Soft Cell

by SmallBusinessComputing Staff

Cut through the fine print and find the best plan

by Dave Haskin (with Eileen Bien Calabro)

Once a luxury, wireless phone service has become a necessity for busy professionals. There is no better way to keep track of clients or help customers find you than to have a cell phone handy.

For those of you who are still reluctant to pass out cell phones to your employees, consider this: If your landline needs repair, a wireless phone can be a lifeline for your salespeople. And if yours is a service-oriented business, having wireless phone numbers to give out to key clients can be a way of strengthening relationships. Finally, neither you nor your staff can be everywhere at once; when traveling, wireless phones are a way of keeping in touch with the corporate office, staying on top of e-mail, booking hotel reservations, and buying airline tickets.

True believers know that wireless service is a business essential. Unfortunately, getting that service -- or switching providers -- is a daunting task. Your best bet is to start with the basics. Take a look at which wireless carriers do business in your area (see map on the next page), then compare service plans.

Comparing plans is more difficult than it sounds. There are different levels of service available for both individual and business users. No two are exactly the same, and several are available from each carrier. Most users want a plan that provides basic services such as wide coverage, caller ID, long distance, and voice mail, though some may opt for snazzy options such as wireless Internet access, text messaging, and radio calling -- the ability to communicate off-network in walkie-talkie fashion with similarly-equipped phones.

Of course, price is another factor in choosing a plan. Remember that, with few exceptions, users pay a flat fee for a certain number of minutes per month. In addition, there are usually roaming, long distance, and monthly service charges. And don't forget: Not every phone can work on every network, and not every protocol offers the same sound quality and options.

There are significant differences among vendors when it comes to every aspect of wireless phone service. All these variations of service options and a shifting cast of carriers mean users must be savvy consumers in order to get the best deal.

Do Your Homework

When Laura Gray started as human resources manager for Atlanta-based Definition 6, she also took on the responsibility of supporting the company's cell phone users. Fourteen of the Web solutions provider's 55 employees were equipped with older Motorola StarTac phones -- until they started to have problems. Gray soon found herself shopping around and eventually decided to purchase Nokia 8260 phones but keep the company's AT&T Wireless service. "Nokia 8260 was the best deal and AT&T really worked with us. We signed up for another year," she says. Definition 6 pays approximately $40 to $100 per month per employee for a variety of individual minute plans, a few pagers, and centralized billing.

Gray recommends that service organizations, even small businesses, provide cell phones to their key employees. "It's not any cheaper to provide employees with wireless phones than if they got them on their own. Nowadays, we can go out and get the same great deal as any large company or group," Gray concludes.

No matter what you decide, be sure to do your homework. Gray suggests you find a service that doesn't drop calls, that has excellent coverage and reception, and has a good name. "Call for references, ask friends, coworkers, etc. I prefer going with companies with good reputations and ones that have been around for a while," she says.

Comprehensive Coverage

For Jennifer J. Johnson, there was one overriding issue when selecting a wireless provider: coverage. The CEO of Salt Lake City-based Johnson & Company, a public relations firm, works in her home with 15 virtual employees who also work in their homes. Nationwide coverage was essential because of her travel schedule and the fact that her employees and clients are scattered throughout the country.

After a long and often confusing comparison of wireless plans, she settled on Sprint PCS (800-480-4727, www.sprintpcs.com). Sprint's nationwide digital service was a good match for Johnson; the service is available all over the U.S., and Johnson comes through loud and clear.

Johnson gets 1,500 minutes for about $70 a month, with no additional roaming or long-distance charges, along with a small Samsung 3500 phone for $129. She said she's satisfied with both the phone and the service, especially her voice mail, which is particularly reliable.

Johnson also likes the customer service she gets from Sprint PCS. "The service is fast, with no hold time, so I get a quick resolution to problems." Other users who need the widest coverage and the best sound quality would be wise to look into national digital service providers as well.

Everywhere You Want to Be

David Fettes needs a wireless phone because he works everywhere--out of his truck, at job sites, at home, and everywhere else. Fettes is president of Berkeley Heights, N.J.-based Fettes Brothers Landscape Contractors. He travels so frequently that he doesn't even have a regular wire-line phone in his office. "It's a convenience to only give out one phone number," he says.

Fettes was looking for a good local plan when he signed up for Verizon Wireless service. He pays $160 for 3,000 minutes a month, and uses a new Motorola StarTac that cost him about $200. His plan gives him free night and weekend calling, along with solid business features like caller ID and call waiting.

While one-rate plans are popular, Fettes said that he prefers his plan, which charges him relatively high roaming and long distance fees, because he rarely leaves or calls out of his local area. "If you add it up, I probably don't pay more than 10 bucks a month for long distance and roaming, so it's not worth it to get a one-rate plan," says Fettes. This trade-off would make sense for anyone making calls exclusively in or near their office.

Fettes is satisfied with his plan because of its service. "My sales rep is extremely accessible," he said. "The plans and the prices are also good and they have the best connection and signal."


HOW MUCH IS THIS GOING TO COST ME? Your service rep will give you several options. Prices depend on the destination of calls, from what location calls are made, and how often phones are used. Users who make most of their calls in their local calling area (defined by the provider) can get by with a plan that has a low monthly fee for local minutes, but higher long-distance charges. These plans can be as inexpensive as $20 a month.


