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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

How to Make The Right Call On Cell Plans

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page F01

Wireless phone service is one of the great bargains of the modern age. 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, plus unlimited night and weekend minutes -- about 24,000 in all, if you must know.

No other telecom service has seen this sort of ballooning value -- not Internet access, not landline phones and certainly not cable or satellite TV. But most other telecom markets don't benefit from the intense competition of the wireless industry, with five strong, nationwide carriers (down from six since Cingular's purchase of AT&T Wireless) out to eat each other's lunch.

_____Special Report_____
2004 Guide to Wireless Phone Phone Plans Compare rates and coverage for Washington, D.C., area.
When Cell Phones Go Bad
How to Make the Right Call on Service
_____Service Details_____
Cingular Wireless
Sprint PCS
Verizon Wireless
_____Direct Comparisons_____
'Real World' Costs
Fine Print
Messaging and Web Options
Reviewer's Notes
_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Rob answered reader questions on the cell phone guide.
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But wireless phone service can't be purchased on price alone -- first, you need to decide which carrier to go with, since not all offer the same service. It helps to start with the right questions.

How much time do you spend in rural areas? Any wireless carrier should be able to give you a sturdy signal in the mall or at a downtown intersection -- digital coverage has become almost ubiquitous in most metropolitan areas. But what about 30 miles out of town? What about a vacation house four hours' drive away?

This is why the first thing you should look at on a carrier's Web site is its coverage map. While these generally can't tell you about the annoying dead zones that only last half a mile on the highway, they should indicate where a carrier just doesn't have service at all.

How important is it that the phone work at all times? There's no common standard for wireless service, save the oldest technology of them all -- analog cellular. Analog is what gave cell phones a bad name: It kills a phone's battery life, sounds lousy and will run up massive roaming charges. But as the lowest common denominator, it may be available where digital service is not.

Only Sprint PCS and Verizon still offer phones that are analog-capable -- although some of their latest models are digital-only.

Do you ride Metro often? Verizon continues to be the only carrier to offer service in the underground portions of Metro. Sprint says its phones can roam on Verizon's signal, but other firms' customers are shut out -- their phones don't support analog and use a different digital technology than the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) standard that Sprint and Verizon share.

Do you want to use your phone overseas? Since Cingular and T-Mobile rely on the Global System for Mobile (GSM) standard widely deployed in Europe and Asia, their customers can use their phones overseas. But if you're not planning to make calls back home, it will be far cheaper to buy prepaid wireless service overseas.

Which carrier do your friends and family use? Many Cingular and Verizon plans include unlimited calling to other phones on the same network. Sprint sells that option for $5 a month, and Nextel's Direct Connect Walkie-Talkie service, thanks to the unlimited usage the carrier generally allows, offers a rough equivalent. In any of those cases, you can opt for a cheaper plan if the people you'll talk to most often will use the same network as you.

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