Bigger is not always better. As today’s cell phones tout video streaming and unlimited high-speed data, many seniors are saying, “What?” For those who just want a phone to do what our old landlines did, but from a portable unit we can carry in our pockets, the answer could be a prepaid wireless plan and a simpler phone.
Prepaid wireless offers pay-as-you-go or monthly pay-in-advance plans that we can tailor to our actual needs.As the service is prepaid, there are no credit checks, no contracts and no end-of-month surprises. The trick is to find the ideal combination of a prepaid plan and a compatible phone, or a combination package of the two. By going through this exercise, we’ll have the connection we want without breaking the proverbial bank.
We did not grow up with smartphones attached to our fingertips. Yes, we used phones to communicate verbal messages that simplified our lives, loving messages that connected one human to another, and emergency messages when help was needed. Those are still the main purposes seniors have for phones today: convenience, connection and assistance.
The sophistication of phones – particularly smartphones – is not lost on younger seniors who have adopted the ‘do-everything’ devices. They are still chasing ‘bigger, faster and more powerful.’ However, either for financial reasons or for simplicity’s sake, not everyone wants huge monthly communications bills or the complexity that come with them.
Enter the prepaid wireless phone plan. While prepaid phone plans have also started to adopt many of the features of traditional cell phone plans, they do continue to offer bare-bones alternatives as well. (Coincidentally, most of the prepaid plans piggyback on the networks of the five major carriers who own all the nationwide phone networks.)
What differentiates prepaid plans? Because they are prepaid, they require no credit checks. Because they are rarely bundled with a phone, they require no contract. Because many are ‘pay-as-you-go,’ they require no expensive billing plan.
Not all phones work with all prepaid plans, so you either find a phone you love and see what prepaid phone plans are compatible, or you select a phone plan you really like and then purchase a phone that is compatible. Whichever your priority, your decision should start with acareful assessment of how you use a phone, what is important to you in phone service and what is not.
As everyone’s life gets more hectic and families disperse more easily, we count on technology to bridge the physical distances. For seniors, having a way to remain in contact with friends and loved ones is critical. While that used to be the role of the hardwired ‘landline’ telephone, today’s technology makes it possible to have the phone in a shirt or pants pocket, never more than a few inches away. That convenience cannot be overstated.
Whether it isused for pleasure or safety, a cell phone for seniors must be one they can adapt to comfortably and use without hesitation. In the early senior years, phones and their usage are no different from anyone else’s. However, with the passage of time, physical limitations call for simpler phones, larger letters for older eyes and large buttons for less agile fingers.
As phones become simpler, so does the phone’s usage. It is fitting that phone plans should follow suit. Instead of complex, multi-faceted billing plans, prepaid phone plans are becoming more commonplace. They reflect the needs of seniors, both in flexibility and in cost.
Having a prepaid wireless plan that is tailored to our needs means:
- Staying in touch easily with loved ones;
- Tailoring the phone bill to fit within our budgets;
- Knowing what our phone costs will be in advance and avoiding end-of-month invoice shock;
- Not being locked into multi-year contracts at a time when our needs are changing; and
- Calling first responders in time for their presence to make a life-saving difference.
The main evaluation factors for selecting a prepaid wireless plan focus on cost and ease. First comes the monthly fee. Then come considerations of a warranty and ease of return. Ease of implementation, of cancellation and of access to the provider’s customer service representatives are all elements that will make the service one we appreciate.
Next come the features of the phone and service: how much do compatible telephones cost? Can international calls be made? Can music and video be streamed to the phone? Lastly, how good is the coverage across the country?
Like it or not, selecting prepaid wireless service requires two decisions: the wireless plan itself and the phone that is compatible with the service. Whichever one you start with, you will have to deal with both. However, having the right combination adds so much comfort and convenience to our lives that undertaking the process is well worthwhile.
