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Transcript

Annual Cell Phone Guide

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Monday, November 1, 2004; 2:00 PM

Fast Forward columnist Rob Pegoraro was online on Monday, Nov. 1 to discuss The Washington Post's annual cell phone guide.

A transcript of the discussion is below.

Rob Pegoraro (The Post)

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washingtonpost.com: The Post's 2004 guide to wireless phone plans is online here. Drill down to specs on specific plans: Cingular (includes AT&T Wireless), Nextel, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless.

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Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon, and welcome back to the personal-tech chat. Today's topic is wireless phone service, and it looks like I've already got enough questions to keep me tied down for quite a while. Let's get started...

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Hillsboro, IL: There are a number of small players in the cell phone industry. Won't most of the smaller companies be swallowed up and eventually we will have maybe three or four providers, like Verison, Cingular, and Sprint? Also will those companies eventually have better coverage and the result be less dead spots and cheaper rates?

Rob Pegoraro: I suspect you're right about the first theory, but maybe not the second. Companies that have just merged are likely to fill in dead zones close to urban areas, but out in the country you may not see that same kind of (warning: corporate buzzword ahead) synergy. Rates have already gotten pretty darn cheap; any more mergers could lessen competitive pressures, not increase them.

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Tampa, FL: I would like to know the least expensive (and Best) two phone, shared minutes plan available?

Currently, I have one phone from AT&T not under contract. I would like to get a phone for my wife. Neither of us would use very many minutes outside of talking with each other.

Thank you for your assistance.

Rob Pegoraro: I can't answer that--I have no idea what these carriers' coverage is like around Tampa, and that's the *first* thing you should be looking at when picking a plan.

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Georgetown, DC: I've had AT&T Wireless service for a number of years now. In the past year I switched from a standard digital to a GSM phone. Now, I'm having problems picking up a signal in places I used to be able to receive some service -- for example, inside the underground segments of the Metro system. Is this a problem with the phone? GSM service in particular? AT&T Wireless GSM service? Might this be fixed on the merger with Cingular?

Rob Pegoraro: This is one of the things I tried to address in my column--AT&T's phones, like Cingular's, are now GSM-only. That means they can't work in the subway, where older ATT phones--with analog support--could roam on Verizon's signal. The Cingular deal doesn't help you out, I'm afraid.

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Monterey, CA: Which of the cell phones currently offered by Verizon offer analog compatability too? I'm getting a lot MORE dropped calls since I "upgraded" because my newer phone does not have the capacity to use the analog network when digital isn't available.

Any suggestions welcome.

Rob Pegoraro: Not sure off the top of my head--you need to look through the fine print of each model listed at Verizon's site. Actually, it'd be easier to use the "Phone Finder" feature at a site called PhoneScoop; that lists 14 VzW phones w/ analog support.

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Washington, D.C.: Do any cell phone companies (besides Verizon) have a viable plan to make cell phones usable in the subway anytime in the near future (i.e. in the coming year)? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: In the coming year? None. Putting wiring into tunnels that are filled with trains going 40 or 50 mph 21 hours out of every day isn't a quick process. If somebody started putting in new wiring today, you might see results in 18 months.

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West Orange, NJ: I have not had much luck with Virgin mobileusa trying to determine the coverage area. Their customer service was not very helpful. Do you have any information about their coverage on the easy coast and who actually supplies that service. Sprint?

thanks much

Rob Pegoraro: Virgin Mobile resells Sprint--go to the Sprint PCS site and look up coverage there.

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Arlington, VA: Rob, I'm about to get a new cell phone to replace my old one. I want one of the slick new camera phones, but Verizon (my carrier) only offers one tri-mode camera phone, the well-reviewed Audiovox 9900. Of course, they are out of them and don't know when more will be available. I could look at other models, but it's the only tri-mode phone they offer. Perhaps I'm clinging to old-fashioned notions and shouldn't worry about being able to pick up analog signals anymore. Is there still any benefit to having a tri-mode phone or is pure digital the way to go now. I travel a bit and may occasionally find myself in rural areas. Do I still need that tri-mode capability these days?

Thanks for your advice!;

Rob Pegoraro: See the earlier comment on this. Myself, I don't find that my own phone goes into analog mode that often--but in some cases, that is the only signal, and I'd just as soon have that option.

