Mobile plan pricing: The truth is out there

The prices they display aren't the full story of what they'll want to pull out of your wallet.

After almost 27 months, my wife and I are still using Verizon on the same contract where we bought our Samsung Galaxy S4 phones. The phones are showing their age, and I've been looking at alternatives, including just keeping our old phones (not a good idea for the long term) and even (shudder) switching back to the iPhone.

Since phone plans have changed so much since we bought our contract back in 2013, I decided to take a look at how the carriers are charging for their services. While they all seem to price out within a few bucks of each other, I found the way they represent their pricing to be incredibly misleading -- at least in the case of Verizon and Sprint.

The carriers are now advertising unlimited talk and text, with a cap on the amount of data you use. They tell you that you can buy a monthly data plan for a certain amount per month, and then if you decide to buy a phone, that's a separate charge, as are taxes and fees.

Verizon's small print

That's something of a misrepresentation. Let's start with Verizon. Take a look at the following screenshot of their plan description page:

Notice that they clearly point out that their 1GB plan is $30 per month, while their other plans go up. They list these prices in 24 pixel high text. They also point out that all "sizes" (the amount of data you're allowed to consume before hitting an overage) allow for unlimited talking and texting.

But here's the thing. If you're looking at a $30 per month plan, you might need to read the very small print (10 pixel high) text -- which I kindly blew up for you. Each plan costs an additional $20 per month for each phone you connect. So what looks like $30, $45, $60, and $80 (not counting the cost of the phone) is really a minimum of $50, $65, $80, and $100 (not counting the cost of the phone). Plus whatever taxes and fees.

Taxes and fees are another issue. I did a chat with Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint and none of the representatives were willing to quote just how much that will be. You either need to go into a local store (as if this were 1990) or place an order and see what it says. In practice, add another $6 to $12 per month. So now you're looking at phones costing a minimum of $56, $71, $86, and $106, again before the cost of the phone itself.

Sprint's small print

There's a good chance my wife and I will wind up with Sprint because in a test of their connection, it was more solid here at the edge of nowhere than Verizon's has been. That makes me nervous, because, well. Sprint.

Sprint's information on the Web is interesting, because the company really, really wants to sell you the $100 per month plan with a 10GB cap and four lines. It's plastered all over their site. In fact, finding different pricing plans took quite a lot of digging and the help of a rep. Be that as it may, notice the following screencap:

While the showcase $100 per month plan shows the inclusion of access fees for the four lines, none of the smaller plans do. In fact, if you look at anything less than the 10GB plan, you'll see the supposed price in 28 pixel high type, and a small 10 pixel high "Additional fees may apply" message in the big, oh-so-empty gray box. Those fees (which are pretty much impossible to find without chatting to a rep) are an additional $25 per month per phone. So you're not looking at $20, $25, $40, and $70 per month. You're looking at $45, $50, $65, and $95 -- once again before the cost of the phone and the shall-remain-unspoken taxes and fees.

By the way, that hot $100 plan that Sprint wants you to buy oh-so-badly requires you to turn in your old phone for each line you get, sign up to a lease or "easy pay" plan for a new phone, and move your old number to Sprint (whether you want to or not). So, as a deal, it's pretty much as "meh" as everything else. Their price-slashing "cut your rate plan in half" offer suffers from similar limitations and requirements. Sprint must have one heck of a phone resale business -- probably off-shore -- but be careful if you buy an older phone just in case they decide to use their customers as a recycling service.

AT&T's offerings

AT&T provides more information than both Verizon or Sprint, but they're not particularly clear in how they present that information. Here's their plan page:

As you can see, AT&T shows their data rates, and then has a table listed as "Add phones." Where the company fails in its representation of costs is that it's not clear that the "Add phones" monthly access charges are for the first and additional phones, or just additional phones. It's also not clear which of the three plans presented in the table correspond to the plan presented in the table just above.

One place AT&T does stand out, though, is in its small print. At the bottom of the page, there's this entire block of small print in 11px high type. Good luck with that.

T-Mobile presents a clear plan

Of all four carriers investigated, T-Mobile is the most clear in their representation. In fact, there is really nothing to complain about (except for the always-unspecified taxes and fees):

T-Mobile does a good job of providing a wizard that lets you choose your data cap and your number of phones, and presents the information clearly and instantly. Points to T-Mobile.

How bad is it?

So, are the carriers really lying? You can be very sure that there are entire teams of lawyers making sure the answer to that is technically "no." You can, eventually, find out how much you're going to pay, but you sure can't get that information together easily before you're in the clutches of a salesperson or Web page and making a buying decision.

In this context, it's pretty clear that the carriers may have used the same legal team as Bill Clinton used when he discussed what the meaning of the word "is" is.

The bottom-line is this: the new plans are pretty much the old plans. There are some different terms, different areas where there is flexibility, but if you're going to embark in a purchase of a phone and a phone plan, I have this single bit of advice: watch your back (and your wallet). The carriers are not on your side and they never will be.

That said, these devices and the services they offer are nothing short of amazing. Fly back in time to the big sidecar-sized cell phones of the mid-1980s and tell Marty McFly what we have now, he would definitely think we'd come back from the future.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.