Question: I signed a two-year contract with Sprint for my cell phone. A year and a half later, I moved to a new home a few miles away in the same city. I can't seem to get a signal inside my house, which is a problem since I don't have a landline. Sprint told me to upgrade the software on my phone, but that didn't help. So I switched to Verizon - and now get perfect service in my home. But am I stuck with Sprint's $150 cancellation fee? - Dan B. Lindeman III, Fort Thomas, Ky.
Answer: It's not impossible to get out of a cell-phone contract without paying an early-termination fee - it's just that historically, carriers have made it incredibly difficult. Ever since cell phones were invented, wireless providers have tried to lock in customers by wooing them into long-term contracts and levying fees as steep as $250 if they cancel before that contract is up.
Among the few viable excuses to get out of a contract penalty-free are death, active military duty and...relocation, if you can prove that your new area doesn't get adequate coverage. To make that case, call the carrier and have the rep look up the number of cell towers in your neighborhood; if the carrier determines it isn't enough, you may get a dispensation. You can also ask to have someone test the signal up to your driveway.
But carriers won't guarantee service inside your home. "There are too many factors out of our control," says Sprint spokesperson Roni Singleton. (For example, a construction material like granite can block a signal even with multiple towers nearby.) Singleton says Sprint has five towers in your area. Bummer - no free pass this way.
But these days even if you can't get out for free, you may at least be able to shave some money off that exit fee. In 2006, Verizon announced that it would prorate its penalty. AT&T followed, and late last year Sprint joined the pack. The company is still working out the details but plans to enact its policy later this year. (With AT&T, which clips $5 off $175 for every month served, your final charge would've been $75 since you stayed 15 of 24 months.)
We asked Sprint to make an early exception for you. Since the terms of the policy aren't defined yet, Singleton went one better and offered to waive the whole $150 instead. Good call.
Tip: Most carriers allow you to test-drive their service. Even if you sign a contract, you can cancel without penalty if you have a service problem within 30 days.
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