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The 411 on choosing cellular service

January 1, 2006
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Dialing zero won't help, but here are some tips to make the right choice

Selecting a mobile phone plan is not easy. It's hard enough to choose a plan for yourself, and it becomes even more complicated when you have to make a decision for an entire agency. It seems as if cellular phone carriers make it needlessly complicated to compare one company's plan with another. That probably partially explains why wireless companies constituted the second lowest-ranked industry in a University of Michigan customer satisfaction index report (only cable television companies are disliked more).

Another reason for this complexity is that cellular phone networks in the United States still lack consistent quality and coverage, because of the country's size and a lack of investment by mobile phone companies. In the United States, per capita mobile phone use is about the same as in Jamaica, a much poorer country (57% of Americans use cell phones versus 54% of Jamaicans), but we have a lot more territory to connect. Because the major U.S. metropolitan areas already are covered, adding a small number of users in large, sparsely populated areas doesn't make the investment in expanding service cost-effective.

Ironically, the fact that infrastructure for traditional land-based phone service is so good in the United States means that our cellular service often lags behind that of poorer countries. For example, in Mexico City it can take two years to get a landline installed versus one day to obtain a cellular phone. When it comes to providing phone service, many Third-World countries have opted to skip a generation of technology and go straight to cellular.

Behavioral healthcare providers have a stake in cell phone pricing. Outpatient facilities that provide transportation services need a way to connect with drivers when emergencies or appointment cancellations force route changes. Staff providing home care might use mobile phones to stay in touch with in-office personnel, and they might use cellular technology to connect their remote laptops or PDAs with agency computer systems. And some agencies might even offer a work-related cell phone as an employee benefit. Needless to say, our world is becoming more and more dependent on quick, efficient, and mobile communication, and behavioral healthcare providers are having to choose cell phone plans with little guidance available. I hope this article can provide you with some insight.

Choosing Phones

First, let me comment on phones, since plans are often included with or somehow tied up in their purchase. Two main types of cellular technology are available: CDMA, a technology used by Sprint and Verizon, and GSM, a technology used by all the other U.S. carriers, as well as most of those in other countries. Cingular also offers TDMA, a technology similar to CDMA that it inherited when it took over AT&T, but it is being phased out. Verizon offers GSM technology in addition to CDMA.

The type of cellular technology a carrier uses relates to the types of phones available. The only other country that uses CDMA is South Korea. As a result, Sprint and Verizon offer many phones from the South Korean companies Samsung and LG. All the other carriers offer phones from a variety of manufacturers, including Motorola and Nokia, the two largest companies that make GSM phones.

Many varieties of phones are available, such as “clamshells,” which fold shut; “candy bars,” which are longer and narrower but have no protection for the screen; and PDA/phone hybrids, such as the Treo, which features a Palm organizer and cellular phone in one device. Which one you choose depends mostly on personal preference. With a clamshell you don't have to worry about scratching the screen. With a candy-bar style, you don't have to fiddle with opening it to answer a call or worry about broken hinges.

What's really important to know is that all the major mobile phone companies sell phones that are locked to work only on their own network. They do this so that you can't change carriers without buying a new phone, which they hope will discourage you from switching. However, if your service uses GSM, you can buy unlocked phones. These are phones that are not tied to any one carrier and are sold by third parties. The advantage of this approach is that if users switch from one GSM carrier to another, they need only to replace the SIM chip. It's that easy to use an existing phone with a new carrier and phone number.

Another advantage of not buying from cellular carriers is that they sometimes disable features phone manufacturers have provided. In fact, Verizon is being sued for doing this. Customers who bought the Motorola V710 from Verizon found they had to pay extra to get features, such as the ability to download photos, that were originally built into the phone.

There are other advantages to this approach, too. Having a phone locked to one carrier means you pay expensive roaming fees when traveling outside the United States. With an unlocked phone, you can buy temporary service on a foreign carrier and save a significant amount of money. For example, on a recent trip to Italy, I bought 300 minutes of service from Telecom Italia for $69. The equivalent number of minutes on T-Mobile's network would have cost $450. Enabling this service was as easy as popping in a new chip.