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Cell Phones: Finding a Provider

by Anthony Paonita

Cell Phones: Finding a ProviderCELLULAR PHONES and I have some issues. My first cell phone, a PCS model supplied by my company, acted as if it was better to give than to receive. I could make calls easily, but it didn't care to answer them. It was only when the LCD mail icon flashed that I knew someone was trying to reach me. It also had abysmal battery life, often dying after a couple of calls.

My second phone, also company-supplied, was great. But I hated it, for non-scientific reasons. It was a Nextel phone that allowed my department colleagues to buzz me and talk to me on the built-in speaker. My office mates didn't think much of the intrusion. The Nextel device also was able to receive short e-mail messages and had myriad other features that were too complicated to figure out. It even came with a how-to video.

Now I have a no-frills, digital phone. It's small and light enough, works well enough, isn't too complicated and has good battery life. But I have to pay for its use myself, and the tab can mount if I've gone over my monthly airtime quota.

So it was with a little trepidation that I agreed to help a friend find a new phone. As the cliché goes, it's a jungle out there. Plus the cellular world has met the Internet, with providers now offering a wireless (and condensed) version of the Web, e-mail and other frills.

Have a Plan

The first step in finding a cell phone is to forget about the phone itself for the time being. Your cellular provider and the plans it offers are far more important.

It pays to have a clear idea of the sort of calls you'll make. So you should ask yourself some questions. Do you travel, or will you use the phone locally? Do you need to make long-distance calls while you're mobile? And will you use it to make a lot of calls, whether long-distance or local, on weekends? Are you walking around a lot and tend to gab? Will you be calling your support staff with explicit (and lengthy) instructions about everything? Will you be in a car? (Using a cellular phone while driving is quickly becoming a traffic infraction in some jurisdictions.) Is having a mere phone enough, or do you want to be on the bleeding edge and receive e-mail and surf the 'Net?

Once you have your answers to these questions, you can weigh the available options. And these options are fully buzzword and acronym-compliant. You'll hear talk of PCS, CDMA and TDMA, GSM, and let's not forget HDML, among other things. Do you care?

Well, yes and no. What's important to know is that various companies are duking it out when it comes to standards and transmission protocols, and all of the choices have their good points and debits. What should interest you is whether a service covers the area you're interested in; whether long-distance calls are either included or subject to heavy "roaming" charges, and the provider's reputation for clear calls and service. Check out the cancellation policies and/or fees. A useful resource is www.point.com's page of satisfaction polls; just type in your zip code and it will show you how happy your neighbors are with their service.

The Right Gear

Once you've figured out the kind of service you want, you have to buy a phone. And with cell phones, small is beautiful. (But maybe not, if you want to surf the 'Net.)

In general, don't let yourself be talked into more phone than you really need. The basic requirements are ease in dialing and speed-dialing, voice mail and a shape and speaker that's comfortable for everyday use. Long battery life is a must, too -- your first experience with a dropped call due to a dead battery will come at the most inconvenient time.

Then there's the issue of so-called Web-enabled phones. Are they useful? Again, you need to ask yourself some questions. Do you really need to keep track of, say, stock quotes and headline news while you're away from your office?

Remember that much of what's available on wireless right now is geared to the general and business markets, not to lawyers. Keep in mind that the data transfer speeds of these phones is, for the moment, a fraction of the speed on your computer. And you'll only be able to call up Web pages specifically formatted for use on a phone or PDA. Where these Internet phones can be useful is with their e-mail abilities: You can receive messages from the office more discreetly than via a phone call. Pecking out a response on the little keypad, however, is a chore.

Your phone choice will depend on the models offered with the plans you choose. And phones cost from zero--cheapies offered as a come-on by some providers--to $500-$800 for the top models of the moment. If your job regularly takes you from your office in an urban area to a rural one, you might want to check out a "dual band" phone. The national services have overlapping choices, and this is a brief mention of what's out there; see the chart and the providers' Web sites.

Sprint PCS, one of the most in-your-face providers (and more active in urban areas than out in the sticks), offers, at the bargain end, Samsung's 6100, a small, metallic-finished device, for about $150. Power users will want the Motorola Timeport P8167, which comes with a modem cable for your laptop and software to synch phone books with your PC.

Nextel offers phones with "Direct Connect," which allows colleagues to talk without dialing and without wasting precious air minutes. A good, sturdy and small choice is Motorola's i1000, which I used for months and offered clear, crisp sound with few dropouts or dropped calls (there's a newer model, too, the i2000).

AT&T Wireless offers Mitsubishi's T250, which boasts 10 lines of text on a compact phone, for $199. That will come in handy should you want to pop for AT&T's Web services, which include Zagat restaurant guides, move listings and an ATM locator service.

Addicted to your Palm, but don't want to carry both a phone and your organizer? With Qualcomm's PDQ, you can have both, for about $800. This gives you even more room for wireless browsing, plus all the goodies, like address books, games and calendars that keep Palmistas happily addicted. Ask your provider if it supports the PDQ.

With the new protocol WAP (for "Wireless Access Protocol"), wireless providers promise even more services. With any luck, we'll soon be as cell-phone happy as the Finns, buying drinks from machines and zapping messages to friends and family as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Dialing For Dollars

Here's a sample of the types of plans offered by nationwide cellular providers, the options and equipment they offer. For complete info, consult their websites.

AT&T Digital One
(Circle no. 344)

300 minutes $59.99/month

600 minutes $89.99 /month

Includes national coverage, no roaming charges, no domestic wireless long distance charges.

EQUIPMENT INCLUDES: Nokia 8860 ($499); Ericsson R280LX ($99.99)

Nextel
(Circle no. 345)

400 minutes $69.95/month

600 minutes $89.95/month

Includes national coverage, no roaming charges, call holding/waiting; numeric pages, unlimited two-way direct calls

EQUIPMENT INCLUDES: Motorola i2000 ($199); Motorola i700 plus ($99)

Sprint
(Circle no. 346)

180 minutes $29.99/month

700 minutes $69.99/month

Includes (choose one for free) long distance, Wireless Web service, or night and weekend service

EQUIPMENT INCLUDES: Qualcomm pdQ ($799.99); Motorola Timeport ($299.99); less-expensive Samsungs and others available.

Anthony Paonita is a senior editor of The American Lawyer and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.

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