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Washington, DC: While I enjoyed the article you wrote and the map on service strength, doesnt it also have to do in part with what phone you actually have? I used to get wretched service on my v70 with TMobile, while friends that came over had fine service. And now I get great reception on my Treo while other Sprint customers get virtually no service at my house. What role does the phone play in all this?

Also, any word on the Treo 650 being released?

Rob Pegoraro: It can play a role, true. The testing we did used phones that the carriers provided--I told 'em to give us an under-$100 phone that fairly represented what people were getting these days. I'm assuming that they would not pick an underperforming model; if anything, the results we got are probably best-case results.

Sprint will be the first carrier to sell the Treo 650--something this month at a suggested retail price of (ulp) $600.

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Silver Spring, MD: What's the best plan for me? I have two small kids and want a cel phone so I can call AAA if I have an accident. I've considered the prepaid phones for emergency only but I would like to use the phone for more than just emergencies. I could see using about 100 anytime
minutes a month.

Rob Pegoraro: First, if emergency use is a priority, you need a phone with analog support--what if you get a flat tire way out in the country?

Second, that requirement rules out the cheap $20 plan T-Mobile offers. You'd be limited to Sprint or Verizon, both of which lack plans under $30 or so. In that case, you'd be spending too much for the limited volume of calls you imagine; I'd look at Verizon's FreeUp pre-paid, or the Sprint service Virgin Mobile resells (assuming you can get an analog-capable phone through them, which may not be the case.)

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Washington, DC: When you change cellaur phone companies and take you number with you, do your old phone company still charge you a fee for changing companies while still under agreement with them?

Rob Pegoraro: If you bail on a contract before it's over, you will pay an early-termination penalty.

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Los Angeles, California: I want to upgrade my phone with one that has TDMA and Digital. I currently own a Siemens S46 which is tri-band. What would you recommed? I am currently on the AT&T soon to be Cingular network.

Rob Pegoraro: You can't get that kind of phone anymore--I don't think that eithet AT&T or Cingular sell TDMA models these days. ("TDMA," "Time Division Multiple Access," is the digital technology both carriers started out with.) You'd have to buy one on eBay, I guess.

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Hagerstown, MD: Rob,

I currently use T-Mobile because there prices are pretty good, and they have service out in Hagerstown where I live. I work in the DC area though, and I travel around the region - down in VA and other places a lot. I find that lots of times, I get no service - you have any suggestions on a service that works well out in Western, MD - ie...Hagerstown...

Rob Pegoraro: Have a look at each carrier's coverage maps for Hagerstown and western Maryland. Or if anybody lives or works around there and is online today, tell us what carrier does well in those parts.

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Washington, D.C.: I do a lot of international travel, and am interested in international wireless calling plans that won't break my budget. What options exist?

Rob Pegoraro: The cheapest option seems to be getting prepaid service overseas, unless you're overseas often enough to make getting a second calling plan there worthwhile. The roaming fees you'd pay on a U.S. plan are just too high for anything but emergency use.

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Rockville, MD: Would like to drop land line home phone and use a cell phone. Is there technology to let you share within home? Ever done an article on the pros and cons of this? thanks...

Rob Pegoraro: Cingular sells a device called FastForward (hey, where were our lawyers? :) that lets you answer incoming cell-phone calls on your home phone. We reviewed it last year.

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Fairfax, VA: Since last week we've been receiving emails from both known as well as new, unknown senders, that have the following words added before the entry in the subject box:
"X-IMail-SPAM-Connection re-1]"

Would you know what this is? Is it some sort of indicator that the email has been checked for spyware? Does it come from Norton, or Microsoft, or from an ISP?

Rob Pegoraro: Looks like the sort of thing that your Internet provider's mail server would add automatically.

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Columbia, Maryland: I have a great rate plan on AT&T's older digital TDMA service, something I hate to give up. I understand that AT&T Wireless (Now Cingular) will be phasing out TDMA. Is anyone saying when this is going to happen?

Rob Pegoraro: Already happened, as far as new phones go. TDMA was a technology bet that went wrong, and at some point Cingular will turn off the TDMA transmitters. Don't know when, however.

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Bloomington, IN: When you say that a "two year contract is required" (for Cingular), but there's no penalty for plan changes, do you mean that you can switch companies without penalty?

