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Nationwide Digital Cellular Service Plans: Some Lessons Learned
by Mark Sedenquist

I have received several e-mail queries from fellow Dashboarders in recent weeks who have experienced problems with one or more of the "single rate" cellular offerings. As you probably know, from the daily barrage of TV, print, radio and on-line advertising, the four principal telecommunication corporations include "flat rate pricing" options for wireless "no roaming fee" coverage. A review of the web sites for Verizon Wireless, (a relatively new company composed of Bell South Atlantic, AirTouch Communications, Prime Co., & GTE), AT&T Wireless, VoiceStream (one of the US GSM companies), and Sprint PCS shows that one can purchase air time service plans providing as few as 20 minutes to as many as 2,000 minutes per month. This air time can be purchased for a monthly access fee of $20 to $200 per month with additional charges for "overage" air time ranging from 25 to 40 cents per minute, depending upon a variety of factors and conditions.

As much as I personally dislike the current Sprint PCS advertising pitch that shows a young man speaking gibberish as a result of attempting to comprehend the pricing structures of the various cellular plans, I can certainly appreciate his state of confusion in this regard.

When AT&T, which was soon copied by the others, launched the "Digital One Rate" promising "No Roaming Charges in the USA" it seemed like a perfect solution for Dashboarders and other travelers. But be warned. There are some fundamental problems with these programs.

First and foremost, all of the plans require that the billing, shipping and customer address must be within the same service area where the wireless service was issued. If the majority of phone calls originate from a wireless device outside the billing service area, the carriers have been terminating service. Barbara Hofmeister, an author who lives full-time on the road an has written three books on the subject, recently had her AT&T Wireless service challenged on this basis. Click here to read what she has to say on the issue.

Second, these plans are all based on the provision of digital service only, and they all require specific handsets to meet the network requirements under which service is provided. The biggest surprise tends to be the analog bills that are generated when a Dashboarders use their wireless phones to download e-mail from the Internet. When the so-called 2.5 Generation networks come on-line later in the year, digital data (Internet access) will be available. Presumably this service will be priced under a one-rate type plan.

On the bright side, if you can manage to originate most (or all) of your wireless calls from your home service area over a fairly consistent period of time, you will discover that these one-rate plans can be very cost effective. For the past six months, I have used Las Vegas as an operational hub for RoadTrip America and found that my Nevada-based AT&T Digital One Rate wireless account has been consistently free from long distance and roaming fees. I am continuing to review other options for providing effective and cost-efficient wireless services for Dashboarders. Next week I will look at the three near-term satellite options.

Mark Sedenquist
Death Valley National Park, California
June 5, 2000