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Big changes at mobile phone companies leave many wondering about a switch

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Mobile phone companies have started the new year with an all-out war for customers, with some companies singling each other out for battle and all the major carriers tweaking or significantly reworking their mobile plans.

If you have the option of changing carriers, here are some guidelines for which mobile carrier might work best for your situation.

You need to pay for phones for a large group of phone users, preferably on the cheap. Sprint seems to consider this type of situation the target market for their new "Framily" plan, which offers monthly per phone bills as low as $25 for groups of seven to ten people. The basic plan provides each phone with 1 GB of monthly data plus unlimited voice minutes and texts.

You have shaky credit or no credit. No-contract or "prepaid" mobile carriers started off catering to this market, though their popularity has expanded to include people who have sterling credit but want to save on their monthly bills or don't like signing a two-year contract. Sprint owns both Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, and both carriers use Sprint's mobile network, including 4G LTE where available.

You pay full price for the phone with a prepaid mobile carrier, rather than an artificially reduced price in return for a two-year commitment. However, you pay less on a monthly basis, as little as $35. Both Boost and Virgin carry a selection of nice Android phones for around $150 to $250.

You must have a strong mobile signal where ever you go. A couple of years ago, Verizon would have handily won this category, but AT&T has worked hard to build a more robust and reliable mobile network. Both have speedy 4G LTE covering much of the U.S. To get a good handle on which mobile carrier has the best coverage in the places you frequent, check the regular local surveys performed by Root Metrics.

You make and receive few mobile calls, or you consistently use less than 300 voice minutes a month but send hundreds or thousands of texts. Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile may provide the perfect option for these types of users. Even Virgin Mobile's lowest level option, costing $35 monthly, gives you 300 anytime minutes plus unlimited texts and 2.5 GB of full speed data for checking emails, playing online games like Words With Friends and reading Web articles.

Your phone bites the dust and you're still under contract. A contract mobile company will likely try to steer you into an installment plan, under which you'll pay several hundred dollars for a new phone, with your monthly bill, if you're not yet eligible for a contract upgrade discount. You may convince them to send you a replacement refurbished phone if you threaten to switch to a competitor, but you might want to think about whether buying an installment plan phone could provide a better deal.

First off, if you've made enough payments the next time your phone goes belly up, you could get a new one of your choice, rather than a refurb device. You also pay for the phone over time, so you'll have upgrade eligibility more quickly than you otherwise would have, even if your phone still works but you'd like a new one.

You're hard on mobile phones, meaning yours tend to break well before upgrade eligibility time. Consider either buying a protection plan or paying in installments, if your carrier offers this option. Since the installment payment probably costs only a few dollars more per month than an insurance plan, it might make sense financially to go with the payment plan. That way, if your phone breaks down, you'll have an easier time getting a new phone rather than an old, used device.

If you're confused about the new options but happy with your mobile carrier, you don't need to panic. You won't get switched to a more expensive plan without your approval, but with the major carriers, you'll likely have to change to one of the new plans the next time you get a new phone.

If this article helped you or if you have further suggestions, please feel free to comment below.

If you enjoy my writing, please consider subscribing to my articles by email or following me on Twitter @RaleighTech.

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