Rob Pegoraro: No, just that you can change plans *from that carrier* without penalty. As in, you can increase or lower your monthly allotment of minutes; the only condition in most cases is that you effectively start a new contract with each change in plan.

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Palm Bay, FL: Rob, Why didn't you list firms that offer prepaid services? I have TracFone now and am trying to decide between Liberty and Virgin for replacements. TracFone minutes cost .30+. The Nokia cell phone is just okay. I don't use the cell much so one of the plans you discuss would not be relevant.

Thank you.

Rob Pegoraro: We--er, I--decided not to list prepaid plans in any more detail than what we included because they don't make sense for most people. The numbers I've seen is that most people just aren't using their cell phones as a rarely-employed alternative to their landlines; rather, the landline is becoming the rarely-used alternative.

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Annapolis, Md.: Thanks for taking my question.

We are considering getting cell phones for our kids, and are wondering if we should go with the option of buying the cell phone and then buying minutes on phone cards.

Can you tell me the plusses and minuses?

Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Plus: You can control how much calling they do--or at least, if they want to go over the allotment, they'll have to ante up the cash themselves.

Minus: If they, y'know, start talking like teenagers, the cost-per-minute will get ugly on a prepaid plan.

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Laurel, Md.: "When The Post began its annual comparison of cellular calling plans in 1998, $40 bought a lousy 100 minutes of talk time a month. Now that same bill will provide 600 peak minutes..."

In a nutshell, that's what bothers me about the "continually falling price" of technology. You can't use it SAVE money; only to get MORE for the same price.

I don't want 600 minutes for the price of 100. I want 100 minutes for 1/6th of the old price.

Rob Pegoraro: True enough. But the time people are spending on their phones has also gone up as they've become cheaper to use--and, just as important, as the penalty to use a phone out of your home area has disappeared. This isn't like cable TV.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it possible to switch carriers without having to sign any contracts?

Rob Pegoraro: If you've outlived your current carrier's contract AND you sign up with a carrier that doesn't require one--Cingular and Sprint come to mind--you can do that. But not signing a contract almost always means paying more for the phone and, in Sprint's case, paying more each month.

I don't see the need to avoid a contract--everybody has a free trial period of at least a couple of weeks, which should be enough time for you to determine if the phone works where it needs to. And if it does pass that test, the odds are very good that the carrier will maintain that quality of service going forward. It's not a situation like Internet providers, where the company might go out of business overnight and leave its customers unplugged.

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Bethesda, MD: Just to let your audience know, ATT still sells new TDMA phones.

Rob Pegoraro: True; I was wrong in saying that none are available. Three are. BUT: only one includes analog support, and none support GSM--meaning you can't use any of the newer GSM transmittes ATT/Cingular has put up.

(Sorry about the dead air here, folks. The server ate a few of its own gears just now. I'm going to stick around late to make up for that.)

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Orlando, Florida: What is it I am overlooking in the "free nationwide radio" plans--the plans that come with nationwide cell phone coverage. It seems to good to be true. Is it?

Rob Pegoraro: Sorta--that free nationwide access is only good where the carrier has a signal (hint: if you spend a lot of time in Montana, nobody's going to make you terribly happy). Otherwise, you'll either pay for roaming or not talk at all.

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McLean, VA: I've been with AT&T for years and have finally decided to switch over to Verizon for various reasons. However, when I looked there were no phones that matched the capability of my current "smartphone." Will Verizon have any new phones before the end of the year? and will any of them provide the extra services that AT&T seems to offer with their phones?

Thanks!!

Rob Pegoraro: Unknown. Verizon rarely talks about upcoming models, and in general it takes longer than other carriers--it spends a lot of time testing out potential new phones.

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For Arlington, VA: Verizon has the LG6100, a trimode camera phone. It's new but should be in stores soon if not already.

Rob Pegoraro:
Thanks (this is a followup to an earlier query).

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Los Angeles, CA: Is there a carrier that offers a "senior rate" for cell phone service? Verizon seems to be the most reliable in my area. I've never had a cell phone, and am only interested in "voice" and ease of use, not other features.

