Picking the right cellular carrier

Farpoint Group –

I get asked a lot about cell phones - as in which cell phone to buy. While I covered this topic briefly in Choosing a wireless handheld, I must confess that, given the huge range of models out there, this is a nearly impossible question to answer. There are plain old phones, phones that have limited (and not-so-limited) data capability, phones aimed at vertical or special market segments, flip phones, candy-bar phones, and on and on. I also get asked a lot about what I personally use, and, while I will likely cover this in an upcoming column, I must caution that (a) I change phones frequently to try new models, and (b) just because it works for me doesn't mean it will work for you. Every mobile device involves some degree of compromise (See The single-device paradox for more details on this problem), but suffice it to say for now that it's unlikely you'll come up with something that's ideal for you. Such a nirvana is, and likely will remain, an abstract, theoretical concept.

When I talked about picking a device, I advised to start with the network and not the device. And I'd like to expand on this thought here. As we noted in our recent discussion of cellular technologies, there are profound differences in how the technologies work but the practical effect is the same - voice and data services while on the go. But there are two key variables that define the core differences between carriers regardless: coverage and price.

Let's begin with coverage. You can find coverage maps for all of the major carriers on their Web sites:

AT&T Wireless

Cingular

Nextel

Sprint

T-Mobile

Verizon

Of course, the first thing you notice when viewing the maps above is how much of the nation is covered (or not) and with some carriers, the coverage appears to be more extensive. But keep in mind that radio propagation is a statistical, non-linear branch of physical science, and the radio waves you need at any given moment might not reach you, no matter what the map says. The maps also don't reflect capacity - a carrier can place one or more cells in a given area; the more cells, the better the capacity and thus the reliability. How, then, can you be sure you'll have the coverage and capacity you need in any given area?

The short answer is, you can't. And if you read your contract carefully, the carriers do not assume responsibility for reliability. This, along with bills that are impossible to understand, forms the basis for most consumer dissatisfaction with their cellular service. However, with local number portability (LNP) going into effect at the end of November, we expect a renewed push by the carriers to hold onto customers who now have one less reason to stay in an unsatisfactory relationship. LNP allows a user to take their cellular number (but not necessarily their phone; a new handset may be required especially if one changes to a carrier using an incompatible technology) to a new carrier. Watch out for contractual restrictions on just picking up and moving, however.

The cellular industry is working to correct its PR and other problems, beginning with the recent release of the Consumer Code for Wireless Service. Looking suspiciously like the airlines' recent customer service commitments (See this example), it's a step in the right direction, but is still likely to leave many dissatisfied. Pricing and quality of customer service remain big issues.

Fortunately, enterprise customers have an easier time working with carriers than mere mortal consumers. It's possible to work out a custom service plan with custom pricing to meet whatever requirements you might have. While strong negotiation skills are still required, I've found most carriers to be more than interested in working with corporate clients to provide the best mix of voice, data, coverage, price, and, yes, handsets to meet essentially every need. It also appears that competition is going to continue to soften the carriers and should lead to more flexible pricing and improved service. Most of Cingular's plans, for example, allow the rollover of unused minutes from month to month. It's too bad they (and almost every other carrier) lack coverage at my home and office. Oh, well.

Copyright 2003 by Farpoint Group - All rights reserved.

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