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Cell Esteem

A few months ago, I said we'd be doing a guide to cell-phone service--resuming what was once a yearly tradition in these parts. The results appear today, in the form of my column and the accompanying chart comparing the offerings of the five nationwide carriers: AT&T, Nextel and Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.

(And, by way of comparison, here's the overview of wireless-phone service we did in 2005.)

Have a look at what we've put together this time, and if you have any questions about the work, post them here. In the meantime, a few other thoughts about the state of the wireless-phone industry, circa 2007:

* Although voice plans have gotten a good deal simpler--let's all rejoice that Nextel no longer has plans that don't include Caller ID or voicemail--there's still a staggeringly high number of options to consider. To help me fact-check the chart, an AT&T publicist e-mailed a spreadsheet summarizing all of its smartphone-data plans; it includes 14 different options, 13 of which include unlimited data access. I feel sorry for the salespeople who are supposed to refer to this document.

* The relatively high price of text messaging--which eats less bandwidth than voice calling, making text better than talk during emergencies and in areas with weak reception--continues to amaze me.

* The cell-phone industry seems to be mimicking the cable-TV industry in one aspect: Although it's happy to add more features to any given plan--between free night and weekend calls and free "mobile to mobile" calling to other people on the same network, it's getting harder all the time to max out your minutes--nobody seems interested in cutting pricing.

* Nextel seems to be toast. Between its weak coverage and its aging inventory of phones, I can see why the service has gotten crushed in customer-satisfaction surveys like Washington Consumer Checkbook's. I can also see why things might not get much better; although Sprint tells me that the Nextel network will continue to run through at least 2012, why would the company want to dump too much money into a wireless technology that almost nobody else uses?

* Speaking of wireless technologies, both of the major standards--GSM, used by AT&T and T-Mobile, and CDMA, employed by Sprint and Verizon--are perfectly capable of delivering clear voice calls and fast data connections. But CDMA services here lack the interoperability provided by the GSM standard's SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards. A GSM phone can be your property, not the carrier's (which, considering that phones in some countries can cost a sixth of a worker's yearly pay, is a big point). CDMA carriers could easily fix this by adopting a SIM-card equivalent called the Removable User Identity Module, but none in the U.S. can be bothered to do so.

Got any other comments, compliments, complaints or suggestions for a future version of this guide? The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 21, 2007; 8:38 AM ET
Categories:  Telecom  
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I've been with verizon for a while now and don't plan to leave. I'm still annoyed about the phones being locked. I'd be ok with that if I were leasing the phone but I'm not, I own it. Instead they're going out of their way to limit me.

I can also understand (but not agree with) being charged to send a txt message. I'm annoyed however, that I'm also charged to receive them. The Postal Service doesn't make me insert a dime to open my mailbox does it?

Posted by: Ugh | June 21, 2007 11:03 AM | Report abuse

FWIW, it seems that VZW is easing off on its feature-locking ways, from what I've been reading on newsgroups.

Posted by: 23112 | June 21, 2007 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I'm with Verizon, and I had them turn text messaging off on my account. Anytime someone tries to text me they get an error message.

In the year since I did that only one person has noticed enough to comment on it.

Posted by: wiredog | June 21, 2007 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Just to add to the complexity: affinity/partner programs. Hubby is in a Union that has a sweet deal w/Cingulair. It gives us a whopping 40% discount, for real! I always tell folks to check for deals/discounts offered through memberships in different organizations to which they may belong.

Posted by: Tina | June 21, 2007 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps Verizon has finally noticed that the internet has oodles of people googling how to turn on locked features? I did that myself to open up my phone's MP3 player rather than use the standard WMA player. I also use a program off the internet that allows me to use my own MP3s as ringtones.

Posted by: dgc | June 21, 2007 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I'm with AT&T with a family plan and wonder why can't text messaging be included as your minutes, or even if I had to pay for them, allow me to share my 200 minutes amongst my family phones. We don't text enough to need to be in the plan on a per-phone basis, but together (5 phones), we could possibly use one of the plans.

Posted by: Dave | June 21, 2007 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm with Sprint have have been happy with the service. My phones have received as good (often better) service than friends with Verizon in the DC area. Plus, check out the SERO plan for 500 minutes and unlimited text and data for $30 a month.

Posted by: Sprint User | June 22, 2007 5:57 AM | Report abuse

I have Verizon because 1) it works in the Metro &2) a large percentage of my family & freinds have Vzn, so calling them is a free call.
BUT, I've never been completely happy with Verizon; they LOCK services and nickel and dime you to death. They operate like they think of themselves as a monopoly.

Posted by: Matt | June 22, 2007 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Does Verizon have reciprocity with Altell's network to make in-plan free calls to other Verizon users?

Posted by: Anonymous | June 22, 2007 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Don't get me started about !#$X#@ cellular carriers. I lived in Rosarito, Baja California, and worked in the States. After a few years with a Verizon plan that was inadequate for my requirements for a cellular dial-up/texting system that would work on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border, I switched to NEXTEL.

