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This column by Douglas Dixon was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 17, 1999. All rights reserved.
Cutting The Cord? Wireless Phone Service Offers More Features, Low Prices, & Lots of Choices.
by Douglas Dixon
Kirk to Enterprise, come in!" In the Star Trek
universe, all Captain Kirk had to do was to flip open his mobile communicator,
and he was instantly connected to his crewmates and back to his home
ship. And he never had to worry about roaming charges, or annual contracts,
or dropped calls when traveling away from major cities.
So, how close does wireless phone service in our universe come to
the future vision of Star Trek? Can we "cut the cord" like
Captain Kirk and no longer need to use phones that must be physically
plugged into the wall? Can our wireless phone really become our portable
communicator? The dramatic growth of digital wireless service, and
the recent addition of new service plan options, suggests that this
future may be today, at least for some of us.
The new crop of digital wireless phones are particularly promising
for this purpose, as they are small enough and light enough to carry
around all day. Even "big" phones are now less than eight
ounces, and the lightest are less than 4 1/2 ounces. Digital phones
also offer enhanced quality, better security, and features such as
caller ID, messaging, and even Internet access.
The original pricing plans offered a choice of fixed monthly rates
for a base number of minutes, and then charged extra for additional
minutes, and added roaming and long distance charges for calls outside
your local home region. These extra charges for actually traveling
with your mobile phone have been blown away by the new one-rate national
pricing plans introduced in the past two years. You may have seen
these advertised under names like "Free and Clear," "One
Rate," and "Single Rate." These plans are a big benefit
for frequent travelers, with a fixed rate for service anywhere in
the country, with no roaming or long distance charges. "Customers
with the Free and Clear plan use the phone more and more as their
primary communication device," says Sprint publicist Larry McDonnell,
"even if they may not have cut the cord completely."
A second innovative pricing plan has been introduced in the past months
with major advertising campaigns under names like "Family Plan,"
"Add-A-Phone," and "Family Talk." These plans pool
a group of phones together at a shared rate, and often offer free
calling within the group. This means you can buy a set of two to four
phones for your family or small business and keep everyone within
"We have seen a big trend to the Family Talk plans," says
Mitch Brown, general manager of Princeton Cellular & Paging on Clarksville
Road. "The pricing is very aggressive, and it’s a neat concept,
especially for parents keeping in touch with their kids."
The Add-A-Minute plan is "our best selling plan in the five or
six weeks since it was launched," says John Stratton, president
of the Philadelphia region for Bell Atlantic Mobile. "The displacement
of the wired line is insidious; people are talking more, and making
more calls. Analog service was only half used; people would use it
to call out, but not to be called. Now you can be reached anywhere,
anytime, so you start to give your number out to people."
With these wireless services, your digital phone can have more features
than your "home" phone, and it’s with you everywhere. With
the national and family pricing plans, your long distance charges
can be lower, and often you can get unlimited evening and weekend
service. Sprint is even offering Internet service directly to your
wireless phone, starting at $10 a month, or bundled with a calling
plan. This provides access to text-only versions of Web sites designed
for wireless phones, including My Yahoo, CNN news, MapQuest directions,
and yellow pages.
Even if one of these plans seems to make sense for you,
how do you choose a wireless carrier and service plan? In Captain
Kirk’s world, the United Federation of Planets served as a benign
monopolist like our old Ma Bell, setting standards and ensuring that
different devices worked together correctly. But in our consumer society,
things are very different. In exchange for freedom of choice, and
the resulting lower prices from competition, we are faced with a bewildering
array of options for wireless phone service.
You can choose analog or digital technology, local, regional, national,
or even global coverage, calling plans with minimum to unlimited airtime,
and advanced features like caller ID, voice mail, messaging and paging,
and even Internet data service.
In Mercer County we are blessed with six carriers: AT&T Wireless,
Bell Atlantic Mobile, Cellular One (formerly Comcast), Nextel, Omnipoint,
and Sprint. All are aggressively promoting digital service, and most
offer a wide selection of plans, for local, national, and family coverage.
In the beginning (around 1983), there was plain old analog cellular
phone service, which has expanded to be available in 90 to 95 percent
of the United States. However, analog cellular service is limited
in this digital age. Analog cellular transmits your voice as sound
waves, similar to FM radio. Like radio reception, analog service can
fade in and out, leading to dropped calls. Analog service is also
easy to intercept, as Prince Charles and Newt Gingrich discovered
to their discomfort. In addition, analog service was not designed
to support data services.
