MINNEAPOLIS -- I'm a more or less typical cellular-phone user, assuming such a person exists. You've seen me -- and a thousand others of my ilk -- around town. There I am: pacing to and fro, speaking animatedly with some unseen party.
But what you don't know is this: The red-cased Nokia on my belt clip is my only phone -- home, office or whatever.
It's been just about a year since I cut the wires confining my availability to the land-based telephone system. Sure, I've had to keep a regular line so I can hook up my computer at home to an Internet service provider, but it's an unlisted number that gets no incoming calls and I only rarely use that line for an outgoing call. I'm all but 100 percent wireless.
Having just a cell phone in your hand is not perfect -- someday it may be, I suppose -- but I remain infatuated with it nonetheless. Despite a few glitches and some pricing issues, it's a decision I've not regretted for a minute of air time.
A single phone number with AT&T's Digital One Rate has lowered my total monthly phone costs slightly. But the savings I've realized in time and convenience would justify even higher operating costs.
Those who need to call me find my new system a boon, too. No longer is it necessary for me to launch into that monotonous listing of phone numbers frequently heard when people request a phone contact. One number fits all. As I typically have my cell at hand, callers also find me reachable more frequently on the first try. That means more phone calls completed successfully and correspondingly fewer voice-mail messages and call-backs.
I'm a guy who's on the road a lot, so 12 months of cell phone-only experience has involved calling in most regions of the United States. Since initiating service in March 1999, I've traveled in or through 25 states, much of it by car. Those travels have ranged from Southern California to eastern Massachusetts and from west Texas to northeastern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan -- and that's not counting the District of Columbia, our nation's capital.
And further, my phone use hasn't been restricted to the usual metro areas. Yes, over the past year, I made multiple-day visits to cities such as San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta and New York. But I also used my phone in Red Cloud, Neb.; Magnolia, Ark.; and Ellenton, Fla. -- and many road miles in between.
An incident in January was typical of difficulties that can and do arise, though. I arrived at the Northwest Airlines counter in Boston's Logan Airport at 5:12 a.m. My flight, scheduled to depart at 6, had been canceled; I had been re-booked to leave at 8:15. The cancellation was bad enough but because no one had called to inform me, I had missed out on a couple of hours of beauty sleep. I was a little frustrated.
Why hadn't someone called me? After some preliminary low-wattage answers, it turned out that my 612 area code had been interpreted as a Minneapolis phone, so I'd been scratched off the passenger list as ''unreachable.'' In the cellular world, though, a nominal area code of 612 doesn't indicate where I, or my phone, is actually located on a given day. In an attempt to be helpful, the Northwest representative suggested identifying my contact number as a cell phone -- but, of course, airline computer systems can't do that. In another small way, the world isn't quite ready for my single phone number.
The arrival of nationwide cell-phone calling plans in 1998 appealed to me from the get-go. The notion of a single phone operable anywhere in the United States and charged on a flat-rate basis (no roaming charges) appeared to offer what I need. At the time, too, I was about to relocate from New Mexico to Minnesota, so opportunity was knocking: cancel my local US West number in Albuquerque and start afresh. This I did in the first week of March 1999, as I drove east out of Albuquerque through Tijeras Pass, accompanied by a still-in-its-box Nokia 5160.
AT&T's plan is available at four levels of expected usage: from a low of $59.99 for up to 300 minutes per month to a ceiling of $149.99 for 1,400 minutes. The level chosen can be changed from month to month. For most of my first Digital One Rate year, I have elected the highest level: It is, after all, my only phone. There are no roaming charges within the 50 states, although calls to directory assistance are 75 cents each and minutes above the chosen maximum usage are billed at 25 cents per minute (35 cents for the 300-minute level).
Nevertheless, the flat-rate feature of the plan from AT&T (and the comparable plans from Sprint PCS) is enough to catch the attention of anyone who's often out of his or her local service region. While AT&T's cellular network isn't itself nearly national, it is able -- by means of a variety of licensing agreements with other providers in areas it does not serve directly -- to provide a more or less seamless service across the continental United States. Service is available to virtually all places of any size (7,000 of them) and most interstitial areas. My Nokia (as with many phones today) is a hybrid that operates either in digital or analog mode, depending on where it is.
There are two real issues when it comes to assessing AT&T's Digital One Rate plan over an extended period. Does it work as advertised? How do actual costs of using it compare with expectations -- and with previous phone bills?
For a year, this phone and the One Rate service have performed to my satisfaction. From the vantage point of acoustic quality, network accessibility and reliability, I would not consider returning to a conventional phone. My phone has worked very well since the day I put it in use.
Some minor qualifications are in order, though. If, say, 99.8 percent of land-based calls are absent technical problems -- that is, you don't get cut off from your party, there are no weird echoes on the line, people can hear you when you can them and so on -- then a corresponding number for my cell phone calls might be 95 or 96 percent. More bad things happen to calls of mine than would be the case were I exclusively using land lines. But for me, the rate of problems remains at a tolerable level.
