Katherine Boehret

Lost Cellphone? Your Carrier Has Your Backup

By the time you’ve left your cellphone in a taxi or dropped it into a pot of soup, it’s too late. All those phone numbers you had at your finger tips — your best friend, your boss, your mom — are gone. (Well, maybe you’ll remember Mom’s.)

Some companies have tried to soothe backup concerns with gadgets like the $50 Backup-Pal from Advanced Wireless Solutions LLC, or wireless services like Skydeck. But for many for people, it’s just as easy to ignore the risk.

Cellphone carriers caught on to this problem, and all of them now offer solutions that make it a cinch for you to automatically back up your cellphone contacts. It doesn’t hurt these companies to know that if your contacts are saved with one of them, you might be deterred from switching to another. Indeed, whenever a customer replaces his or her cellphone with one from the same carrier, a backed-up address book can be wirelessly loaded onto it in minutes.

But the details on how each carrier handles or transfers contacts can be a little dicey. This week I spoke to Verizon Wireless (VZ), T-Mobile, AT&T (T) and Sprint (S) to get the lowdown on how these cellphone backup services work. Is a phone’s address book backed up free of charge, or do users pay a monthly fee? Can people access and edit their stored contacts, and can they transfer these contacts to new cellphones or different carriers, entirely? Will carriers charge users to move contacts to a new phone? How often is the cellphone’s address book synchronized, and can someone specifically set what time this occurs? The responses yielded some interesting information that customers may not know.

Each carrier has a different name for its service, though they all do roughly the same thing: wirelessly tap into the phone’s address book on a regularly set schedule to back up its contents. This backed-up data can be accessed online via each carrier’s Web site, and there, content can be typed in at a PC and pushed to the phone, a much easier option than using numeric keypads to enter names.

Verizon uses Backup Assistant, a free service as long as users are registered online at My Verizon (MyVerizon.com); otherwise it costs $1.99 a month. T-Mobile’s service (my.t-mobile.com) is also free, and works on the majority of phones currently sold by the company, but not all older models. Its service was originally called T-Mobile Address Book, but is now called Mobile Backup, the same name used by AT&T for its service (mobilebackup.att.com).

AT&T charges customers $2 a month for backup. Sprint’s backup offering (sprint.com/services) is a bit more confusing in that it has three types of service depending on your phone type: Wireless Backup is the name of its $2 monthly service that applies to a majority of the carrier’s phones; for six of its newest phones, Sprint Mobile Sync, a free service, will work; for Nextel phones, MyNextel Address Book is available, and it costs $5 a month.

Wireless synchronization occurs according to a set schedule that users can determine. Verizon backs up data daily and lets people choose between the morning, afternoon, evening or late night. AT&T lets its customers set Mobile Backup to work daily or once a week, and they can set the specific syncing time down to the minute. T-Mobile’s Mobile Backup and Sprint’s three backup services work automatically: Every time a phone’s address book changes, a sync is initiated.

Dave Klug

These syncs occur unobtrusively, and don’t require any action on the part of the user after the initial setup, nor do syncs incur any extra fees like text-messaging charges.

However, if you’re planning to switch from one carrier to another and you’d like to take your contacts with you, these carriers — unsurprisingly — don’t make it easy. Verizon suggests printing out contacts prior to disconnecting your line with them. T-Mobile says its service is exclusive to its users and doesn’t give people a way to export their data. Sprint allows users of Sprint Mobile Sync and MyNextel Address Book to export their contacts into a common type of format called a .CSV data file, which allows the data to be imported into an application like Microsoft Outlook. AT&T doesn’t currently allow exporting of contacts, but says it will enable exports to .CSV sometime this summer.

All carriers will help you synchronize your old phone’s saved address book onto a new phone — as long as you’re buying the new phone from them and your old phone was from the same carrier. Verizon will help you with this free if you use Backup Assistant; if not, they’ll charge $10 to move your contacts over from an old phone. T-Mobile and AT&T say they will move a customer’s contacts from one phone to another for free, even using older phones that weren’t originally synced to Mobile Backup. Sprint says it supports migration between phones using Wireless Backup and Sprint Mobile Sync at no additional cost.

So instead of keeping your fingers crossed that you never lose your cellphone and all the numbers stored on it, talk to your carrier about what it offers in the way of backup services. You might be pleasantly surprised to learn about a free or low-cost service that works automatically and will pay you back in spades should you need to replace your cellphone. But, if you want to make your data portable across carriers, you may be out of luck.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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