Users who frequently travel outside of their local area need a plan with low long-distance or roaming charges (per-minute fees added to your bill when you make a call from outside your local area). Monthly charges will be higher with these plans, often called one-rate or flat rate plans, but users don't pay extra for making calls from the road.


DO I HAVE TO HAVE A CREDIT CHECK? Most wireless providers check users' payment history before they provide them with service. Some business plans forgo this step. Individuals can avoid credit checks by selecting a prepaid wireless plan. These plans usually provide a phone, a toll-free number, and the ability to add minutes to your account with a credit card, though they rarely offer important professional features like caller ID and voice mail.


WHY DO I HAVE TO SIGN A SERVICE CONTRACT? In most cases, contracts are required to start wireless service, particularly customized business plans. Contracts usually run one year, and when the contract runs out, users can leave the service at any time. Contracts should include information on the provider's support and return policies, as well as details about penalties for canceling service before the contract expires. If you have the option of signing a shorter contract, take it.


Wireless service providers target businesses with specialized calling plans known as common plans. Typically, these offer centralized billing, discounts for five or more lines, shared or pooled minutes, unlimited calls between users on the same network, dedicated sales and support representatives, and wireless Web access. Some providers let you tack on extras, such as Nextel's (800-639-6111, www.nextel.com) Business Networks, which offers digital two-way radio communications; AT&T Wireless' (800 888-7600, www.attws.com/business/smcorp) Wireless Data Service, which can help you access your company's intranet, databases, and custom applications on the road; and Sprint PCS' (800-480-4727, www.sprintpcs.com) Wireless Web for Business program, which boasts corporate e-mail access and directory, travel, and other services. Common plans, which cost anywhere from $50 to $200 per user per month, can sometimes take the form of customized billing, zoning, and rates.


Before you sign up for a common plan, be sure that it fits your company's needs. Allan Keiter, president and founder of Atlanta-based MyRatePlan.com, says that while there are some benefits to common plans (namely, reduced bill-paying costs), the smallest businesses and those with wide variations in usage might be better off letting each employee find their own plan and reimbursing their fees. "Wireless minutes are cheap, so many of the carriers don't have business plans per se for smaller numbers of phones. With retail rates moving down so quickly, it is usually cheaper to go retail than purchase or remain on a business plan," Keiter says. "Options such as family plans [or pooled-minute plans] are a very good choice for up to five lines." Keiter also thinks users should figure out how and where their phone will be used before committing to a service contract. "The tip here is to only buy the coverage area you need," Keiter advises. Try analyzing your organization's cell phone usage for a few months, and then try one of the service comparison sites to find a good match. In addition to MyRatePlan.com, you can compare wireless phone plans side-by-side at Cellmania.com, Decide.com, lowermybills.com, and Point.com.


If you're a globetrotter who needs to stay in touch with the office, you have to find a cell phone and cellular service that works everywhere you go.


Frequent travelers should purchase a GSM phone that can be used overseas and call their wireless provider for information about coverage in other countries. Most providers have agreements with networks abroad, and can give you details about rates and services. You should also ask them whether or not you need to install a new SIM (a chip that allows your phone to "roam" for network coverage) before you travel.


Businesspersons who travel less often can rent a phone. Several companies, including WorldRoam (888-622-7368; www.worldroam.com) and RentCell (800-404-3093; www.rentcell.com) rent phones for use in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. This is a convenient, but pricey option. Cell phone rentals can cost as much as $100 per week, plus two to five dollars per minute for calls.


Satellite phone service is an option for people who travel to out-of-the-way destinations. Through a provider such as GlobalStar (877-319-1807; www.globalstar.com), you can use a specially equipped phone for accessing both traditional wireless networks and a network of low earth orbiting (LEO) communications satellites. This method is far from cheap, but it allows you to use your phone from pretty much anywhere on in the world.


Many wireless carriers now offer wireless Internet access, a way to receive Web-based information from cell phones. This allows you to check e-mail, change flight times, and even buy theater tickets when you're on the move.


The wireless Web has received a lot of attention, but the technology is not fast, universal, or 100 percent reliable. Users are finding that it's hard to view Web information on a cell phone's small screen, and it's even harder to type in text using a phone's keypad. Also, service is slow and spotty, often taking several minutes to find a connection and offering speeds that can be twice as slow (or slower) than those of standard analog modems.


If the technology dings don't dissuade you, then how about price? When we went to print, nearly all wireless providers counted wireless Web minutes against airtime minutes, in addition to charging an extra monthly fee that ranged from $7 to $15 for the service (the notable exceptions were AT&T Wireless and Nextel).


The good news is that interface woes have already started to disappear. Many handheld computers, with their larger screens and easier input capabilities, can now be outfitted with wireless Web connections and telephone capabilities. In addition, faster service is coming in the form of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and third-generation (3G) phones. Currently, the fastest wireless Web service is 19.2Kbps, but GPRS will eventually reach 115Kbps. The technology will be ready at the end of this year. Third-generation access speeds will be three times as fast as GPRS, but won't be available until 2003.


If you travel frequently to urban areas and can find a reasonably priced plan, it's not impossible to find adequate wireless Web service. For many, the technology and price issues don't override the convenience of accessing their e-mail from the road or their database from the airport. For most of us, however, the technology will just be hype until the industry catches up with our needs.

This article was originally published on Saturday Sep 1st 2001
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