You Make The Call

Looking for the best cell phone service? Lend us your ears.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the August 1998 issue of Subscribe »

If you're constantly on the go or simply can't afford to miss a call, cellular telephone service could become your greatest ally. For better or worse, it allows you to make or receive calls from virtually anywhere. Beware, however, because if you don't choose the right service for your needs, you may pay astronomical prices, endure scratchy calls, or find you can't use your phone in certain areas.

No matter where you live, you should have the choice of at least two providers, and as many as six if you live in a major metropolitan area. Virtually every provider offers two types of service: analog and digital.

Once your only cell phone option, analog phones transmit your voice over a specific radio frequency. While analog remains the most popular standard in the United States, the number of new users is steadily declining. Still, the sheer number of analog users ensures the most complete coverage and offers a good alternative for users who require nationwide roaming capability.

But analog is an aging technology with several disadvantages. For one, analog calls are often accompanied by static and intermittent fading. Analog air time also tends to be more expensive because providers can't take advantage of the compression capabilities of digital technology. Plus, analog phones are notoriously easy to eavesdrop on.

Digital service, on the other hand, is to analog service what a CD-ROM player is to your old 33-RPM record player. Digital phones offer better sound quality (though some users complain of a tinny or "underwater" sound), fewer interruptions and dropped calls, and lower air-time rates.

Digital also offers a host of enhanced features often referred to as PCS, or Personal Communications Services. The list includes integrated paging, caller ID, voice mail, faxing, short text messages, Internet connectivity and better security. Even if you don't think you'll use these features, digital service may still be the way to go, if only because most carriers are pouring their development money into digital networks and equipment.

Eric J. Adams is a freelance writer in Petaluma, California, who has contributed to a wide range of computer, business and general interest publications, including PCWorld, Macworld, Wired and The New York Times.

You Have Chosen Wisely

Sold on digital? That's great, but your choices are just beginning. Unfortunately, three incompatible digital standards exist in North America. The most popular and oldest today is TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access). The new kids on the block are CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), known as PCS-1900 in the United States.

TDMA can't compete with CDMA on the enhanced feature list, but, at least today, its service area is wider. CDMA, on the other hand, is the rising star of digital service, primarily because it offers carriers 10 to 20 times the call-handling capacity of analog systems as well as the capacity for smarter PCS features. In either case, you can dramatically increase your service coverage by purchasing a "dual-band, dual mode" digital phone. Though costlier than single-mode phones, these phones are available in both TDMA and CDMA models and will revert to analog transmission when you travel outside your digital service area.

The third digital standard, GSM, is the standard in more than 200 countries worldwide. Although GSM standards internationally and stateside are different, dual-band GSM phones (expected out late this year) will usher in the first true era of worldwide cellular service.

At Your Service

Got all that? Good, because that was the easy part. Now it's time to select a service plan. Consider the following when choosing a provider:

1. The phone. Some carriers will throw in a free phone to get you to sign a long-term contract. But if you think you'll want the latest phone with the longest battery time, you'd be better off purchasing a phone independently.

2.The contract. Speaking of long-term contracts, carriers love them, so they might also try to hook you with competitive monthly service charges. But watch out for zillions of free "off peak" minutes; as a business owner, you'll want peak-time minutes instead.

3. The monthly service fee. You'll find service charges as low as $10 and as high as $150. The difference is the number of free minutes you receive and the length of the contract. If you plan to use your phone for emergencies only, look for a low monthly fee.

4. Air time. While 100 minutes of monthly air time may sound like a lot, that's just five minutes of talk time per business day--incoming and outgoing. If you need more time, you'd be better off paying a higher monthly service fee to get more free air time.

5. Additional minutes. How much will each minute of air time cost beyond your allotted monthly air time? Those additional minutes can run as low as $.10 and as high as $.50 each. Some providers sell additional minutes in bulk--300 off-peak minutes for an additional $7.99, for example. The key is to monitor your usage. If you see lots of additional minutes piling up on your bill, it's time to adjust your monthly service plan.

Your provider should be able to walk you through the many service plans available and suggest the one that's right for you. Start with a plan that doesn't lock you in, because once you start using your cell phone, you may find that, for better or worse, you can't live without it.

What To Do?

Feeling overwhelmed by all the choices? Refer to this checklist before purchasing a cellular phone and service.

Analog or digital? Analog service is more widespread, but digital service offers better sound quality at a lower cost. Digital also offers advanced features, such as security, paging, data connectivity and even Web browsing.

Coverage area. Where can your phone be used? Is the service local, regional or national? And what additional roaming charges, if any, apply outside your local area?

Equipment. How important is size? Remember, the smaller the telephone, generally the shorter the talk time you'll have between recharges. What are the batteries' talk and air times? Can the phone operate in both analog and digital mode? Consider a recharger for your car and one for your home office.

Sound quality. Sound quality may be quite good within your service area but weaken considerably in marginal reception areas. The only way to know is to ask for a coverage map or ask current users who travel extensively.

Service contract. Look for the best combination of air time, monthly fee, additional-minute charges and contract length.

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