Calling all cellular providers; how to chose a wireless service that covers your needs – Technology Information

Heather Newman

How to choose a wireless service that covers your needs

Getting wireless phone service has never before been so cheap–or so complicated. According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the average monthly wireless bill dropped from $95 in 1988 to $44 in 1997, and some providers now offer 1,000 minutes for an astonishingly low $19.95. That’s the good news. And the bad? Keeping track of the technological advances and making sense of the different options and programs available is enough to drive any home-based worker to distraction.

To make sense of it all, we look at the various wireless service options CC, and help you locate the plan that works best for you.

Analog vs. Digital vs. PCS Analog cellular phone calls bounce off local towers and are routed through phone carriers’ normal land lines to make connections. Digital cellular calls turn your phone into a minimodem, translating your voice into a series of 1’s and 0’s and back again on the other end. And Personal Communications Services (PCS) rely on a similar digital technology that works at a higher frequency. All of this is nice to know, but none of it really matters if you don’t get a reliable service that fits your budget.

Convenience is usually a determining factor when you sign up for wireless service, but convenience means different things to different people. Analog cellular service offers you the advantage of being able to connect from almost anywhere in the country–a boon for those who travel far afield. Digital cellular and PCS are available just in limited areas, and because there is no one standard yet for digital wireless calls in the United States, you can only use networks run by companies who employ the same standard as your provider. Still, digital and PCS phones transmit data much more quickly and reliably than analog phones, and many of the new digital services-including e-mail or Web surfing using your handset–are impossible with analog technology.

“If you phone a lot and you have a need for data applications, you should probably go with digital PCS,” says Michael Petromilli, a Chicago management consultant who works with home offices. “But how soon there’s going to be a consolidation [of digital standards] is anybody’s guess.”

Once you decide on the technology that makes the most sense for you, examine the service agreement to get the right plan. Here’s a list of questions to ask before you sign up.

What are the parameters of my local calling area? Your provider should have a detailed map of its service area on hand, pointing out every nook included and every cranny that isn’t. Study it closely and be realistic about when and where you plan to use your phone. It may be worth paying an extra monthly fee for a service that covers out-of-the-way areas you frequent.

When am I allowed to talk for free, and for how long? Most service plans are based on a monthly charge for a set number of minutes. For instance, AT&T Wireless ( offers plans in increments of 30, 60,100, 120, 180, 360, 400, 930, and 1,000 minutes, with the cost per minute decreasing if you buy in bulk. Most packages charge you an extra 34 to 85 cents for each additional minute. Peak-time rates typically cost a few cents more than weekend and evening rates.

What “land line” charges will I face for placing calls to the ordinary phones? The fine print in contracts can kill you, so be aware that some companies charge more for certain types of calls. If you know your calling patterns and think you can save money by sidestepping a certain surcharge, do it. But remember that your calling patterns could change, and that many providers lock you into a 12-month contract.

What are the roaming charges for calling from outside the local area? You also need to find out if there are additional fees for using wireless service in an area the company doesn’t serve. The safest way to avoid exorbitant roaming charges is to leave your phone at home whenever you leave your calling area. These charges vary greatly from provider to provider, but if you make a 20-minute call from halfway across the country, chances are you’ll wish you hadn’t by the time the bill arrives. Making matters more complex, roaming charges vary within individual calling plans: For example, an off-peak, coast-to-coast call from an Omnipoint ( service area to your local Omnipoint calling area is 18 cents a minute; a similar call from a non-Omnipoint area is 69 cents a minute.

How long is the contract, and can I get out of it if I change my mind? Cellular providers lure you into the fold with good bargains, but there’s almost always a catch. Usually, they try to get you to commit to a long-term contract replete with charges and penalties if you break it. AT&T’s $200 cancellation charge is typical. Study the specifics before you sign up: There may be a 30-day grace period so that you can evaluate the service before committing long-term. Or maybe not.

What’s the customer service response time? Try calling the tech support numbers before you hand over your credit card information. Dan Conley, who owns seven-person Beacon Communications in Chicago, gave up on one wireless company in disgust after he had to wait on hold for two hours–just to pay his bill. “I was frustrated to the point of being homicidal,” he says.

What other services do you provide? Does the carrier offer voice or alphanumeric paging, caller ID, speed dial, and voice mail? Are the monthly rates reasonable? What happens to these features when you leave your company’s calling area–is there an additional charge? If you’ve decided to go with a digital provider, ask about e-mail retrieval and Web access and make sure to find out if these features cost extra.

COPYRIGHT 1998 CURTCO Freedom Communications

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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