Originally created 05/17/98

Wireless phone use taking off



Patrick Young signed up for digital cellular telephone service in December. He runs a lawn-care business and needs to be accessible when he's on the job. At the same time, he shut off the telephone service to his home.

"I didn't need it," he said.

Nationwide, more than 30,000 customers like Mr. Young are signing up daily for wireless phone service, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a Washington-based consumer group.

Not all the customers are replacing their home telephone service with wireless communication. And about two-thirds of new customers are buying wireless telephones -- some about the size of a deck of cards -- for safety, security and personal convenience, rather than for business reasons.

"Why should I have my phone at home when I can have the phone anywhere?" said Powertel General Manager Rod Dir in Atlanta. "That is the trend."

The cellular business started in the 1980s. But in 1995, the federal government issued licenses for new wireless technology known as "personal communication services." Now, myriad companies are rushing into cities across the nation.

In the Augusta area, there are four wireless communication services: Powertel, BellSouth Mobility DCS, Cellular One and ALLTEL Communications. A fifth provider, Savannah Independent PCS, is building a network and expects to offer service later this year.

Powertel, based in West Point, Ga., has been here since October. Its coverage area includes a large section of the Southeast -- Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, southwestern South Carolina, north Florida and small portions of other states.

BellSouth Mobility, based in Atlanta, opened an office here about the same time as Powertel. In addition to Augusta, its coverage area includes the Carolinas, eastern Tennessee, Savannah and Brunswick, Ga.

Cellular One, based in Fort Myers, Fla., has been in Augusta 11 years. Its coverage area includes a swath across the South from western Alabama to southwestern South Carolina.

ALLTEL, based in Little Rock, Ark., has been in Augusta since 1991, when it bought Cellular Phone of Aiken-Augusta. Its local coverage area includes eastern Georgia and southwestern South Carolina.

Competition among wireless companies is driving prices down. Consumers are rushing to get the service.

Phones are selling for as little as $50 and service starting at $20 a month.

"It's been very busy," BellSouth Mobility store Manager Zach Williams said. "Once you get used to having a (wireless) phone, it's hard to live without it."

Before you sign up, though, experts suggest you do your homework.

Learn what is out there and consider what you're going to use the service for -- business, personal convenience, emergencies. You don't want service that doesn't fit your needs.

TECHNOLOGY: Basically, there are two types of wireless phones: analog and digital.

Analog, the technology the first wireless phones were based on, transmits voice directly over cellular radio channels. It is widely available and locally provided by ALLTEL and Cellular One.

The advantage of analog technology is that it offers a wider coverage area. But digital technology, which is newer, offers more privacy and better clarity than analog, and it allows companies to handle more calls and offer enhanced features such as caller identification, test-messaging and paging services.

Local providers of digital service include Powertel, BellSouth Mobility and Cellular One. ALLTEL plans to offer digital service this fall.

An analogy for comparing analog and digital technology, said Steve Weeks, ALLTEL area vice president and general manager, is copper and fiber-optic cable. Fiber-optic cable, which is narrower than copper cable, can carry more information, which allows service providers to handle more customers.

Cellular One is the only carrier offering both digital and analog technology. When customers with digital service leave the digital coverage area, they are switched to analog service.

"The advantage of (having service with Cellular One)," said Cellular One Senior Sales Manager Ginger Brown, "is you have a choice."

THE RIGHT CHOICE: So how do you know which service is right for you?

Telecommunications Research and Action Center, a nonprofit, Washington-based consumer group, advises that customers consider what they are going to use the phone for.

If you need it for business, you might find one package is right for you.

Some packages offer blocks of time at a monthly rate.

If you need it for emergencies only, you might find another package is better -- a plan with a lower monthly rate but higher per-minute charges.

It depends on what you're using the phone for.

Other considerations, experts said, are traveling distance and privacy.

Because analog systems use radio transmissions that can be overheard, they are less secure than digital communication, which "scrambles" transmissions.

PRICING: When cellular phones were introduced more than 10 years ago, many companies offered contracts. With the advent of digital technology, month-to-month, no-contract service is popular.

Companies also offer a variety of pricing packages.

Cellular One, for example, offers about 40 options and often has a monthly special or promotion. The variety of options is one reason for considering why you need the phone.

All four companies offer month-to-month service.

Month-to-month service does not include the cost of the phone. You buy the phone and generally, for a monthly fee, you get a certain number of minutes. If you use them up, there is a higher per-minute charge.

In addition to this type of service, ALLTEL and Cellular One offer long-term contracts. The advantage of signing up for a year of service is that you often get the telephone along with the service at a low price -- 98 cents per minute, for example. The disadvantage, however, is that you're locked into a period of service.

OTHER COSTS: In addition to a monthly rate, there are often other costs.

Sometimes companies charge an activation fee. It ranges from $10 to $30.

Some services also tack on a roaming charge, an additional cost for making a call outside the boundaries of a provider's coverage area. These fees can vary. Cellular One charges 99 cents a minute for nationwide roaming.

Consider how many long-distance calls you make. Some providers that charge more each minute for long-distance also have long-distance discount packages.

Be aware of the calls you make after you use all the minutes in your monthly package. They can add up.

Powertel and BellSouth Mobility have a flat rate. But ALLTEL and Cellular One charge different rates based on the time of day -- peak and off-peak hours. It's cheaper to call during off-peak hours, usually late evening until early morning.

Other factors that can push up costs are custom calling features: voice mail, fax capability, detailed billing. Check with your provider to see what's available, and ask yourself if those features are what you need.