Rob Pegoraro: Not that I know of. But I'm a little young to be answering that question :)

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Lake Ridge, VA: I have a really inexpensive Sprint monthly plan ($15) but want to replace my old phone. Until now I've been making due with my old phone because current plans are all over $30 per month. Is it possible to get a new phone and keep my no longer available monthly plan?

Rob Pegoraro: Hmm... generally, the cheapo phone prices you see require taking a new contract. You can stay on an old contract indefinitely if your phone works, but not if you buy a new phone.

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Boston, Mass: Did you use the Nextel Direct Connect feature in the trial?

Rob Pegoraro: No, we didn't put it through any special testing. We've tried it many years before, so there wouldn't be anything new to test.

(In case anybody's asking, I can't actually type this fast; I just jotted down a bunch of answers while the server was down.)

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Bluemont, Va : Rob,

From looking at the coverage maps in the Sunday paper, you would be lead to believe that Verizon has no holes in their network. If this is the case, why do our two phones (husband & mine) go in and out of digital roam (DR) all day long? My phones have been tested and passed and are less then 6 months old. I guess my question is if Verizon has 100% coverage, why am I roaming and if change my phone setting from the default to Verizon only I have no service? Thanks ROB, Great Article!!!

Rob Pegoraro: Well, that's why we had that disclaimer that ran with the maps--this is based on the carriers' own estimates, and it may not include every gap in coverage.

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Bethesda, Md.: Aren't pre-paid plans just a rip off and a penalty for not having a contract?

My teen-age daughter had a pre-paid phone which cost her three times as much as my 1-year contract with the same company.

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, that's the downside of prepaid service. If you're not disciplined in your use, you're going to pay more for a given bucket of minutes than you would with a regular contract.

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Miami, Florida: Rob,

I was curious about the taxes and other charges sections of wireless carriers' bills. My fiancee just switched to Nextel and it seems that portion of the bill can top 20%. Have there been any comparisons? What can be lumped into these charges? It seems that they neglect to tell you that this portion can substantially change the total cost of a wireless plan, and perhaps unfairly.

Rob Pegoraro: 20 percent? That seems way out of line. On my last bill, I paid $32.19 for the actual service; taxes and "regulatory charges" added up a whopping $2.65. Does Miami tax the heck out of wireless phone service?

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Oak Hill, VA: How can you say Nextel is the clear cut winner when it is so obvious that it only performs at peak levels when operating on its limited network? When you throw in the cost of that service, it is clear that Verizon or Sprint should be at that top of the list.

Rob Pegoraro: The only thing we said Nextel "won" was our coverage tests. That says nothing about overall value, monthly bills, selection of price plans, variety of phones offered or any of the other things you can consider when shopping for a phone.

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Fairfax Va: Why doesn't my Nextel phone work within the Metro system while underground? Will Nextel offer this service at some point?

Are there any carriers that do perform within the underground portions of Metro?

Rob Pegoraro: Nextel doesn't offer service underground and doesn't sell phones that can roam on Verizon's signal--just like Cingular and T-Mobile.

Based on the number of questions I've gotten so far, I think I'm going to have to add a subway test spot in next year's roundup. I really didn't think it was any secret at this point that only Verizon offers service underground--this has been true for about the last decade.

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Anaheim,CA: Hi Rob - this is a non cell phone question:

I see lots of sites trying to place cookies on my PC where the cookie site ends in 112.207.net
( eg - www.xyz.112.207.net ). Is this some way of aggregating one's browsing habits and building an individual's profile?
If so, do you know who's behind this - the www.112.207.net web page consists of only a few characters.

Love these chats.

Rob Pegoraro: No. That's an interesting question. It probably doesn't mean anything by itself--cookies are just tiny text files and can't actually perform any action on your computer.

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Grasonville, MD: Hi, I recently consolidated my family's cell phones onto my 1 plan. On the original I had loss protection. Recently, one of the phones disappeared after my son spent the night at a bar. Can I get a new phone without having to pay an outrageous sum?

I'm using Verizon Wireless.

Rob Pegoraro: Not sure. Somebody told me the other day that they'd run into a similar situation (hey, these things *will* happen), and a friendly sales rep had told them to add loss protection to their contract, then report the phone lost after some decent interval. There is that whole ethics thing, though... any suggestions for Grasonville?

As I said before, I'm sticking around for a while to make up for that time we lost, so you've got at least another 15 minutes before you're rid of me here.

