Choosing a Wireless Phone
Friday, September 24, 1999, at 1 p.m.
Picking a wireless phone is a little tougher than, say, picking a landline phone or a cable TV provider: Do you prefer AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Cellular One, Nextel or Spring? Analog or digital? If digital, CDMA, TDMA or iDEN? Then there's the rate plans, some of which look to have been designed by the same folks who craft airline fares ("and with our Last Wednesday Option, talk for free on the fourth Wednesday of each month, except for months with five Wednesdays!").
Good afternoon everybody, hope you're enjoying the great weather while logging in on your wireless Internet connection. (I'm not, but that's just me...)
Before we start, one item of business: My column today, in which I complained about how computers are, like, unnecessarily complicated and tend to screw up people's lives... was truncated by a computer error. Fortunately, the whole text and nothin' but the text is here online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/business/ffwd/features/fflogging092499.htm.
On with the show, then...
Bethesda, MD: I am a long-time Sprint PCS customer. I haven't had a whole lot of problems with the phone, but when I have, the customer service is HORRIBLE! It is impossible to reach anyone in that company that knows what they're doing. Going to the store to speak to someone directly is just as bad. What other companies have a better record of customer service? - Todd
Jane Zweig: Sprint Spectrum is currently migrating their customers onto the Sprint PCS service. They will shut down Sprint Spectrum by the end of the year. Sprint Spectrum used a technology called GSM while Sprint PCS uses a technology called CDMA. Both are digital but require different phones. Their customer service department is probably swamped in trying to handle all that is required in migrating customers.
are there potential health effects from using a wireless phone?
Rob Pegoraro: Yes--getting run over as you carry your conversation through a don't-walk signal into K Street. But seriously... as far as health effects from the radio waves, nobody seems to have proved any harm. Cell phones have been around a while now, and we've yet to see their users dropping like flies. I'm not a health reporter, though, so don't take my word as gospel here.
Jane Zweig: CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, located in Washington, DC has done research on wireless phones and any health risks associated with using them. You might want to contact them to get a copy of their findings (and other research which has also been conducted). Their telephone number is 202 785 0081.
Arlington, VA: I hear that 800 MHz service is preferable to 1900 MHz service, because of superior building penetration. Who offers 800 MHz digital coverage?
Rob Pegoraro: AT&T, I *think.* But I'd suspect that the more important variable is, how close are you to an antenna. For instance, the Bell Atlantic analog phone I tested last year refused to work at my desk, which was only 50 feet or so from the nearest window.
Jane Zweig: The operators in Washington, DC who operate on 800 MHz are Bell Atlantic Mobile and Cellular One. Both offer analog and digital service. Bell Atlantic Mobile offers CDMA digital and analog. Cellular One offers TDMA digital and analog.
Arlington, VA: Handset prices range widely. I understand that with increasing price, you get more features and smaller size. But typically, do you get improved call quality with higher prices?
Jane Zweig: Call quality is a function of the network -- not necessarily the phone. Phones undergo stringent testing before an operator will sell them. If networks are not built out well, then the quality will sound poor.
Reston, VA: CDMA has a theoretical advantage over TDMA because of its increased congestion tolerance. Does that translate into a noticeable difference here in the DC market? -I.e., can you tell the difference between Bell Atlantic CDMA and AT&T TDMA in congested areas?-
Rob Pegoraro: Jargon alert: CDMA = Code Division Multiple Access. It puts many different callers on the air by broadcasting each call in a different encoding--the way it's been explained to me, it's sorta like carrying on a conversation in a crowded room by speaking in French while everyone else is speaking in English. TDMA = Time Division Multiple Access. Each different call gets its own timeslot, but the timeslots are shuffled so fast that you can't hear any interruption. (Jane can correct me on this.)
Jane Zweig: This is a very tricky question and one which the wireless industry has jumped on for years. In the industry we call it the "holy wars" of the technology. Once again, each of the digital technologies performs as well as the networks are built. If an operator does not have enough cell sites and has not optimized and tuned their networks properly, there will be problems. It is no small task, nor an inexpensive one, to build networks out to deliver call quality.
Hello Jane -
Rob Pegoraro: That's odd... I woulda thought the tall buildings there would present a bigger obstacle to continuous coverage.
Jane Zweig: I am not sure why the difference but I would guess that it has to do with in-building coverage. Sprint was running two networks -- Sprint Spectrum and Sprint PCS in Washington. As I mentioned earlier they are phasing out Sprint Spectrum but it did take valuable resources and money to support it. Sprint PCS has been running for less time in Washington. In New York and San Francisco they only operated Sprint PCS.
Laurel, MD: Which phone offers the loudest volume for people with hearing disabilities? I currently use a bag phone with 3 watts of power, but it's big and unwieldy and I would welcome the ability to use one of the smaller more portable phones.
Jane Zweig: Some manufacturers are very aware of this problem and have special phones or accessories which can help. You might want to check the web sites of Motorola, Nokia, and Ericsson to see if they have any products. Also, you might want to check with the CTIA (I gave their phone number earlier). They may also have some information which could help.
Just got here,
Jane Zweig: There is no research which has shown this to be a risk. Remember, that electric emissions come off of power drills, hair dryers, electric blankets, tvs, etc. Likely, this falls into the same category. But I would check with CTIA for their latest findings.
