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Wireless Phone Service: 
    Cutting The Cord (11/1999)

    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 you can be sure that 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.

  Motorola StarTAC digital phone

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 added features such as caller ID, messaging, and even Internet access. Along with offering a wide selection of phones, the wireless carriers have continued to aggressively roll out wireless service across the country, and have introduced new pricing plans to encourage its use.

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.

"People do travel," says Larry McDonnell, Regional Director of Public Relations for Sprint. "We find customers use more minutes with the Free and Clear plan. They use the phone more and more as their primary communication device, even if they may not have cut the cord completely."

A second innovative family rate pricing plan was introduced in 1999, and expanded with major advertising campaigns under names like "Family Plan", "Add-A-Phone", "Share-A-Minute", 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.

"People are really embracing the Share-A-Minute plan," says John Stratton, President of the Philadelphia Region for Bell Atlantic Mobile. "It's our best selling plan in the five or six weeks since it was launched. It lets Mom and Dad be connected with their children. As a teen application, it lets parents put a phone in a child's hands and still control the risk by sharing minutes and providing unlimited wireless calls."

"We have seen a big trend to the Family Talk plans," agrees Mitch Brown, General Manager of Princeton Cellular & Paging in East Windsor. "The pricing is very aggressive, and it has really taken off recently. It's a neat concept, especially for parents keeping in touch with their kids."

Choosing a Service

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. And if something broke, you could just blast it with a phaser and reassemble its molecules into a nice Romulan ale.

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 the central New Jersey area alone, we are blessed with six major carriers: AT&T Wireless, Bell Atlantic Mobile, Cellular One (formerly Comcast), Nextel, Omnipoint, and Sprint. All are aggressively promoting (and pricing) digital service, and most offer a wide selection of service plans, for local, national, and family coverage. With a basic understanding of what is happening with wireless phone technology, we can make sense of these different carriers and their offerings, and see what kind of service is best for our specific needs.

Analog to Digital

In the beginning (around 1983), there was plain old analog cellular phone service. Over the years, analog service has expanded to be available in 90 to 95 percent of the United States. Carriers competed on the basis of pricing plans for monthly service and per-minute use, and with promotional deals when buying a phone. Pricing got more complicated, with peak and off-peak, day, night, and weekend rates, local and roaming regions, and separate airtime and landline charges. Carriers also offered enhanced services such as conferencing, call forwarding, call waiting, and voice mail.

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. Not only can calls be overheard on radio scanners, but thieves also can clone your phone ID information and charge calls to your service. As a result, cellular carriers now often require that you enter an extra security code when roaming outside your home region. 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 2 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, which are often bundled in with the base service plan. "Digital has more features," says McDonnell from Sprint, "and people tend to use all the features." 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 extensive roaming and long distance service, and even unlimited night and weekend service.

Dual-Mode 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. For example, while most cover major routes such as I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike, one may also cover the north-south route down the shore, while the other may cover the east-west routes from Philadelphia and Wilmington to Atlantic City.

"The disadvantage of digital is that coverage is still building in New Jersey," says McDonnell about Sprint. Digital antennas also must be located closer together, from 5 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 voice service when you roam outside the service area.

"We recommend dual-band phones for New Jersey customers," says McDonnell about Sprint, "so you still have coverage with analog service, especially when you are roaming. When you go analog, you lose the digital network features."

Digital Technology

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 local carriers in this area actually offer six different combinations of these technologies. Depending on your needs, these technology issues can be important to you, or may be incidental to some other factor in their service offerings.

- The original "analog cellular" service is available in our area from Bell Atlantic Mobile and Cellular One (formerly Comcast).

- The first "digital cellular" service broadcasts on the same 800 MHz frequency band as the original analog cellular service. The newer "digital PCS" (Personal Communications Services) service broadcasts on a higher 1900 MHz band of frequencies, and can offer higher capacity.

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.

- iDEN (Integrated Digital Enhanced Network) is a version of TDMA developed by Motorola. It supports the two-way radio feature available from Nextel.

- GSM (Global Standard for Mobile) was developed as a European standard and is used widely around the world. With GSM, subscribers also can use a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) "smart card" to transfer their user information between different phones. Omnipoint uses GSM technology.

