Before you buy a cell phone, you might first want to invest in a calculator and a magnifying glass.
Wireless service is one of the few telecommunications markets in the United States where competition works: Prices have dropped, service areas have expanded, and airtime allowances have gone up. But this competition has also led to some of the most complex pricing structures and fine-print service rules this side of the airline industry, as an inspection of most rate plans and coverage maps will show.
The most basic aspects of wireless service can be hard to decipher. Cingular's Web site, for instance, says a two-year contract is required (it's not), while Sprint's site omits its cheapest calling plans. And all those "buckets" of included minutes run on Wireless Standard Time: Nights start at 9 p.m., and weekends may not include holidays.
Many "nationwide" plans only cover those parts of the United States within reach of a carrier's own antennas. When your phone switches to another company's signal, the meter goes up. Providers without analog backup avoid this roaming trap but also leave vast stretches of the country without access.
And things will only get more complicated, on account of four big changes in the wireless industry.
One is the death of analog cellular. All-digital networks make your current phone better; its battery will last longer, and you'll have access to advanced features such as text messaging more often. But the industry still hasn't answered some important questions. For example, if your phone can talk only to your carrier's network, will you feel comfortable relying on it for 911 calls? When will digital phones' interference problems with hearing aids -- identified years ago -- finally be fixed?
The second change is Cingular and AT&T's switch to a new digital technology. These carriers are dumping their old TDMA setup -- short for "Time Division Multiple Access" -- in favor of GSM -- "Global System for Mobile communications," Europe and Asia's standard. (Abbreviation alert: Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, as in "Code Division Multiple Access," while Nextel runs on iDEN, or "Integrated Digital Enhanced Network.") TDMA may work in more places for a while, but GSM offers much better data service and can be used overseas.
The third change is the faster data access carriers offer via various technologies (Verizon and Sprint use 1xRTT, or "1x Radio Transmission Technology"; AT&T and T-Mobile (formerly VoiceStream) employ GPRS, or "General Packet Radio Service"). Their data services all cost quite a bit, but even voice-only users can benefit from the higher calling capacity these standards offer.
The fourth change has yet to happen. Late in July, the Federal Communications Commission set a deadline of Nov. 24, 2003, for "wireless number portability" -- letting users keep their cell-phone numbers when they switch services. But don't be surprised if carriers appeal for an extension of this oft-delayed deadline.
They say portability requires a huge amount of work and, besides, the market is already competitive enough. But a lot of that effort is already required for carriers to share pools of phone numbers.
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