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Silver Spring MD: I am having second thoughts about getting phones with Bluetooth technology. I want it, but do I really need it?

Rob Pegoraro: *Great* question. I can think of three uses that make a great case for Bluetooth, a wireless technology that's supposed to replace conventional data cables:

* Using a Bluetooth phone in a Bt-equipped car, like the new Acura TL; you can hear the caller through the car's speakers and even see the number of an incoming call on a screen in the dashboard.

* Synchronizing your computer's address book to the phone.

* Using the phone as a modem for a Bluetooth-equipped laptop.

If you don't own a Bluetooth-enabled car or computer and don't plan to, then you probably don't need Blueooth.

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Silver Spring, MD: Not sure if I'm using the right lingo here but I think I have a "tri-band" GSM phone that was suppposed to work when I was in Europe but didn't. I have a Samsung SX 426 (?) with AT+T. Was I supposed to program it some how before going?

Thanks,
John

Rob Pegoraro: I can't keep straight all the different bands out there myself--I thought tri-band was enough to allow European operation (the fourth band just expands that range a bit). Is your contract set up for overseas roaming?

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Washington, DC: I hear a lot about rollover - why can't I get that with my carrier - Verizon?

Rob Pegoraro: Ask Verizon. I do think that's a good idea, but Verizon seems to be doing well without it--in terms of continuing to draw new customers and keep its existing ones. (Verizon was the first major wireless carrier to come out in favor of wireless-number-portability--it guessed, correctly, that it would come out with more subscribers overall if people could take their cell-phone numbers with them.)

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Gaithersburg, MD: I guess it wasn't intended to be an emphasis of your guide, but I think that more attention needs to be paid to features like picture sharing and data usage. With a carrier like Verizon, for instance, you completely glossed over the pricing for picture sharing, and the data costs you mentioned were for WAP browser phones only. I use a Treo 600 on Sprint, and often have VZW users want to get the Treo 600 on VZW once they see everything it can do. But then they talk to VZW and find out that to actually using the Treo 600 for taking pictures or e-mail/web/etc will cost them a small fortune (which is why I am with Sprint... where I abuse these features under their flat-rate pricing).

Rob Pegoraro: I hear ya. The problem I ran into with Verizon was that the company offered too many price plans for me to fit them all--I could include the details on text messaging and omit those on photo messaging, or vice versa. Since more people text than send photos, plan A seemed the least unappealing compromise. Next year, I could come to the opposite conclusion, depending on where the market goes.

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Columbia, MD: Just a few responses to a few questions that didn't seem to be hit dead on.

As for the Verizon customers' problem of dropping in and out of analog and digital (and even dead spots), Verizon is constantly updating roaming capabilities on its towers, but unfortunately the phones don't update on themselves. Enter -228 and hit send, then select option 2. Verizon suggests this should be done every three months or so to update your phone.

And with the pre-paid plans, one great feature is that it doesn't require a credit check, as with most month-to-month plans do, which is great for kids and people with credit problems.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the #228 reminder. I've never had to go through this ritual, but my mom did last month. She got all the way down to D.C. from Jersey, then got lost--and realized that her Verizon phone wasn't seeing any signal. Oops. She was *thrilled* to get a free driving tour of D.C. in that way. Thrilled, I tell you.

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Arlington, VA: May be a duplicate due to the server error. But it sounds like a lot of people may be interested.

re: Prepaid

I hated being a regular AT&T customer because their customer service was so bad (billing errors), but they've been redeemed (in my eyes) by their Free-to-Go prepaid plan. Unlike other prepaid systems, there is no monthly fee or daily requirement (some require $1/day minimum). And the rate per minute is determined by the "card" you buy. Buy the biggest, $100, and nationwide minutes are only $0.15 and the card lasts a year. No other company has such a flexible plan. For someone who talks only 150 minutes a month, doesn't want a monthly fee, and needs the flexibility in case I talk more, it's perfect. Bonus - If you're already a customer you can use your phone or buy another AT&T phone from ebay.

After all my complaining about AT&T, I can't believe I'm recommending them now. But I've been really happy.

Rob Pegoraro: Glad to pass this one along...

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Fairfax, VA: I would like to mention that I didn't see coverage that verizon has just added an option to use your OnStar system to share minutes. This is a huge advantage for me, especially with the hands free rules around here.