After retirement, my wife gave me a "birthday present." We encountered incredibly rude treatment from a surly Stateside clerk at a large shopping mall, so we went to a NEXTEL office located several miles away. We were able to find what we wanted and obtained a plan consisting of a couple of Motorola i560 phones. Wow! These things worked great! We had dial-up, texting, wireless email, and push-to-talk on both sides of the border! It doesn't get any better unless you use a HAM radio.

A few months later, I attempted to call a Mexican number while I was located in the States, and received an error message indicating that I did not have U.S./Mexican dial-up service. The wife and I took the phones back where we purchased them and had our account changed so we could call Mexico from the States.

Although we now we had the "Mexican connection" we asked for, after we returned to our home in Mexico we discovered that we were unable to make any dial-up calls while located south of the border.

We made countless trips to two NEXTEL offices, the office where we purchased the phone, and the "Main" San Diego NEXTEL office located in Mission Valley. We were told that our account could not be changed to include the capability we originally had. My wife spent hours on the phone talking with NEXTEL "headquarters" to no avail.

We now have "push-to-talk" (the NEXTEL term is "Direct Connect") MMS messaging, and GPS on both sides of the border. We also have dial-up (including Mexico connect) voice mail, MMS, and MOSMS in the States. In other words, we initially contracted to obtain specific cellular services for a minimum of two years. We were later told that we would not be provided the services we contracted for, but we are not allowed to rescind our payment obligation because we will incur a bad credit rating report.

Simply stated, the technology NEXTEL engineers and technicians have put together works great. I have experienced that as a customer. However, the administrators and customer service representatives at NEXTEL do not exhibit a level of competency that in any manner approaches the quality of work done on the technical side of the company. That is, unless you consider standing around with their hands in their pockets while engaged in personal BS sessions, or dusting off the showroom equipment models as useful work. They are clueless of any professional standard to guide their day-to-day operations, and apparently only have training on how to feed the customer a bunch of baloney IMHO.

Posted by: Patrick Mullen | June 23, 2007 5:50 AM | Report abuse

You don't cover prepaid plans. For those of us who only want the cell phone for emergencies or use in traveling, try the T-Mobile Package of $100 for 1,100 minutes or one year, whichever comes first. This ends up at only $10 a month which makes it great for us infrequent users.

Posted by: Ed Lehmann | June 23, 2007 10:00 AM | Report abuse

For sporadic cell phone needs, I've found Tracfone's pre-paid service ordered through their web site to be the best deal going. For a total of $20, I received a free phone, 160 minutes' worth of talk time and 7 months' worth of service. The only catch has been that I had to sign up and add talk time through their web site to get the best deal. I have all the phone service I need for less than than $3 a month, I'm not stuck in any contract, no activation fees, no extra billing surprises to worry about, and no expensive phone to buy. Had my phone for a little over two months now. No problems making heavy calls during a trip to Disney World last month, and more reliable than my wife's Verizon phone in the cellular-challenged area around King George county and Fredericksburg, VA.

Posted by: annanemas | June 23, 2007 11:11 AM | Report abuse

No comments about Alltel? Aren't they not one of the national big guys?

Posted by: Ace Young | June 25, 2007 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I've got an unlocked RAZR V3i and an unlocked V600, which I use my AT&T Wireless SIM card with. It's terrific to be able to do whatever I want with the phones' hardware and software and then use the phone with T-Mobile or another GSM carrier if I decide to move on from AT&T. And I agree about the pricing and the minutes usage - I've now got over 7,000 minutes accrued through rollover in the last year, and I'll never use them all . . .

Posted by: PK | June 25, 2007 1:46 PM | Report abuse

GSM is useful in European countries because you might need to switch SIM cards as the train whisks you across the frontier between, say, Germany and France. But in the U.S. the train NEVER whisks you into France. On the other hand, when you buy a new (carrier-subsidized) GSM phone under your current provider you're probably contractually a year away from switching providers, after which period your current GSM phone will probably be obsolescent.

My personal experience over about six years is that GSM service from ATT/Cingular/ATT is a lot more sensitive to irregular terrain in areas from west of Wisconsin Ave out towards McLean. Could just be me but my switch to CDMA has vastly improved my reception in those areas.

Posted by: Mark | June 25, 2007 6:14 PM | Report abuse

@Mark - I've whisked myself through 28 countries in Europe without ever having to change my SIM card, although for long stays in one country I might buy a local pay-as-you-go SIM card. Pay-as-you-go options are much more limited in the US.

I lived in the US for 5 years, hating the way my service provider treated me because they had me locked in with a CDMA phone.

Outside the US, I can happily replace my phone or provider at any time, independently of each other.

Posted by: Mike | June 26, 2007 4:02 AM | Report abuse

OK, I live outside civilization; the other side of those things you folks call mountains, but I'm curios whether service quality has degraded there like it has here.
Over ten years ago, BellSouth (Cingular, AT&T) added a tower along my commute route and I could talk door to door. It got worsre when dual band came along, but since GSM, in both Louisville and Lexington you can lose signal or have ridiculously long and frequent dropouts. AT&T doesn't acknowledge that their service is worse, but it's pathetic no matter where I am. Most calls involve filling in 15-20 % of the sounds you should be hearing. And I think they know it. My home At&T office is within 300 yards of perhaps the worst signal strength in my little town.

Posted by: Jeff | June 27, 2007 9:19 AM | Report abuse

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