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Cell Phone Plans
by Tom Farley

Buying a cell phone on-line saves you from the pressure, the waiting, and the attitude of your local wireless store. No more having to make an instant decision, as the clerk recites your options and confuses you with the latest string of rebates, limited time offers, and special deals. On-line shopping lets you compare plans and phones at your own speed and, best of all, permits you to quit the process at any time if you find it too overwhelming.

Phones? I've been happy with Motorola, Ericsson, and Nokia models; I'm not sure one is better than another. Most dealers supply you with tons of information on each phone, so much so that you might get overwhelmed. An important point here: the best mobile will not help you if your carrier or coverage is bad. Handhelds have the least power output, car units deliver the most. But more power does not guarantee a better connection. It depends on the situation.

Coverage? I think AT&T Wireless has the best overall coverage, although that may not hold true in your area. A national survey listing, say, AT&T as the best provider, may not be the case in your city or county. The 2003 wireless survey from Consumers' Report was summarized by the News Tribune like this:

"The magazine said a survey of 21,944 subscribers found numerous complaints of dead zones, busy signals and dropped calls. It compared service in six cities -- New York, Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- and found that Verizon Wireless led the ratings in each."

"Wilinsky, of Sprint, which finished last in four of the cities, said the results are old news, especially for Sprint."

Without argument, know that NEXTEL will have the poorest overall coverage. Their strength is in big cities, not out in the country. Or even slightly out of town. NEXTEL still has the best push to talk feature, but this is different from coverage.

Cell Phone Plans, a longer introduction

Despite the many choices and confusion, I think you can really make a more informed decision on line than over a sales counter. Count on at least twenty minutes, possibly more, to go through der prozess on-line if you really want to research your options.

I said that buying a cell phone on-line saves you from the pressure, the waiting, and the attitude of your local wireless store. Does that mean then that on-line shopping is less confusing than in a store? Not necessarily. It's quicker than going from store to store in your hometown, certainly, but not less confusing.

Every cellular outlet places their highest priced service first, hides their lowest priced offering, and arranges plans in such a way that it is impossible to easily compare one carriers' plans against another. I think this is a deliberate practice, a sleazy way to sell a good technology. But buying on line does permit you to easily compare the different plans of a single carrier. Again, I recommend AT&T Wireless, possibly Sprint, so you can start there. Speaking of plans, I've noticed a few things about them.

You can't determine your true cost per month by looking only at the plan rate. You need to add the cost of your phone to your contract cost. Higher priced plans might include a phone for free or at a reduced cost so it's possible those plans will be cheaper than they might first appear. Lower priced plans usually make you buy a phone, so your actual cellular bill will be higher than you first thought. Oh, add shipping and handling charges, too, although you may not pay state sales tax so this could be a wash. Now, what are you really buying a phone for?

Safety. That's the number one reason, right behind convenience, that most people buy cell phones, so they can call out in an emergency. That's why I recommend AT&T Wreless, I think their network covers more area than any other carrier. Still, I am guessing that 40% of the country, geographically speaking, does not have any cellular coverage at all. And within those covered areas are always dead spots. What to do?

Short of recommending an impossibly priced satellite phone, if you regularly travel through rural areas you might consider, in addition to a cell phone, a C.B. radio or a two meter ham radio. You need a amateur radio license for the ham radio, and you can't use it for business, but those are your options.

I don't mean to be downbeat about cellular, it's wonderful technology, but a connection isn't possible in all locations and marketing people oversell it. Still, many of the new features are great fun and you should see if they work well for you.

Just what do all these abbreviations mean?