As an older standard, TDMA is arguably 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, Director of Public Affairs for 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."

Choosing Your Carrier

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?

With this understanding, you can then compare the service offerings and special features of the different carriers. While the local carriers provide similar services, we can make more sense of the choices by first examining them in three groups: the local incumbents (Bell Atlantic and Cellular One), the national digital carriers (AT&T Wireless and Sprint), and the digital-only business carriers (Nextel and Omnipoint).

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, or may be available as a free promotion. Enhanced services may be bundled with the service, or offered as individually priced add-ons. They also offer family plans to share service among multiple phones. Many plans do require annual contracts, and have an early termination fee of around $175.

Local Incumbent Carriers: Bell Atlantic Mobile and Cellular One

Bell Atlantic Mobile (now Verizon) and Cellular One (formerly Comcast) are the "incumbent" carriers that originally provided analog service in this area, and now have added digital service as well. As a result, they offer dual-mode service for full coverage of the region, with their analog networks picking up where their digital service is not available. With their historical focus on this region, they tend to define their local service areas as centered in Philadelphia or New York, which places Mercer County is at the northern edge of the Philadelphia local region.

John Stratton of Bell Atlantic Mobile emphasizes "our commitment to quality and deployment, our vigilant approach to deployment. We have over 99% digital coverage in the tri-state region." Bell Atlantic uses the CDMA digital technology, which arguably offers technical advantages in cost, clarity and capacity. Bell Atlantic now offers a separate Internet access service for laptop users, providing unlimited access for $39.95 with a two-year contract. "We've been doing data wireless for laptops for five years," says Stratton.

Bell Atlantic tends to have an a la carte approach to enhanced services, with add-on options on some plans including numeric paging (around $3), text messaging ($5), unlimited night and weekend calling ($5), and unlimited calling to other Bell Atlantic subscribers ($10). Some Bell Atlantic plans offer the first minute free for incoming local calls, so you are not charged for quick conversations.

Cellular One, the other local incumbent carrier, is now owned by SBC Communications Inc. (Southwestern Bell), which purchased the Comcast Metrophone and Comcast Cellular One services in July 1999. SBC now offers wireless service in most of the travel corridor from Washington, DC to Boston.

Mitch Brown, General Manager of Princeton Cellular & Paging, says "we have carried Cellular One exclusively for the past ten years. They are the best in the area, and always have the most aggressive rate plan." Cellular One tends to bundle more enhanced services into their basic service, but also offers additional services on some plans such as unlimited night and weekend calling ($5), voice dialing ($4), and one number calling to multiple phones ($13).

Both local carriers offer similar calling areas centered around Philadelphia, from Delaware to Mercer County, or around New York City. Cellular One offers plans that cover all of New Jersey. The Bell Atlantic regional area extends above Boston though all of New England. The carriers continue to acquire and grow their service areas; the Bell Atlantic region also covers with parts of western Pennsylvania, the Virginias and the Carolinas.

National Digital Carriers: AT&T Wireless and Sprint

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 their nationwide focus, they stress their long distance plans with toll-free calling within the east coast region 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. Adding coverage also takes time, requiring regional licenses for the radio spectrum, local approvals for each site, and permits to construct new towers.

"AT&T Wireless has a nationwide network, and provides service coast to coast," says Kathleen Dominick. AT&T uses digital multi-network phones that can access both digital bands as well as analog service. "We offer an extended area, not roaming, through agreements with other carriers, so your digital features can follow in these areas." AT&T uses different frequencies in different areas along the east coast, and also shares service with Cellular One. The home region for your calling area depends on your calling plan, but can extend from southeast Connecticut through New Jersey.

AT&T Wireless offers a wide array of local, regional, and national service plans, including plans which bundle wireless service with your residential long distance service. The AT&T Family Plan offers unlimited calling among a group of wireless phones and a home residential number. (This plan is not currently available in some parts of our area). The Personal Network service offers bundled wireless and residential service with a personal 800 number. Enhanced digital services are bundled with the base monthly fee.

