take everything out of the Samsung.”

So with those potential repair costs, is it worth it to opt for the smartphone insurance?

You also have the option to pay for phone insurance. You need to weigh the cost if it’s something you want to pay, or risk it. There will be a monthly fee and if you need a replacement phone there’s still a deductible which can range from $50 to $200 to replace the device. The cost to replace can depend on the type of phone you have and the company you’re using.

Fowler said the key to that answer is knowing how much per month the insurance will cost and how much of a deductible you'll pay if your phone breaks. The deductible can sometimes be a couple hundred dollars.

“A lot of people do things like Apple care. They do insurance," Fowler said. "You really have to think about how much risk you're willing to take. Insurance is something you're going to pay for in perpetuity. It’s a charge that is never going to go away and often there’s a high deductible too, so you may end up paying for that phone whether you break it or not.”

And Fowler is no stranger to accidents.

“I live with this a lot,” she said. “I have two kids. They break things -- whether it’s phones or iPads or laptops.”

If that's the case in your home too, you just have to weigh the costs of insurance against the desire for peace of mind.

Carriers county-by-county

When shopping for a new phone, you might wonder what provider works best in your county when it comes to having a steady signal.

News4Jax crowd-sourced the answer, asking viewers which providers work and don't work in their counties.

Here's the breakdown:

Duval County: T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T get positive reviews, but we heard lots of criticism of Sprint's signal quality.

St. Johns County: Verizon had good reviews, but we heard lots of complaints about AT&T.

Clay County: Most plans were rated well, but we heard some complaints about Sprint, particularly around Middleburg.

Putnam County: Cricket Wireless and AT&T had positive feedback.

Alachua County: We got a note about problems with T-Mobile.

Union County: We heard positive feedback about both Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile.

Nassau-Baker County Line: Bryceville viewers complained of problems with AT&T.

Southeast Georgia: AT&T and Verizon got positive reviews in the more rural areas.

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