Selecting a carrier and a plan: While the number of plans seems endless, there are only five cellular carriers in the U.S. (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular). All other operators piggyback off the networks of these five. Those operators tend to negotiate good rates and offer good speeds, except in times of heavy traffic when the carrier will give its own customers full speed and possibly slow the speed for the other operators’ customers.
Coverage is an important factor in choosing an operator. Check each operator’s coverage map to be sure that where you are and where you call most often are well covered. If that map is not on the operator’s website, contact the operator and ask for it. Without coverage, your cell service is useless.
Once you have identified potential operators, it is time to look at their plans. The best plan will be the one that offers everything you need or want, and not a lot more. To know that, make a list of what is important. Here are some possible questions:
- Unlimited everything or just ‘talk and text?’
- A prepaid ‘top-up’ card which you recharge for a certain number of calls and messages? In that case, how long are they valid: 30-90-365 days?
- A prepaid monthly charge for a certain number of calls and texts, with a set fee for each extra call or text?
- A daily plan where you only pay a set daily fee if you use the phone that day, but nothing if you don’t?
- Data (for use with a smartphone) or no data? If data, how much?Ability to increase the data mid-month if using it up too fast?
- Music streaming?
- International calling?
- Conference calling?
- Caller ID?
The best thing about a prepaid plan is that if it does not work for you, or if your needs change, you are not locked into a 2-year contract as you could be with a traditional cell phone plan.
Prepaid plans fall under some basic categories which help pare down your choices.
- Pay-as-you-go prepaid plans are ideal for seniors who don’t feel they need a cell phone but do want to be able to reach family or emergency services if needed. For some, you purchase minutes and messages which are loaded on a ‘top-up’ card which you use until they are gone. Others are bare bones, with as few as 30 minutes or texts available each month, with a set price per minute or message over the selected limit. Still others offer unlimited minutes or messages, but charge a per-day fee for each day the phone is used. If not used at all, there is no charge.
- Prepaid plans with no data are good for seniors who have no need for data because they are not using the phone for internet services or large downloads, unless they are via Wi-Fi. However, these plans expect a higher usage of phone minutes and messages than the minimal pay-as-you-go plans. Some plans charge basic fees for unlimited talk and text only; some are more flexible and invoice your usage in tiers, so you pay for what you actually use in minutes and messages in each month. If the plan includes free calls to certain family or friends, or free calls to people in the same network, your minutes will go much further.
- Prepaid plans with data are targeted at seniors who on average use2-5 gigabytes of data each month with their smartphones. More expensive than the ‘no data’ plans, these typically have unlimited talk and text and a modest amount of data to keep seniors connected without running up unaffordable bills. These plans are the last step before entering the world of traditional cell phone plans but still benefit from prepayment, plus the absence of a contract and a credit check.
Selecting a phone: One complication in selecting a phone for prepaid wireless is that two different cellular technologies are used in the U.S. One is called CDMA, and the other is GSM. Most phones only work on one or the other, so an old favorite phone may not work with a new prepaid operator. You may have to buy a new phone to match your new prepaid plan. (If you already have a favorite phone, you might want to select a wireless plan that is compatible with it, instead of the other way around.) Since prepaid plans are not part of long-term contracts, the operator cannot offer you a phone with payment terms over time (as regular cell phone plans do), so you will have to pay cash or find alternative financing for the phone you choose.
Seniors, particularly older ones, have mentioned certain features they like best. While the features may not all be available on one phone, you might select the most important ones and look for them on the phone you choose. They include:
- easy-to-read displays that show numbers in a large font;
- clearly marked buttons for failing eyesight;
- large buttons for less precise finger dexterity;
- hearing aid compatibility and/or amplified sound;
- the ability to program several numbers into the phone for speed dialing (including for emergencies);
- good illumination of the keypad as well as the display for nighttime dialing;
- a speaking keypad to confirm correct dialing; and
- light in weight for easy carrying.