While accessibility of the phone network may not be perfect, I rate it high. This aspect of cellular use appears to be the one we hear more whining about than any other -- but for me it's not a showstopper. More than anything, it seems to be a function of where you are most of the time. Getting into the system is more difficult, in my experience, in specific metropolitan areas at busy times of day -- examples for me have included Washington, D.C., Scottsdale, Ariz., as well as San Francisco -- than in others. Even though I am away a considerable amount, I do not generally encounter network access difficulties in my hometown of Minneapolis.
Then there are towns like Wayland, Mass., where I can never count on making or receiving a call by cell phone unless it's the absolute dead of night. Residents in that suburb 15 miles west of Boston have resisted (on aesthetic grounds, apparently) efforts to build signal-handling towers and improve other facilities. I stayed with friends there twice during 1999 and both times I was forced simply to give up and negotiate time-sharing on their regular home phone. At least it provided a dial tone.
So-called dead spots (my phone displays ''No Service'' on its LED screen) are an issue, too. These exist in the local geography of any area and the cellular companies constantly try to minimize or eliminate them. But results are still uneven and, for some users, annoying. But the bottom line for me has been that when I cannot gain access, or the cellular signal is too weak in a particular area, I am no worse off than I was before -- I just have to scout up a pay phone or some other phone that I can use.
The calculus of cell-phone-as-only-phone costs is a subtler, more complex issue. My estimation is that others acquiring phones on similar flat-rate plans would experience levels of quality, access and reliability comparable to those I've described. Not so on the money side: It's easy to imagine costs varying radically from one user to another.
I'm always poring over my monthly cellular bill -- much more carefully than I have traditionally with my previous phone accounts. It invariably contains a surprise or two.
Toward the end of last March, I drove across a section of southern Canada for a few hours, skirting the southern edge of Lake Ontario from Niagara Falls to Sarnia, where I re-entered the United States at Port Huron, Mich. As an experiment, I tried calling my daughter Sara at her office in Boston, just to see if my phone worked north of the border. The signal was strong and clear, Sara was at her desk and we talked for nearly half an hour. It was a terrific experience until I found myself paying $22.83 for those innocent 29 minutes. Another lesson learned. (AT&T does offer Canadian access under its One Rate plan for an additional $19.99 per month, something of which I was unaware at the time. You would need to be traveling in -- or calling to and from -- Canada regularly to make the additional charge worthwhile, though.)
Overall, my telephone costs for 1999 were about 5 percent lower than they were in 1998. The single most important factor in that saving was the sharply reduced number of credit-card calls I needed to make when traveling. This is a convenience directly associated with the cell phone -- and one that's hard to over-value. Those calls used to really add up for me; now they're practically nonexistent. And any time I recall peering through my car's windshield in an Upper Midwest snowstorm in search of a working pay phone, it makes me appreciate cellular technology and its contribution to my quality of life.
I tend to initiate and receive a fair number of calls, but most of my conversations are on the shorter side. The majority are less than two minutes, and 30-minute chitchats are unusual for me. This is not the case with everyone, of course.
A limit of 1,400 minutes per month breaks down to roughly 45 minutes of daily air time. As most everyday users know well, those 45 minutes include both outgoing and incoming calls and they really aren't all that much if you're relying on them for 100 percent of your phone usage. Calls lasting fractional parts of minutes are rounded up to the next full minute of air time, also.
The 1,400-minute ceiling has amounted to the greatest shortcoming for me. It's hard to avoid exceeding the dread limit in a given month -- and those 25 cents-per-minute charges for calls, once the limit is exceeded, accumulate like wire hangers in a closet. Thus, a total of 1,600 minutes of call time translates to an extra $50 on my next month's bill.
When I'm home, I am acutely aware that if I make a local or toll-free call on my computer dial-up line, it won't cost anything, vs. ''using up'' valuable One Rate minutes. In addition, if I am sure to be over the 1,400-minute ceiling for a given month, then even long-distance calls from my computer line can save me: 7 cents per minute (AT&T Personal Network rate) vs. that 25 cents when the One Rate limit is exceeded. The reverse is true, too: If I believe I'm over my limit but I'm not, then I'm paying 7 cents per minute for calls that would otherwise involve no additional charge under my plan. My own monthly average has been creeping and I've been over my limit four times already.
Bottom line: A person using these kinds of flat-rate calling plans should not need to be conscious of cost issues when he or she goes to make a phone call. I'm looking forward to a revised upper-level limit of, say 1,800, 2,000 or even 2,500 minutes. It will happen, of course -- competitive pressures on rates are intense -- but for many users sooner would be better than later.
Other shortcomings of going with cellular as my only phone
-- My cell phone number does not appear on any directory assistance lists.
-- There is no such thing as a cellular phone information number to call and local operating companies (for example, US West or Bell Atlantic) will not always list a cell phone number -- and if they do, they charge extra.
-- Most cellular users pay for calls received: thus many prefer not to have their numbers publicly available to marketers or others.
So, in my world, flat rate, nationwide cellular service has proven itself ready for prime time after a year of diverse, day-to-day use. But the wider universe is still busy preparing itself -- or not preparing itself.
Last month an office building opened here in Minneapolis. Something of an architectural showplace, its attractive copper sheathing supplies a striking, high-tech appearance. The day the building opened, though, no one could send or receive a cellular phone call-or even use a pager-from within its walls. Such is 21st century technology.
Casey, former director of computer-assisted reporting for The Post, lives in Minneapolis.
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