Rob Pegoraro: Hadn't heard of this one--thanks for the tip.

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Corvallis, OR: Overall, what do you believe is the best "smart phone" for someone who wants both data and talk and why? Would this be different if someone wants a phone that also would work in Europe?

Rob Pegoraro: My current favorite remains the Treo 600 (altough I haven't tried the Treo 650 yet). If you wanted a phone that worked in Europe as well, I'd recommend Cingular's version of the Treo 600, which runs on the GSM standard deployed throughout Europe.

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Laurel, MD: Right now, I can't get a cell phone signal at home (Sprint). Is there any way to find out if I'll have the same problem with another company, before I get into a long term commitment? These days, the switching fees I have been quoted have been too high to switch more than once.

Rob Pegoraro: Yes. Everybody offers a 14- or 15-day trial, which should be more than enough time to take the phone to your home, your office and the parts in between (say, whichever grocery store aisle you call your spouse from with "do we need any ____?" questions). If the phone doesn't work in all those places, send it back and close out the contract without an early-termination fee.

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Can you hear me now? How 'bout now?: I wear hearing aids. In the past, I've just taken my hearing aids out in order to use my cellphone. However, now that I just shelled out thousands of dollars for a new set of hearing aids, I want to be able to use them with my cell phone. There's a device I paid extra for - a t-coil, or telephone switch - that allows me to use the aids with the phone, but I just get a loud brrrrrr-ing noise if I use my cell. Why aren't cellphones compatible with hearing aids? Are they ever going to be? Are there any that are? - I can't use the speaker phone all the time. Help!;

Rob Pegoraro: I thought they were--this question came up last year, and the answer was that the carriers had all agreed to sell phones compatible with digital hearing aids. Your carrier (Verizon, I take it?) should be able to point you to a model that doesn't jam your hearing aid.

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New York: What if you like a phone, in my case, the Blackberry 7100t, but don't want to use the service that carries it--here T-Mobile. Is it possible to buy an "unlinked" phone?

Rob Pegoraro: Try shopping on eBay. The carriers won't sell you an unlinked model themselves, nor will any of the ISPs that market BlackBerrys.

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Columbia, MD (again): Grasonville- With Verizon, Wireless Phone Protection does cover loss and theft, along with water damage and cause damage. Unless you have it right now, I wouldn't know how to go about adding it on to your plan (it's $4.99 a month, and there's a $50 deductible for any claim.) And usually, you will have to wait at least 30 days to make a claim. In the meantime, I would try and find a friend or family member who has an old Verizon phone, as that would cost nothing. Otherwise, I would suggest contacting where you purchased your phone, if you bought your phones at a retail store seperate from Verizon itself, as they sometimes deal with 3rd party insurance companies that can be much easier than standing in a Verizon store for an hour.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the help, Grasonville.

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DC: I'm 35 and having a hard time picking out a cell phone because they all seem to be designed for teens/20-somethings. I walked into a wireless store recently and every phone had some goofy background image or animation running in the background. One of the sales reps said you could switch the background to something plain, but couldn't seem to figure out how. For those of us who want a phone and not a tv - can you turn all the fluff off? Are there any particular phone manufactures who make it easy to simplify the screen? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, you can turn off all the flashy options and funky rings if you want. In fact, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend that everyone switch to a non-musical ringtone (if I may speak for all of my colleagues who were regularly driven batty by one writer's cellphone chiming in with "Play That Funky Music" every few minutes).

It's not always easy to get to these settings, though. Ask the salesperson in the store to show you how to do that before you buy it.

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Southwest, DC: Hello. I've had ATT wireless service for the past four years or so. About a year ago I switched to a new phone plan on ATT's GSM network and got a new phone. Previously, I had a Nokia and very rarely had problems with coverage and dropped calls. On my new plan, I got a Panasonic camera phone that did not function properly and was so bad that ATT stopped carrying it. They gave me a replacement refurbished phone (of their choice) by NEC. I still have lots of problems with dropped calls and not being able to get a signal. I've returned the phone once already for a warranty exchange and they sent another but I still have problems.

How can I tell if it's the new GSM network or the phone itself that is bad? ATT has been very uncooperative in dealing with my concerns. Short of paying early termination fees, is there anything I can do?