Prepaid-plan-and-phone combinations: Marketers will always find the perfect product to fill a demand, so several companies have come up with combinations of attractive prepaid plans, senior-friendly phones and refill cards. Many of these combinations are heavily marketed and have familiar names. While you may not be able to tailor your plan and your phone exactly as you would want it, you can certainly get a phone with large buttons, a loud speaker, emergency buttons and large text on a bright screen at a very good price.
Two areas differentiate what seniors prioritize when taking on services such as prepaid wireless: age-friendliness and health-related value.
Age friendliness: While seniors are not the only ones using prepaid plans and user-friendly phones, they are certainly the inspiration behind creating them. Therefore, you can expect that all aspects of the service will be friendly to seniors as they age. However, instead of age-friendliness being linked solely to chronological age, it may be related more to faculties, preferences or lifestyle in the sense of declining eyesight, not wanting to keep up with technology or limited income.
Health-related value: Having access to an easy-to-use, affordable cell phone increases in value as our health declines. A reliable phone is a top priority, whether it is used for contacting pharmacies to keep prescriptions filled, connecting with friends and family, or having access to support and emergency services.
Terminology around phones often overlaps and is used interchangeably. Looking at billing practices is a perfect place to sort out the terminology.
Prepaid wireless service often comes with ‘top-up’ cards that provide a certain number of minutes or messages. These might remain active for 30 days before requiring a ‘recharge’ or until they are used up. In any case, they will usually have an expiration, say up to90 days or a year.
However, ‘prepaid’ is also used to imply the service is paid in advance, instead of at the end of the month, but it is still linked to cyclical month-to-month billing. At times this is called ‘no contract’ service since it can be stopped or adjusted at any time and involves no long-term commitment.
In comparing prepaid wireless and traditional cell phone service, the greatest difference comes in the cost of the phone. In the case of traditional cell phone service with its multi-year contracts, the price for the phone will appear lower because much of its cost is hidden within the obligatory monthly payments. That explains why you have a large penalty to pay for terminating such a contract early: you must finish paying for the phone. With prepaid (hence no-contract) wireless service, you will have to pay the entire cost of the phone.
When evaluating prepaid wireless services, the initial criteria include the cost, the warranty on equipment, the ease of installation and cancellation and the accessibility of the customer support team.
Cost: The cost may be the fee for topping up the rechargeable card in the prepaid phone, or the monthly fee for a no-contract, paid-in-advance service. Ideally, pricing plans will be straightforward, with no hidden fees. There will also be a cost for a phone if the service is not compatible with a phone you already own.
Warranty: Initially, you want to be able to return equipment for a full money-back guarantee if it does not work correctly or somehow does not meet your needs. Timeframes seem to run 7 to 30 days, or longer, for returns.However, warranties for defective equipment should be much longer, with some companies offering to repair or replace phones or accessories that contain manufacturer’s defects for up to one year from date of purchase. Be sure to check before making a purchase.
Ease: Prepaid wireless service may require activation at an operator’s facility, depending on whether it entails activating your phone or one coming from the operator. The service should be easy to install since its target market is seniors, not technologically adept teenagers. Instructions for using ‘top-up’ cards should be simple.
Cancellation: Because service is prepaid, whether using ‘top-up’ cards or paid-in-advance, cancellation should be very easy. As the purchase of the phone was not bundled in with a long-term contract, that will not be a barrier to cancellation either.
Customer support: Easy access to customer support should go well beyond the customer acquisition process, and into serving you as a customer as well. Your phone service is a lifeline. Access to support by phone should be available 24/7/365, although that is not always the case. Check a company’s hours and its reputation. Chances of good customer service tend to increase with spinoffs of the major carriers and with better-known operators.
Access to cell phone serviceis considered a priority for Americans. That extends to seniors, particularly for emergency purposes. If you are on Medicaid, SSI or some other government program, you may qualify for free or subsidized plans. The federal government has a program called Lifeline that lowers the monthly cost of phoneor internet, but not both. Enter ‘Lifeline Program’ in your browser for more information.