Our family just got our first cell phone (we’re late adopters of most technology, though we were early adopters of Macintoshes—I had one of the first model with 128k RAM). The cell phone is not for my wife or me (neither of us likes talking on the phone), but for our son, who needs it to be a “prefect” on the school trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The prefects have to keep tabs on a group of about 4 other kids who share the same hotel room and serve as a node in a phone tree if plans change. Last year there was a last-minute change of schedule moving one workshop 2 hours earlier, and the phone tree worked well for alerting all the students.
Because this is our first cell phone, we wanted one with low initial cost and no long-term contracts. What we ended up with was a $30 phone and an AT&T $2/day plan, that offers unlimited minutes and texts and no monthly charges, but charges $2 for each day that the phone is actually used. Since he does not expect to use the phone much, we’re more worried about time we’ve paid for expiring (the $25 we prepaid will expire in 3 months, unless we remember to add more money before then). One nice feature of the AT&T plan is the lack of roaming charges in the US, especially as he will be using the phone mainly while traveling.
Since he is planning to use the phone only for the school trip and for emergency calls (like letting us know that he’ll be late because of a flat tire on his bike), we are paying for the plan. If his use changes and he starts using the phone recreationally, he’ll be responsible for paying for the plan (and he’d likely change to a different plan, since $2/day is expensive if you use the phone every day, though cheap if you use it rarely).
Data transfer is very expensive at 1¢/5KB ($2/MB, $2000/GB), but we got a cheap phone (with a keyboard) which will not tempt him into much downloading (we hope). This plan cannot have a data plan added to it—we’d have to switch to a $25/month with an extra $15/200MB or $25/GB. At those prices it might be worth looking for a cheaper phone company.
If he goes to college with this phone (possible, but not very likely), he’ll probably take an iPod Touch with WiFi as well, so that he can do web browsing—most college campuses have pretty good WiFi coverage for students, though the coverage off campus would be poor to non-existent. It’s possible that by then he’d want a smartphone, even if the contracts cost $70/month ($30 for 3GB, $40 for voice).
At lot of parents of college students on the homeschool-to-college email list have been recommending that college students take a phone with texting capability to college with them, even if they haven’t been using one in high school. Not only are emergency alerts used on many campuses sent more quickly with text messages, but a lot of social organization seems to happen by text messages, as students don’t seem to rely on face-to-face meeting to arrange their lives any more. Now that my son has a texting phone, we’ll see if it makes any difference in how he does things.