Sprint PCS has started offering wireless internet access, but what about the other carriers? Also, Sprint's current 14.4 kbps net connection includes an actual modem connection on the network end -according to their website; the connections between the computer, the phone, and the network are of course digital, but then modems link the network to the internet-. When will a fully digital connection be available?
Rob Pegoraro: Jane will know more about the first part of your connection; as for the second half, I'd think that any of these things should be able to plug into a PowerBook--it's usually a PC Card interface, right? You'd still need the right drivers, but that's only a software issue... (he typed, knowing full well what a mess "software issues" can be)
Jane Zweig: You can expect other carriers to announce similar "wireless Internet" products in 2000, with higher data speeds coming in late 2000 and 2001. But end users may be confused by the term wireless internet -- it will not deliver what end-users currently experience on landline as the connections will be slow and will not deliver the rich graphics which end users experience today on wireline. Content will also be limited.
Jane Zweig: MCI purchased Nationwide Resellers a a few years ago but did not give them the wireless pull that they hoped they would get. In the meantime, AT&T and Sprint strengthened their wireless story putting MCI further behind. They were going to purchase Nextel (actually a couple of times) but that never materialized. Wireless will be very important as operators become more than either a wireless or wireline operator but rather more of a communications company offering a full range of services to end users. They will bundle INternet,wireline, and wireless (and perhaps cable) to offer a range of services.
Providence, RI: What do you think is the most important piece of information customers should learn about providers when choosing service?
Jane Zweig: IN addition to researching price of service, customers should check the coverage maps to be sure that they will be able to use their phones wherever they need to.
Annapolis, MD: About three weeks ago I signed up with Bell Atlantic for their digital wireless service. I've been very pleased with the availability and strength of their digital signal in both my home and work-DC- areas. Now, very suddenly there are moderately long -2-3 hrs- periods of NO SERVICE or very weak signals in both areas. What's going on?
Rob Pegoraro: That's odd. Our reviewer didn't notice anything like this--he seemed to like the Bell Atlantic service better than the AT&T plan he has now.
Jane Zweig: You should contact Bell Atlantic Mobile. Perhaps some of the cell sites are not functioning as they should. I am sure their engineers would want to know about this.
I've a stationary car-phone and a hand-held? Why can't I have the same number in both? I would manage which is turned on!!
Rob Pegoraro: Good question. I know you can have calls auto-forwarded to whatever number you're at, but I don't know how easy it is to set up multiple phones as different extensions on the same line.
Jane Zweig: There is no technical reason for precluding it. It is allowed in Canada. It is not allowed in the U.S. because the network operators feared that two people would use two separate phones with the same phone number thereby avoiding paying a second monthly service charge. The carriers never recognized the convenience to a single end user of having a car phone and handheld phone with the same number.
Annapolis, MD: I have been reasonably happy with my Cell One -MCI Wireless- billing Motorola 550 Flip phone for the last 4 plus years. I have two phones and car booster kits, and don't want to buy all new except the phones are wearing out -mike flip out and bat contact. Is digital worth upgrading to if analog has been reasonable? Does anyone fix these things or just upgrade to new phones?
Rob Pegoraro: I'm sure you can get the phone fixed, but it may be like getting a VCR repaired, where the repair cost exceeds purchase costs for a brand-new unit. The ceaseless march of technology and all that--as the saying goes, "if it actually works, it's obsolete." Big benefit you're likely to see with a digital phone, BTW, is not so much call quality but battery life.
Jane Zweig: Most people upgrade the phones -- especially with the low cost of phones today. Battery life of digital phones is much better. Network operators will also be introducing more and more services over their digital networks so it might be worth considering upgrading to digital to take advantage of some of these services in the future.
It's hard to make blanket "best overall" recommendations in this area, although if you're talking about just service in the District that narrows things down. But even then, you're probably going to see different patterns of coverage in Cleveland Park vs. Palisades vs. Anacostia vs. Southwest vs. Columbia Heights vs. Brookland.
Jane Zweig: Each quarter we measure the perceived quality of reception by carrier in each of the top ten markets in the US -- Washington is one of them. In Washington, they rank as follows (these are our own independent measurements and are not meant as an endorsement of any carrier). We ask the dealers/carriers who sell phones what the quality of reception of the carriers in their market is: Bell Atlantic ranks first, followed closely by Cellular One. The other carriers follow. The reason for this is that Bell Atlantic and Cellular One have more mature networks. We are observing that over time the quality differences are getting smaller and smaller.
I have seen Nextel has a phone that has a speaker phone built into it. Granted this is an expensive handset, but seems like a great idea, especially for in car use. Yet I can't find another company whose handsets offer this feature. AM Ii missing something or why isn't this more popular.
Rob Pegoraro: Believe it or not, but your techno-geek editor does not own a cell phone. (My commute is, like, eight minutes on Metro.) I'm not away from a phone all *that* often. But if y'all want to chat, you can call me at this desk: 202/334-6394.
This is one of the features which Nextel pushes as part of their technology story. They see this as a differentiator.
One last question: With all the attention paid to heavy-use, high-end calling plans, are we likely to see any cheaper entry-level rates? Say, $15 a month instead of the $20/month minimum everybody seems to be stuck at?
Ok...I have now pulled out my crystal ball. By the end of 2000, access rates will be $10 or less. Per minute rates of all the carriers will be 5-10 cents. And Internet content -- WAP (a wireless version) will be free. All good news for end users.
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