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  •   Talk Is Chic
    By Rob Pegoraro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    May 1998

    Billable Hours

    We calculated the estimates you see in the "usage scenarios" column by taking each wireless provider's published rates – exclusive of any promotions – and computing the cheapest possible way to make each set of calls. Here's the fine print:
    Light use: 30 minutes of local airtime a month, consisting of 10 outgoing calls.
    Moderate use: Three hours of local airtime (two hours off-peak, one peak) per month, consisting of 40 outgoing calls and 20 incoming calls. If airtime exceeds a particular service plan's allotted minutes, we place 2/3 of the remainder in off-peak hours and 1/3 in peak hours.
    Moderate use with East Coast Travel: The above "moderate use" airtime, plus 15 minutes of roaming airtime in the New York City area (one outgoing call in peak hours, four outgoing, off-peak calls).

    Moderate use with West Coast travel: The above "moderate use" airtime, plus 15 minutes of roaming San Francisco airtime (five outgoing calls, all off-peak).

    We assume that calls are local, last three minutes each and are placed to landline phones only. We include the 3 percent federal excise tax, plus (on some services) a small "universal service" surcharge; local taxes apply in the District and Maryland. Scenarios are based on data from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and our own guesstimates; your mileage
    may vary.

    Ask yourself this: When was the last time you were in a public place and you didn't see someone either toting or talking on a cell phone?

    The Washington area has one of the country's highest rates of cell-phone use, and not just because there are so many lawyers around here. We've benefited from some remarkable price competition since Sprint Spectrum arrived in November 1995 to break open the original wireless-service duopoly of Bell Atlantic and Cellular One; now you can see three different stores in three blocks promising to help you go wireless for less than $20 a month. Walking by their ads, it's hard not to sign up on the spot.

    Before you throw down the credit card, though, you should step back and ask yourself a few questions. Figuring out how often you'd use a wireless phone (by "wireless" we mean both traditional analog cellular and the newer digital options) is the first step in deciding which wireless service – if any – to buy into.

    "Where and when in your life do you need and want to be in contact?" says Eric Litman, who runs the Wireless Outpost Web site http://www.wirelessoutpost.com and a series of mailing lists for wireless users. "Who am I going to contact? Do I spend a lot of time in one area?"

    In short, how often will you be away from your regular home and work phones, and how often will you call other people at those times? If the answers are "not often" – say, if you have a short commute – you should probably stick to carrying enough change around for pay phones or simply (gasp!) not being reachable at times. After all, getting a wireless phone doesn't just mean getting yet another new toy to haul around, it also means yet another monthly bill you can forget to put in the mail.

    If you do want a wireless phone, the next step is to pick a system to subscribe to. Consumers in the D.C. area have seven choices: AT&T Digital PCS, Bell Atlantic Mobile's digital and analog services, Cellular One's digital and analog services, Sprint PCS and Sprint Spectrum. (An eighth option, Nextel http://www.nextel.com, is a digital service marketed toward businessfolk, with monthly price plans that start at $40, higher than the other seven services profiled here.) We profile these seven options in the charts that appear below, listing rates, coverage areas, estimates of monthly costs under various calling patterns and our reviewers' impressions.

    Of those seven wireless choices, all but two – the Bell Atlantic and Cellular One analog systems – offer all-digital or primarily digital connections. All of them work in basically the same way: A network of antennas, each from 75 to 250 feet high and no more than a few miles apart from a counterpart, transmits phone signals. When you move from one antenna's "cell" to the next, the wireless network observes that and seamlessly hands you off to the next antenna. All of them also share the two basic advantages of wireless service over landline phones: an enormous local-calling-rate area that stretches from West Virginia to the Atlantic Ocean and no extra charges for things like caller ID and call waiting.

    But while the analog systems basically reproduce the patterns of the human voice as radio waves, the digital systems encode sound as a series of ones and zeroes, in much the same way a compact disc stores music.