The new digital wireless services broadcast your voice as digital
data, and therefore offer higher quality (no static) and much stronger
privacy and security. Digital phones also consume less power, and
can run much longer on one battery. Depending on your phone, battery
life can range from around two hours of talk time and 80 hours of
standby time on an internal battery to around 10 hours of talk time
and 16 days of standby on an external battery.
Digital wireless service also offers a wide array of enhanced features,
often bundled in with the base service plan. These include caller
ID, call waiting/call forwarding, conference calls, voice mail,
numeric paging, text messaging, voice dialing, wireless news services,
and even Internet access. Digital phones also typically have large
memories for storing your phone list (such as a 100 to 200-number
As a result, a digital phone not only offers better service than analog,
it can also replace your pager, and receive both numeric and text
messages. Text messages can be sent though the Internet and E-mail,
or a live human operator. Some phones support a vibration alert to
notify you discreetly of a call, instead of ringing in the middle
of a meeting. With digital communications, you also do not have to
check for messages; a message waiting indicator on your phone will
inform you when you have voice mail messages.
With this array of services, including paging and voice mail, your
digital phone not only can replace your pager, but it begins to look
temptingly like the ideal candidate for your primary communications
device. The wireless carriers would be happy to sell you a plan to
support this, with roaming, long distance, and even unlimited night
and weekend service.
The major downside to digital wireless service is that it is a newer
service with several competing technologies, so it is not as widely
available as analog service. Digital service is being rolled out first
in the major cities, and then along the major suburban routes. Even
in a state as densely populated as New Jersey, different carriers
with different technologies have significantly different digital coverage.
"The disadvantage of digital is that coverage is still building
in New Jersey," says McDonnell of Sprint. Digital antennas also
must be located closer together, from five miles apart down to one
mile in dense areas like New York City. Antennas may also be placed
closer together to offer more capacity in crowded areas. So do not
expect full digital coverage in the Pine Barrens.
As a result, many digital phones are "dual-mode," and support
both digital and analog service. They provide the full range of digital
services while you are within the digital coverage area, and then
switch to analog when you roam outside the service area.
"We recommend dual-band phones for New Jersey customers,"
says McDonnell of Sprint, "so you still have coverage with analog
service, especially when you are roaming. When you go analog, you
lose the digital network features."
To further confuse the picture, there are two bands of digital broadcast
frequencies, and four different types of digital networking technologies
used on those bands. For various historical and technical reasons,
the six carriers in this area actually offer six different combinations
of these technologies. And within the allocated band, digital services
also use different networking technologies to squeeze multiple calls
into the same frequency range:
TDMA and CDMA are the competing standards used by most of the carriers.
TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) shares the same frequency with
separate time slots. The more recent CDMA (Code Division Multiple
Access) shares the same frequency with digital codes.
As an older standard, TDMA is more widely deployed and better understood
than CDMA. In our area, AT&T Wireless and Cellular One use TDMA technology.
"TDMA is thoroughly tested, and successful," says Kathleen
Dominick of AT&T Wireless.
As a newer technology, CDMA is arguably more robust and offers higher
capacity than TDMA. In our area, Bell Atlantic Mobile and Sprint use
CDMA technology. "Our testing with CDMA found the capacity to
be substantially better," says John Stratton of Bell Atlantic
Mobile. "It offers significant advantages, the voice quality is
better, and CDMA is the base of the developing third generation standards."
Bell Atlantic now offers a separate Internet access service for laptop
users, providing unlimited access for $39.95 with a two-year contract.
Given all these choices, how do you go about selecting
a carrier? The first step is to decide how and where you want to use
a wireless phone. Do you plan to use it only occasionally, or as your
main communications device? Do you need any enhanced features? Will
you be using it primarily in your local area, or on the northeast
seaboard, or nationally? Do you travel primarily to major cities,
or will you need it in central Pennsylvania or upstate New York?
AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Cellular One, and Sprint offer the same kinds
of basic digital service options. They each offer a basic digital
service for around $25 a month for around 100 minutes and 30 cents
for additional minutes. They also offer regional or national "one
rate" service without roaming or long distance charges. Unlimited
night and weekend service may be an extra-price option for around
$5. Many plans do require annual contracts, and have an early termination
fee of around $175.
Bell Atlantic Mobile and Cellular One are the "incumbent"
carriers that originally provided analog service in this area, and
now have added digital service. As a result, they offer dual-mode
service for full coverage of the region, with their analog networks
picking up where digital is not available.
"We have carried Cellular One exclusively for the past 10 years,"
says Mitch Brown of Princeton Cellular & Paging. "They are the
best in the area, and always have the most aggressive rate plan."
AT&T Wireless and Sprint are focused on building nationwide digital
networks. With their digital focus, they tend to bundle enhanced digital
services into their base service. With a nationwide focus, they stress
toll-free calling within the east coast or the entire country. Since
their networks are still being built, they also require dual-mode
phones to provide coverage in other areas, and do not have the extensive
local coverage of the incumbent carriers. But adding coverage also
takes time, requiring licenses for the radio spectrum, approvals for
each site, and permits to construct towers.
Nextel and Omnipoint are each developing their own all-digital national
network using unique digital technology to provide special features
intended for business use. These carriers use digital-only custom
phones, with no analog roaming capability.
Nextel uses the iDEN technology to provide the "Direct Connect"
service, a two-way radio service for instant communication with a
group of co-workers. Nextel offers custom phones with this radio feature,
which "lets you speak to up to 100 of your co-workers at the touch
of a button." Nationally, Nextel claims to provide service in
"hundreds of major cities," and "92 of the top 100 markets."
Omnipoint uses the GSM technology, which is widely used internationally.
As a result, Omnipoint can go beyond local and national service plans
to offer global roaming service. Omnipoint is still growing its system
to cover most of the Northeast, and eventually most of the United
States. Omnipoint also provides service through roaming partners in
2,500 major cities throughout the U.S. and Canada."
However, the use of these different technologies require that these
companies each build their own custom nationwide network in order
to provide all their digital services. At this time, their coverage
areas resemble star patterns centered around the major cities, and
then stretching out along the major highways between them.
If you only need a phone for occasional use, or just to sit in your
car as insurance for emergency use, then just choose analog service.
Both the service and the phones are simpler and less expensive: Your
phone should work almost anywhere in the U.S., although you may sacrifice
some quality and reliability in areas with marginal analog reception.
And if the phone is sitting in your car, who needs the fancy digital
services like paging or voice mail anyway?
But if you are a true road warrior, you should shop the current pricing
and services of the four general carriers based on your travel patterns
and expected usage. And, because the wireless terrain is changing
so rapidly, you should check back with your provider periodically
to make sure you have the best available plan.
"We spend time with people to find the best plan that works for
them," says Brown of Princeton Cellular and Paging. Still, he recommends
that people "call back in six months to a year to see what new
plans are available."
Finally, check out the return policy so you can take a phone home
and use it for a trial period to make sure that it provides good coverage
in your area. You can also rent phones instead of buying to check
out their capabilities and features. McDonnell of Sprint describes
his company’s digital coverage in terms that might apply to the entire
industry: "We are building fast and furious," he says. "But
pockets still need to be closed."
The carriers also have toll-free information numbers, as well as extensive
Web sites with pricing information on their plans, information on
compatible phones, and even special offers.
As you compare each carrier’s service offerings, check for good coverage
in your entire local area. For a regional service plan, also check
the coverage area to match against the cities and routes where you
As you compare the prices of the different plans, also check the bundled
digital features against your needs. For example, do you really need
text messaging, or can you get by with only numeric paging?
Also consider what kind of phone you need. Can you make do with a
basic $69 phone that weighs 8 oz., or do you want a tiny 4 oz. phone
for $300 that can slide into your pocket? Do you need a vibrating
phone for discrete alerts? Do you need a larger three-line display
for text messages or Internet connectivity?
And keep your eyes open for special promotional offers. You may be
able to get a discount on a phone, or on a second phone, or free additional
options like night and weekend calling.
Wireless Advisor, http://www.wirelessadvisor.com;
http://www.Point.com Cellular Information,
Wireless Frequently Asked Questions: http://www.wirelessadvisor.com/wireless_faq.cfm
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