Thanks!;

Rob Pegoraro: The best way is to ask another AT&T GSM customer if they have problems where you do. If the company keeps giving you the phones that they couldn't sell otherwise (i.e., discontinued or refurb models)... well, there may be a reason for these phones not working too well.

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Chicago: Do you agree with what I read elsewhere, that eventually every system will use some form of GSM?

Rob Pegoraro: Disagree. That is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. Verizon and Sprint have standardized on CDMA, Nextel is married to iDEN, and neither have any really compelling reason to switch. Both GSM and CDMA are themselves evolving and converging somewhat, but I think the more important factor is this: How many people actually need--and are willing to pay--to use their phones overseas? My estimate: Not enough to justify any CDMA or iDEN carrier dumping its existing standard. It'd be cheaper to offer hybrid CDMA/GSM phones for that minority of customers.

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Chantilly, VA: Rob, I have the AT&T Regional Plan with an older digital Nokia phone. I have great coverage...I can make and receive calls where others cannot. Based on your previous answers to questions, it seems as though switching to one of the newer phones under the "Cingular" system will actually reduce my ability to receive or make calls. Would you say this is correct? My teenage son keeps after me to switch to a "cool" phone. Thank you.

Rob Pegoraro: If you want a "cool" phone you'll have to get a GSM-only model anyway--the remaining TDMA phones AT&T sells are all older models, without Bluetooth, video capability or the other allegedly-must-have features.

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Annapolis, Maryland: Hi,
I have a cell phone with Cingular wireless that with the following area code (410) 703 - XXXX . My mother calls me on her phone which is (301) 261-XXXX. She has AT & T. AT & T keeps charging her long distance when she calls me. But my Cingular plan allows me to call all over this region for the same rate. I thought when someone called a cell phone it was the cell phone user who has to pay for the call. So what is the real story?

Rob Pegoraro: No, with a cell phone both parties pay--and if the caller's plan doesn't include long distance, he/she will have to pay for that too, while the callee will only be out for airtime.

So next time, tell your mom you'll call her back on your phone.

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Miami, Florida: The taxes I spoke of earler were not state taxes. They were mainly the regulatory charges which I think Nextel is passing down to their customers in light of their upcoming 800mhz rebanding requirements. But on a 69.99 / month plan, the fees were roughly $17.00. Has anybody done any comparisons and shouldn't carriers be required to disclose their "regulatory fees" upfront?

Rob Pegoraro: Most do, but often in a vague phrase: "fees listed here do not include applicable taxes and fees, which may total $2 or more blah blah blah."

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McLean, VA: Will the AT&T-Cingular merger improve AT&T's sevice (ie., fewer dropped calls) in the D.C. metro area, especially McLean?

Rob Pegoraro: It should. Cingular customers get to use AT&T's signal for free, and vice versa--the effect should be to fill in some gaps, as we noted in our testing.

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Centreville, VA: Hi Rob,
I was dismayed to find such high marks for Nextel's coverage (even to the point of saying the Verizon took a "close second" to them). Nextel is the second-worst carrier I've used (Sprint being the worst) after having used several carriers in this area over the last 10 years or more. Example: Try driving from DC out the GW Parkway to the beltway - for most of that drive, Nextel is unusable. (That would be a much better test than standing on Roosevelt Island and making 5 calls!). I'm frequently on calls (using my headset!) as I drive home from DC to Fairfax on I-66 around 4pm, and even there Nextel calls are frequently dropped. I can tell you a number of populated areas nearby where Nextel is all but unusable (the Collonades shopping center off Rt 29 in Centreville, for example). I'll be switching to Verizon soon, and I have no doubt that the coverage will be far more reliable.

Your previous review from a few years back, which showed the green coverage maps for each carrier, was far more instructive - the horribly spotty Nextel coverage map mirrored my real-world experience very well.

Rob Pegoraro: Here's a person whose Nextel coverage does not match what we reported (FYI, we based those test sites on the reports I got in my e-mail from readers, which included a number of Nextel dead zones).

We also included each carrier's map, and if you look at Nextel's this year you'll see that it still has pretty patchy coverage outside the more built-up parts of town (for instance, western Loudoun and southern Prince William counties in Virginia).