    (You'll also hear the abbreviation "PCS," short for "Personal Communications Service," used to describe digital services; it simply refers to a subset of digital cellular that uses a different frequency – 1900 MHz – than the 800 MHz transmissions of traditional cellular service. There's no significant difference between it and non-PCS digital cellular.) The five digital wireless systems, all relative newcomers to the D.C. area, are the ones you're most likely to hear about, thanks to digital's unchallenged status as the hot buzzword in wireless advertising. But put that hype on hold; not all of digital's alleged advantages show up in everyday use. Consider:

  • Sound quality. People like to claim digital is the way to go if you want to fool people into thinking you're calling from a landline phone. Not so. We found that, even under good conditions, digital systems often gave a telltale wispy tone to voices. Under bad conditions, the digital systems sounded more like lousy RealAudio downloads, with frequent, brief drop-outs and a harsh, metallic tone. "My experience with digital is that when it's great, it's great; when it's bad, it's terrible," said Mark Lowenstein, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston-based market research firm. Once a digital signal gets weak, "you really fall off a cliff." Another thing to keep in mind before obsessing about voice quality is that, unless you plan to use a wireless phone in a soundproof room, any minor sound glitches will be drowned out by the noises around you – traffic, pedestrians and whatnot.

  • Security. Analog phones have traditionally been vulnerable to "cloning" – theft of service by people who pick off a cell phone's number and subscriber data over the air – while digital phones lack this weakness. But many cellular providers have improved their own security with various authentication mechanisms, drastically reducing the incidence of cloning, according to Herschel Shosteck, president of a wireless-industry market research firm in Wheaton.

  • Privacy. Newt Gingrich found this out the hard way: Anybody with a radio scanner can eavesdrop on analog cellular conversations. But tune that scanner to a digital phone's transmission, and all you'll hear is the stream of ones and zeroes that makes up a digital signal. This is a real improvement. But consider this: Do you have a problem using an equally vulnerable analog cordless phone at home? Many people don't.

  • Extra features. Digital phones can receive text messages, act as pagers and even receive news updates or weather forecasts, things that are difficult, if not impossible, to do with analog phones. But many of these functions also cost extra.

  • Battery life. This is the one area where digital does wipe out analog, thanks to the ability of a digital phone's network to put it in a "sleep" mode and then wake it up for an incoming call. Where an analog phone may need to be recharged nightly, a digital phone can go for up to several days on a single charge. The other big issue in choosing between analog and digital is pricing. For light use, analog is often cheaper, but once you get into moderate-to-heavy use, digital becomes more cost-effective.

    Finally, analog phones work virtually everywhere, while digital phones often go dead once you wander too far beyond the Beltway or off the local Interstates. That's why almost all digital services today come with an analog backup network (for which you need to buy a "dual-mode" or "dual-band" phone that works on both networks). If you're on a hybrid system, watch out for "hard handoffs," in which the digital signal conks out before an analog signal can kick in.

    Here's our recommendation: If you just want a phone to keep around for safety and security purposes – in case your car breaks down, to call 911 in an emergency or to phone ahead to say you're running late for your own wedding – get an analog service. The phone will probably cost next to nothing and work essentially everywhere. But if you plan to use a wireless phone for two or more hours a month, it's hard to beat digital, if for no other reason than that the phone will spend less time chained to the nearest electrical outlet. But prepare to be unimpressed by the voice quality and realize that you'll probably have to rely on a digital service's analog backup for some time to come, especially if you head out into the countryside. Building a wireless network is an expensive, time-consuming task; each antenna that goes up requires approval by multiple government bodies, from county zoning boards to the Federal Aviation Administration. And – this one applies to both digital and analog systems—even when you think you should be able to get a signal, if too many people are already using the system, you'll be kept off the air.

    Fortunately, picking a handset is easier than choosing a wireless provider, as long as you focus on the basics, starting with battery life and size. With a digital phone, you'll want to be able to carry it around for at least three or so days between charges; you can also buy extra-life batteries, but they add bulk and weight to the phone. Smaller phones are easier to take everywhere, but can be more difficult to hold. Ease of use comes next. The best innovation we've seen in this department is the "jog dial" feature on some Sony and Qualcomm phones, which lets you spin a little thumbwheel to cycle through functions and stored numbers, then press it in to select an option or a number – something that takes much more time if you have to hit a "menu" button, then toggle "up," "down" and "ok" buttons.

    The Wireless Dimension Web site http://www.wirelessdimension.com offers more advice on phone shopping. Finally, if you're going to subscribe to a digital/analog hybrid system, get a phone that works both ways unless you're sure you'll never leave the system's digital service area. After you've dropped $100 or more on a sexy digital handset, the last thing you want to do is cough up another 35 cents to use a boring old pay phone.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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