Tech-minded consumers have an advantage for spending their telecommunications dollars smarter.
If you know what you're doing with technology and know what to look for, you can save plenty of money. Here are developments that could save you telecom dollars:
Text messaging. Texting refers to typing a short message on your wireless phone with the number keys and sending it to someone else's phone. It's the wireless version of instant messaging services on computers.
About 12.5 billion text messages were sent in June 2006, up 71 percent from the same month the previous year, according to wireless industry association CTIA. "It is huge," said John Breyault, spokesman for the Telecommunications Research and Action Center. "Young users are spending more time texting than they are making voice calls."
Problem is, text messaging can be addictive and per-message prices at many carriers recently have risen 50 percent, from a dime to 15 cents, for each message sent and received. That can add up in a hurry for active texters.
Wireless providers offer plans that include text messages, ranging from an additional $5 to $20 per month. These plans sometimes include unlimited messages to users on the same network. That can save you money, but you'll have to do the math using your provider's texting packages and the number of messages you send. Don't overbuy. An occasional small overage won't hurt too much at 15 cents per message.
To cut down on texting costs while near a computer, send text messages from the PC to a friend's phone. It's generally free to send a text, but you will have to know the full address of the service the friend is using. For example, Verizon users' addresses are the 10-digit phone number, plus vtext.com, while T-Mobile uses the 10 digits, plus tmomail.net.
Sending texts from a computer is a doubly good idea for premium texting, such as entering sweepstakes that can cost about $1 per text message, plus the usual 15 cents. Look for free alternatives to texting when entering contests, such as the one promoted on NBC's Deal or No Deal where you can instead play free online, said Allan Keiter, chief executive officer of MyRatePlan.com. For TV show voting, choose the free alternative, such as voting by telephone.
Teen-friendly plans that include at least 1,000 text messages and at least 100 minutes of airtime for less than $25 per month include U Prepaid wireless service by Alltel and Virgin Mobile 100 Minutes with 1,000 Text Message Option.
For teens who like texting exclusively, a two-way pager service can be cheaper than a wireless phone plan. The Telecommunications Research and Action Center found the lowest rates were offered by ABCBeepers.com and Beepers.com.
Computer-to-computer calls. These are generally free, but require that you and the person you want to talk to be seated at your computers with a microphone and speakers, or a headset that includes both. Skype is among the most popular services.
You can also make voice calls through instant-messenger clients, small software programs that let you not only type messages to another online user but, with a headset, speak to them too. Examples are Windows Live Messenger, Google Talk, AOL's AIM Triton, Yahoo Messenger with Voice and ICQ.
Computer-to-phone calls. Many of the same players offer paid services to call real phone numbers from your PC. For example, Windows Live Messenger, which boasts some 240 million users, has the option of placing an Internet call to a phone at many places in the world for 1.9 cents a minute through Verizon. You pay for blocks of minutes in advance. For more information, click the phone icon in Windows Live Messenger.
Similar offerings with different pricing structures are offered by Skype, ICQ, AIM Triton and Yahoo Messenger with Voice. Some offer the ability to receive inbound calls; others do not. Details can be found at each service's Web site.
Several telephone manufacturers are developing devices and handsets that allow you to use a phone for Internet calling, doing away with the computer headset.
Some are designed to work exclusively with a service, such as Windows Live Messenger or Skype. "Those are really in the first-adopter phase," Breyault said. "They're not mass market yet."
Ring tones. If you're fickle about your wireless phone's ring tones and like to change them often, it can get expensive. It costs more to download a 20-second ring tone from a song, often $2 or $3, than it does to download the entire song, often 99 cents.
You can make your own ring tone for free by using software to create an audio clip from a song on your computer and transferring it to your phone, assuming it supports MP3 ring tones. You transfer the file by USB cord, Bluetooth wireless connection or as an e-mail or text-message attachment. There are many tutorials on the Internet on how to do this. Some Web sites, such as mobile17.com, facilitate the process for free, and paid software can make it easier, too.
Although do-it-yourself ring tones are cheaper, realize that if you want just a few new tones, paying for them is less of a hassle.
Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call, in Allentown, Pa.