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McLean, VA: This is more so a comment rather than a question. I think you should be aware that Verizon Wireless has been carrying "gadgety" phones for quite some time. For the past two years they have carried PDA phones such as the Kyocera 6035 and Kyocera 7135 (Both Palm OS), Samsung i700 and the Samsung i600 (Both Pocket PC), the Blackberry 6750 and the Blackberry 7750, as well as the TREO 600. So as far as the comment that was made in regards to Verizon Wireless being on the lowest tier of carriers to carry PDA phones is incorrect. They actually offer more PDA phones than any other carrier in the US. I think this statement should be corrected. Thank You!;

Rob Pegoraro: Do you remember how long Verizon took to offer the single most-desired smartphone, the Treo 600? 10 months. Some of the readers I talked to actually dumped Verizon for Sprint because they were tired of waiting.

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Lake Ridge, VA: I switched to Nextel a few months ago and have been very pleased with their signal strength. I was curious how you got your estimates for plan costs based on a phone that replaces a land line. Maybe I just don't talk to enough people, but my cell phone is my only phone and I am more than comfortable on 350 anytime minutes with free incoming calls.

Also, Nextel seems infinitely more focused on getting business contracts than individual customers. Their television commercials as well as their utilitarian phone (no color displays with fun graphics, no camera phones) seem to point to this. Any idea why?

Rob Pegoraro: I wanted to be very conservative in that landline-replacement scenario--if you got the wrong plan and then "talked over" it, you could really get nailed at the end of the month.

Why focus on business customers? They spend more and are less likely to switch carriers--think about how much paperwork that would take at the average mid-sized company.

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Washington, D.C.: Who started this wacky system of charging for minutes used in a cell phone plan? Unless you're calling long distance, that does not happen with landline residential or business service. It is the main reason I do not own a cell phone. It just seems silly to me.

My wife does have a cell phone, mostly because of the type of work she does, and after one month with AT&T, switched to Verizon because AT&T's service was so poor she could not even discern her voice mail messages for the static on the line, and about 80 percent of her calls were dropped. She was slapped with nearly a $400 early termination fee which she paid but there was no recourse for the bad service.
Shouldn't these companies be required to waive early termination fees if you report problems and they can't or won't fix it?

Rob Pegoraro: It's true that landlines and Internet access are billed on a flat-rate basis. But with cell phones, the effect of each call--in terms of network capacity and costs to connect that to another phone--is greater than with a landline phone (where, for instance, the network never has to figure out where you're at).

Everybody does offer a free trial period, but after that they regard a contract as a done deal; if you didn't like it, it was your obligation to return the phone before the trial expired. That may or may not be fair, but that's how it works now.

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Alexandria, VA: I have the same grandfathered Sprint $15 a month plan (from the old Sprint Spectrum service) as the prior chatter, and was able to upgrade to a new phone while keeping the $15 rate. I had to pay the full price of the phone, but it was well worth it.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the tip (on a question asked an hour and a half ago... gotta wrap this up in a few minutes).

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Free 2 Go: I also switched to Free 2 Go with AT+T. When we looked at how much those cheap plans were REALLY costing us per minute (average minutes used divided into final charges, including taxes), some months we were spending 35 cents a minute. Now we went from $60/month for the AT+T plan we were on to only $10/month on average. Yes, it is 25 cents a minute, but... we are spending $10 a month instead of $60. And that's huge!;

Rob Pegoraro: And here's the argument for prepaid service, if can keep a lid on your calling patterns.

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San Francisco: I'm a Mac user. I've not found a phone with a decent interface for Macs (with the possible exception of the Sony/Erickson). Also, I use Entourage as my phonebook/calendar. I'd love to have a phone that interfaces with my computer instead of having to carry around a palm.

Rob Pegoraro: Microsoft apparently offers an add-on for Entourage that lets it work with Apple's iSync software, which in turn can synchronize your address book with a decent set of phones: http://www.apple.com/isync/devices.html

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Rob Pegoraro: Whew... it's almost two hours after I started this chat, so I gotta call it a day. Thanks for all the questions, and for putting up with that unplanned break in the middle. If I missed yours, please e-mail me (rob at twp.com) and I'll try to get back to you.

Everybody remember to vote tomorrow! I'm Rob Pegoraro, and I approve of this chat.

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