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April 2000
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Telephony Tools

How to Choose a Wireless Carrier

By Jay Highley

FIVE YEARS AGO, choosing a wireless provider wasn't a difficult decision. In most markets, you had cellular carrier "A" -- and perhaps, carrier "B." Selecting among the brick-sized handsets also wasn't much of a challenge. The choices were relatively few, as were the features.

Today, it's an entirely different market. There are numerous wireless providers; phones in all shapes and sizes; and a plethora of service plans offering various combinations of wireless voice, data, and other bundled features and services.

Whether you're a wireless pioneer or are just now considering options, here are key areas you should research to understand your needs:

Clarity

Does the carrier use the latest technology to assure clear, secure calls? In a highly competitive, mobile business environment, clear, secure communications is of utmost importance.In the United States, carriers use a variety of technologies, including analog cellular; and PCS systems, which employ GSM, TDMA or CDMA systems. Both GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) rely on units of time to transmit voice and data traffic. CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) is one of the most sophisticated types of digital technology. CDMA transforms data into a series of binary codes that rapidly change during transmission. With a nearly infinite number of codes, this digital technology is extremely secure, and nearly eliminates eavesdropping or phone number cloning. CDMA technology provides call quality comparable to your home or office phone.

Coverage

Where will you use your wireless phone? While many providers offer competitive rates, not all provide service nationwide in the major metropolitan markets, highway corridors and cities across the U.S. If the majority of your calls are within your home market, a local service provider or local service plan may be appealing and the most economical.

However, if you use your phone while traveling for business or pleasure, you'll often save costs and enhance your productivity by choosing a national carrier. Are you a frequent flier? Be sure your service offers coverage in the nation's major airports. That way, you don't waste time looking for a pay phone, and can conduct business from the gate while waiting for flight or on the plane, until the door closes.

Connectivity

Does the carrier offer both voice and wireless data service? If you need to access e-mail, schedules, briefs, contracts and other legal documents stored on your corporate Intranet, wireless data service is essential. Choose a service where your phone works as a wireless modem, allowing a direct connection to the Internet or your corporate server, simply by hooking your laptop or handheld computing device to your phone using a simple data cable.

For access to news, travel details, stock quotes and other online information, look to services and handsets that enable wireless Web browsing directly on the phone. Soon, you'll have more options: Due to partnerships between technology companies and wireless carriers, this year you'll be able to directly access your firm e-mail, schedules and files in real-time on a variety of wireless phones without a cable connection or a laptop.

Value

How much will this all cost? Comparing pricing plans from one wireless service to another can be confusing. Consider the following questions when doing your homework:

* How many minutes per month are included in the various service plans? Evaluate all plans available to determine the best fit. Find out up front how much flexibility you'll have in changing to a higher or lower plan. Some carriers offer penalties for switching plans, others allow you to change plans as your wireless needs change.

* If you're selecting service for your entire firm, does the carrier allow you to select different plans for different employees? Not all employees will use the same number of minutes, don't get locked into a "one size fits all" plan.

* Can you bundle minutes for use by the entire firm? Some carriers offer special bundles of minutes each month to be shared across multiple lines. Ask if "team calling" options, which enable workgroups to stay in touch, are available.

* Ask about volume discounts, and closely compare the plans. While some discounts are based on how much your firm spends each month, you sometimes can reduce costs by using a carrier that bases discounts on the number of subscribers versus the revenue generated.

* Is long distance calling included, or is there an additional per-minute charge? Many carriers are now offering "all distance" services, meaning that local and long distance calls are charged at the same price or, simply put, long distance calling is included at no additional charge.

* Are there extra costs for roaming? Find out what, if any, additional charges will apply when you make calls off of the carrier's network, or calls "on-network" but outside of your primary calling area. Some carriers offer bundled plans, allowing for a set number of off-network minutes each month.

Although research is nothing new in the law profession, it is truly the most important step in choosing and getting the most from your wireless carrier. This will give you the best chance to find the carrier and plan that will most effectively meet your needs.

Jay Highley is vice president of the business customer unit for Sprint PCS.

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