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Choosing A Cell Phone Provider

When it comes to picking a cell phone carrier, your neighbors are your best source of info.

The one question you have when it comes to cell phones is, Which carrier should I sign up with? As a wireless expert, I get asked that question all the time-and I'll tell you the answer, but before I do, understand that as I write this, on my desk are an AT&T cell phone, a Verizon wireless phone and a Sprint PCS wireless phone. They are there for one simple reason: I am conducting an experiment to find out who offers the best cell phone service.

Cell phones, as you know, remain maddening tools. Today I called my girlfriend in Santa Rosa, California, a few miles away, on my Verizon phone, and the signal broke off just as she answered. Yesterday I called a friend in Los Angeles on the AT&T phone, and within three minutes, the signal snapped. The day before, I'd called my sister in New Jersey on the Sprint phone, and the same thing happened.

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No, it's not you. The real problem is that the industry is still building out its network, and there are simply lots of kinks.

Which bring us back to your question: What carrier deserves your allegiance? If you really want to know the answer, ask your neighbors. Don't ask experts like me, don't believe phone company advertising, and definitely don't believe the sales spiels in the cell phone stores. It's easy enough for experts to gather up data about numbers of subscribers, the percent of the country each carrier covers and so forth, but at day's end, all that matters is the quality of the signal where you are. I could tell you that in most ways, I believe AT&T wireless is the best, with the most reliable signal, but what if that's true only of southwest Santa Rosa?

When you talk to your neighbors, ask what carriers they use, where signals are dropped and at what times of day, and so forth. And do note, system performance varies greatly with time of day. In hilly San Francisco, which I visit often, cell phone performance is notoriously bad, but it's unspeakably awful around 6 p.m. on Friday. Place a call Saturday at 9 a.m., however, and usually it's a great signal, even in San Francisco.

Make a checklist: where will you make most of your calls? At what time of day? Know how you will use your phone, and from there, it's easy to quiz your neighbors. That's the big secret that will let you pick your ideal carrier. Happy calling!


Robert McGarvey is the author of How to Dotcom(Entrepreneur Press).

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