08/22/2012 11:18 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Cell Phone Coverage Is Not Included In all Carrier Contracts

The primary function of mobile carriers, and the reason we pay them oodles of money each month, is to provide wireless coverage for our cell phones. You expect your carrier to make sure your cell phone can make calls, send text messages, surf websites like The Huffington Post, and whatever else you do that requires a mobile connection.

It seems like a simple transaction, for both parties. However, only one side really has to hold up its end of the bargain, thanks to a sneaky provision buried in the fine print of those terms and conditions you probably aren't reading. When you sign a two-year contract with any of the four largest carriers in the United States -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile -- you're saying it's okay if your carrier doesn't actually provide any service, and that even if your cell phone cannot connect to the network where you need it most, you will still pay the agreed-upon amount each month and stay in your contract.

The Terms of Service for each of America's four biggest firms in the wireless world state explicitly that service is not guaranteed, and that a complete absence of coverage within a given home area is not a valid excuse to get out of your contract. Here are the relevant sections from each carrier's Terms and Conditions (which, remember, you are agreeing to if you sign a two-year contract):

AT&T: "AT&T does not guarantee availability of wireless network."
Sprint: "Coverage and Service speeds are not guaranteed."
T-Mobile: You agree we are not liable for problems relating to Service availability or quality.
Verizon: "Wireless devices use radio transmissions, so unfortunately you can't get Service if your device isn't in range of a transmission signal. And please be aware that even within your Coverage Area, many things can affect the availability and quality of your Service, including network capacity, your device, terrain, buildings, foliage and weather."

Imagine you've just signed up with a new carrier, and then you find your home gets no service or (at best) crummy service on that carrier. You can argue, but your carrier will almost certainly not let you out of your contract unless you pay a hefty Early Termination Fee (ETF). If you are within your carrier's coverage map, then no matter how poor your service is, you either have to eat the cost of the ETF to escape, or gut it out with your provider for the remainder of your contract.

That's frightening: Being stuck, for two years, in a dead zone at your own home is somewhere between "dreadfully inconvenient" and "nightmarishly frustrating." If the dozens of overwrought message board posts from exasperated, service-less users are any indication, you do not want to find yourself in this situation.

Let's ignore, for a moment, whether this industry-wide policy is "fair" (to play devil's advocate, carriers do have to ensure that they make back the money they lose from selling you a phone at a greatly discounted price). Instead, let's focus on how to avoid making the non-coverage mandate an issue. Because if you plunge into a contract and your coverage is spotty or non-existent, you're likely to spend a lot of precious time arguing with powerless customer service reps and posting exasperated screeds on message boards to no real avail.

Here, then, is a quick and dirty road map to avoid falling into the no-coverage trap when you are choosing a new carrier or switching over:

1. Check Your Provider's Coverage Map

Online you'll find several coverage maps, which show in detail not only where a given carrier provides coverage, but also how strong that carrier's coverage is. Each carrier has its own map (listed below), and there are also several third-party mapping services that show the location of cellular towers as well as estimated signal strength for any given set of coordinates in your area. is in particular a handy resource, providing user comments and ratings for coverage in a given area code.

These online resources -- as well as anecdotal evidence from neighbors and friends, if you can get it -- should largely influence your choice of mobile carrier: Do some research before making a two-year commitment and you'll be well-served.

Coverage Maps

2. Know How Long You Have To Cancel Your Contract

Let's say you sign a new two-year contract and notice you're not getting any service at home. Don't just assume that quality reception will come eventually: Cancel your contract and jump ship. Each of the four major mobile carriers give you a certain amount of time after you sign your contract to cancel the agreement without having to pay the ETF. For Verizon, it's 14 days; for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, it's 30 days.

Several carriers also sell network extenders, devices which can improve the signal you receive indoors. These can be expensive, however, and are not guaranteed to fix things.

If you can't justify dropping several hundred dollars on network extender, consider the aforementioned lengths of time a test period in which you discover how well your new device and new carrier serve you at home, at work, at your girlfriend's house, or wherever you spend most of your time. If the level of service is unsatisfactory, you might consider canceling and testing other providers.

3. Eat The ETF Charge, Sell Your Phone To Recoup Your Losses, and Switch Providers

This is, obviously, a last-ditch effort: If you have awful coverage, and you didn't break your contract within the carrier-approved window, and a network extender doesn't work to boost your signal -- and, too, if you've fought hard but still cannot convince your provider to drop the fee -- then it's time to give in and move on to the greener pastures of a different provider. Pay the ETF and then sell your current phone online at Gazelle or NextWorth to offset that loss, then either find a different on-contract provider or consider a month-by-month plan from the likes of Virgin or Boost Mobile.

Cell phone reception in the United States is steadily improving, but dead zones and zero-bar patches still abound. Research your coverage areas and know your carrier's return or cancellation policies, because you can't expect much sympathy should you end up with measly, miserable or outright missing mobile service. You did agree to that contract, after all.