Originally created 11/07/97

Consumers cracking the cell-phone lingo



WASHINGTON -- Alphanumeric? TDMA? GSM? VibraCall? Do these words and acronyms mean anything to you? If you're like most Americans, they don't. But they probably will - sooner or later. As cellular telephones change from being a status symbol or business tool to an everyday convenience owned and operated by a rapidly increasing number of ordinary Americans, consumers are confronted with another new techno-code to crack. And they will have more puzzling purchases to make.

Based on statistics from the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA), by the end of this year nearly 60 million cellular telephones will have been sold in this country. In 1998, an estimated 12-13 million more are expected to sell. But as cellular phones become standard for more people, so does cellular confusion.

"There are some things consumers should know before they go into the store and look at cellular telephones," says Geoff Mordock, research associate at the Telecommunications Research & Action Center (TRAC), a nonprofit consumer group based in the District that last month published a report analyzing cellular services.

TRAC's comprehensive study found that rapid growth of cellular sales has multiplied the number of providers, services and gadgetry available - requiring consumers who want to make the best choice of cellular phones and services to educate themselves.

Where to begin? "We recommend people do a self-assessment first," advises Mordock, adding that the step-by-step assessment is outlined in the TRAC study. "Why are you using a cellular phone? For safety? To stay in touch with your children or relatives? For business?"

Consumers also need to determine where and how their cellular phones will be used the most. "Primarily in the city? In the suburbs? Out of town? How long will you spend on the phone? Do you spend most of the time on the phone during peak hours?" asks Mordock, who adds issues of availability of service and privacy into the mix. "It's all key in choosing a plan."

Then things get technical. Deciding what specialized services you need isn't difficult: Most consumers are already familiar with call-waiting, voice-mail and caller ID. But where cellular can bewilder is in the high-tech choices. Do you go with the established analog service? Or one of the new digital services-CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), GSM (Global System for Mobile) or TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access)?

A recent poll found that 1 percent of the population surveyed knew the meaning of common cellular terms, says Mordock. "In my opinion, that's kind of high. It's all very confusing. It's not like plain old telephone service."

For a copy of the TRAC study, send $7.95 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to TRAC, P.O. 27279, Washington, D.C 20005.