Mitch Brown

Larry McDonnell

John Stratton

Choosing a Phone

Wireless Information and Service Comparisons

Corrections or additions?

This column by Douglas Dixon was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 17, 1999. All rights reserved.

Manifest Technology

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

hailing distance.

Top Of Page
Mitch Brown

"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

alphanumeric memory).

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.

Top Of Page
Larry McDonnell

"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.

Top Of Page
John Stratton

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."

Top Of Page
Choosing a Phone

Princeton Cellular & Paging, 217 Clarksville Road. 609-799-9393.

AT&T Wireless, http://www.att.com/wireless. 800-462-4463

Bell Atlantic Mobile, http://www.bam.com. 800-255-BELL

Cellular One, http://www.cellone.com. 888-877-2355

Nextel, http://www.nextel.com. 800-NEXTEL9.

Omnipoint, http://www.omnipoint.com. 888-OMNI-611.

Sprint, http://www.sprintpcs.com. 888-480-4727.

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

travel.

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.

Top Of Page
Wireless Information and Service Comparisons

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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