"Sprint offers all-digital nationwide service, bundling free long distance service," says Larry McDonnell. Sprint is aggressively promoting and pricing digital services on their network. Still, McDonnell recommends dual-mode phones for New Jersey customers, since Sprint's digital coverage is still growing. "We cover the major arteries and are building fast and furious, but pockets still need to be closed. We need to carefully qualify potential customers to make sure you will be satisfied with the coverage in your area."

Sprint's pricing is straightforward; it has no annual contracts, so you can change your plan to adjust to different usage patterns. However, this also means that you pay full price for the phone, since its price is not discounted into an annual plan. "You make your technology choice up front, and the phone only works on the Sprint network," says McDonnell. Most digital services are bundled into the base monthly fee; additional options include text messaging ($2 for 30 messages or $10 for 500), and an additional 500 off-peak minutes ($5).

Digital-Only Business Carriers: Nextel and Omnipoint

Nextel and Omnipoint are each developing its 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 their coverage to "rapidly expand to cover most of the Northeast, ... and eventually provide service throughout 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 requires 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.

Kathleen Dominick of AT&T Wireless points out that the Nextel radio feature is facing competition from group calling services that let you make unlimited calls among up to 50 people. AT&T also can provide international service like Omnipoint, though removable "cell cards" in special phones that can be reconfigured for international service.

Pricing the Service Plans

But, dare we ask, do you really need all this cool digital technology at all? 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: Both Bell Atlantic and Cellular One offer a base monthly rate under $20, and you often can get a big promotional discount on the phone (or even get it "free" with an extended annual contract). 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?

You can shop the current pricing and services of the four general carriers based on your travel patterns and expected usage. If you expect to use the phone only occasionally (perhaps 30 minutes a month), then select the plan that offers the lowest monthly rate. If you expect to use the phone more frequently, then compare the plans in terms of their cost per minute, which can range almost from 60 down to 8 cents per minute. If you travel out of the local region (which is different for each carrier and sometimes each plan), then consider the regional or national "one rate" plans with no long distance charges.

You should also sanity check the prices for additional minutes beyond the base plan (from 60 to 15 cents, depending on the base plan), roaming (around 50 to 60 cents), and long distance (around 30 to 15 cents). However, if you have selected the right plan, with the right minutes, and the right long distance coverage, then you should not be racking up these additional charges.

The carriers also now offer "Family Plans" to share multiple phones on one service, or to provide free calling between a group of phones. These tend to require one- or two-year annual contracts, and early termination fees.

AT&T has a "Family Plan" service, with unlimited wireless calls to your other wireless phones and your home number. The service is not shared; each phone is on a separate plan. Pricing starts at $49.99 for 400 minutes for the first phone. This plan is not currently available in parts of our region.

Bell Atlantic has an "Add A Minute" local service to share the minutes on a plan across up to four phones, and provide free local wireless calling between the phones on the plan. Pricing starts at $34.99 for 250 minutes, plus $10 for each additional phone.

Cellular One has a "Family Talk" service that shares the minutes on one plan across two to four phones, and free calls between the family members, as well as any Cellular One wireless customer. Plans start at $45 for 225 minutes, with no added cost for each additional phone.

Sprint has an "Add-A-Phone" option, which shares the minutes on a regular PCS plan across additional phones for $14.99 each.

Cutting the Cord

So, is it time for you to go wireless, and cut the cord?

"The wired line is being replaced," says John Stratton of Bell Atlantic Mobile. "The displacement is insidious; people are using the phone more, 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 phone 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 already offering Internet service directly to your wireless phone, with service starting at $10 a month, or bundled with a calling plan. This provides access to special text-only versions of Web sites designed for wireless phones, including My Yahoo, CNN news, MapQuest directions, and yellow pages.

To Find Out More

To find out more about wireless service, visit the local electronics and office supply stores like Sears, Best Buy, Radio Shack, and Staples. You can compare information on several different local carriers, and see and touch a variety of different phone styles. Several local carriers like AT&T and Bell Atlantic now have their own retail phone stores, and you can also visit independent phone stores in the local malls.

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.

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 works well for your needs, and provides good coverage in your area. You can also rent phones instead of buying to check out their capabilities and features.


Wireless Carriers

Wireless Information and Service Comparisons

Wireless Frequently Asked Questions