Now, as to the all the terminology and different names that go with cellular, GSM, TDMA, CDMA, well, it's fairly simple. There's really only three main operating systems in the United States. Some carriers own different systems in different cities so it may be confusing. But if an American carrier uses these words or phrases, then you have one of these technologies, look up their names in the search engine at the top of the page to see what I have written about them:

a) If your phone has a "SIM or smart card" or memory chip it is using GSM. This system is fully digital and has the greatest number of customers in the world.

b) If your phone uses CDMA the technology is IS-95. It's spread spectrum. Qualcomm is behind it and Sprint has used it for their nationwide network. The network is getting better every year;

c) If the carrier doesn't mention either word above, or if it says it uses TDMA, or just calls it TDMA, then they are using IS-136, conventional but advanced digital cellular that evolved out of the first analog systems. It's an AT&T technology used by them and many others;

d) And iDEN is, well, iDEN, a proprietary operating system built by Motorola (external link) that, among others, NEXTEL uses. iDEN phones are cellular telephones along with a business radio feature, a point to point service that acts like an extended walkie talkie.

p.s. One last thing! -- prepaid cellular. Sounds like a good idea and it should be. You buy minutes of cellular time in advance, so you don't have to pay a monthly fee. Those are expensive minutes but you are only calling in an emergency. Unlike a pre-paid telephone card, however, pre-paid cellular demands that you use your minutes up within a short time, usually two to three months. Then those minutes are lost and you have to buy another expensive phone card. It's a true rip-off, something the industry should not do. But they do it anyway. So investigate this option carefully, to see how long those minutes actually last . . .

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Cell Phone Plans, Corporate and Global

If your employees travel across the globe then I would say no to AT&T's IS-136 technology and yes to GSM. Only GSM lets you roam to other countries with the same mobile you have in the States. Beats renting a phone in each country you come to. To back up such a decision you can go here for all the stats and info: (external link)

GSM leaves you a very clear choice since you eliminate AT&T and Sprint PCS. Now, not to confuse you, but AT&T does plan to convert to GSM later on. Sometime. Probably in a year or two, good luck, but can we make plans based on this? I say no. If you look at the GSM web site they list all the countries and participating carriers in those countries that use this technology: (external link)

Cellular Carriers and Plans

To select a GSM carrier in the states I would argue for Voicestream if you live in the Midwest and Northeast or Cingular if you are in the West. That's because no GSM carrier is nationwide in the United States. Either lets you roam from one area to the next, although, of course, at a higher rate for that roaming. And they can even fashion a nation wide rate plan, although they don't cover the country by themselves. What you are buying instead is a higher priced plan with roaming charges figured in. Since European and American GSM frequencies are different you'll need a two-band phone.

I don't know of any papers or web sites comparing carriers and plans for businesses. The main problem is that plans are always changing, sometimes month to month. And, as I've said, everything is up for bid. What do do? Talk to the carrier, not a reseller, and get a proposal in writing. Make sure each vendor is bidding on the requirements, so you can easily and fairly compare their prices. And the only way to get comparable bids is to draft and then to submit to them a uniform request for proposal or RFP.

The most important thing to include in the RFP is a list of the states, counties, or countries you need service for. And then make sure they supply coverage maps when they bid. By the way, do you an RFP? Here's a completely bloated but very inclusive RFP from the University of California system. You'll need to tailor it, of course, but it is a start. (Make sure your legal department checks whatever you send out!) It's about a 319K download in Microsoft Word format. Click on the link below:

UC Cellular communications RFP in Word (.doc)

Finding out more

Find out more information on cellular and cellular carriers on the USENET:

That link now goes to Google. Same thing. Look for information on international roaming, Voicestream, GSM, or corporate wireless plans within the many telecom discussion groups. Or post your own questions to like minded people. There's a huge wireless community on the USENET and it is a great resource. True, there is a great deal of noise.

Sat phones?

One last thing. If you are really international, with people scattered in remote locations, you might need a passel of sat phones in your portfolio. No cellular radio coverage required, you just need to be outside under open sky. Units are usually a heavy handheld or briefcase model. Buy extra batteries and have a way to recharge them. The satellite telephone company that is the most stable but least well known to lay people is Inmarsat. They've been around for decades and the products and services they sell work.

Nice URL, eh? I see some writing on their home page comparing their per-minute costs to cellular international roaming charges. They say in some cases that they are cheaper. Interesting. But those sat phones are really expensive when first bought. Make sure your comparisons include include phone charges and per minute costs.

For more information on the telecom industry as well as insights please visit Tom Farley's website below.  He is an expert in the field and you'll enjoy his site. West Sacramento, California, USA. A Tom Farley production


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