Buy? Cell?

Do your homework before choosing a plan.
This story first appeared in the April 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Dropped calls, coverage gaps, billing complaints-these are regular features of cell phone use. J.D. Power and Associates found that 59 percent of subscribers experienced service problems in 2001, up 6 percent since 2000. So how can you avoid weak networks?

Start by contacting local businesspeople with cell phone usage and travel patterns similar to your own. hosts discussion groups where entrepreneurs post comments on service quality in their areas.

Word-of-mouth is essential, says Kirk Parsons, wireless services director for J.D. Power in Westport, Connecticut, because call quality and customer service varies by market area. Parsons' research found that six providers shared the highest customer satisfaction ratings across 26 major markets: ALLTEL, AT&T, Cingular, Sprint, Verizon and VoiceStream. That's a good start on a shopping list.

Then examine pricing plans and features. helps by listing small-business service plans by ZIP code. will let you compare up to five plans on the same screen, although you'll have trouble finding info on small markets like Penobscot, Maine. You can find every FCC-licensed service provider for each ZIP code on, but you'll have to assemble plan features by visiting each provider's Web site. Yes, smart shopping is time-consuming, but it's well worth the effort in the end.

Erik P. Nelson, a freelance writer living in San Francisco, has written for Profit and M-Business magazines.

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