Ocean Navigator Communications Newsletter #17
Coverage & Networks: More Decisions from the Cellular World
1) I have service with 'unnamed' wireless, and they stink and here's why.
2) I have the best phone in the whole, wide world and here's why.
3) I'm going through the same process you are. I can't wait for your next newsletter.
Somewhat interestingly, and not so surprisingly, nobody praised any of the providers. This confirms, albeit unscientifically, my premise that choosing a cell phone provider is an exercise in finding the least among the evils and settling for that. There's not really a right choice, just a choice that appears to be the least wrong.
As you might guess, I'm not a fan of the wireless phone industry, though I do rely on them heavily. Aside from the rigors of daily use for business and pleasure, my cell phone is also relied upon when at sea. Even though they're not squarely in the category of marine communications, I'd venture to guess that most coastal sailors use a cell phone far more frequently than any
OK, on to the good stuff ?
When getting a cell phone, you're really making four decisions:
1) What's the best coverage for my needs?
2) What's the best network technology (and capability) for my needs?
3) What's the best phone for my needs?
4) What's the best calling plan for my needs?
Of course, these decisions are all tied together, and you can't pick a phone without first knowing whose network it needs to work with. Sorting through the mess all at once can be daunting. Here's how I approach it:
First, decide on the coverage issue. For us here in Maine, this is a big deal -- many providers seem to think that the U.S. East Coast ends just
1) Find a provider that offers digital service for the coast.
2) Sign up for a calling plan that includes free roaming.
3) Learn to live with analog roaming and the surcharges it typically brings.
In this category, I'm somewhat lucky, as AT&T Wireless is really the only provider that advertises digital coverage north of here. I consider this
Second, you need to consider the network technology and capabilities. You can approach this by acronym (TDMA vs. CDMA vs. GSM vs. GPRS, etc.) or by feature set (wireless email, Web browsing, text messaging). I prefer the acronym approach, as it's easier to understand. Easier? Yes. Before you disagree and hit the delete button, consider the confusion that's likely to arise when you're talking to your local cell phone salesman in the mall and asking if you'll be able to get your office email on your phone. Of course the answer always seems to be "yes." Though the answer sometimes has more to do with sales commissions than accuracy, most of the time it's motivated simply by misunderstanding. Wireless email can mean different things to different people.
Text messaging, or short message service (SMS), is all about displaying a short (about 120-character) message on the screen of your cell phone. Since this can be done by sending the (short) message to an email address, say firstname.lastname@example.org, many people consider this to suffice for wireless email. Others might want a more robust solution for longer messages, but are willing to have a separate email address for their phone. While others may want specifically to be able to access their own POP server to retrieve emails from an existing account. Asking these detailed questions to most salespeople elicits either a blank stare or an emphatic "yes" no matter what the question is.
As I hinted last time, we're in somewhat of a limbo status between second-generation digital PCS-style services and (really) high-speed
So, in today's world of cellular wireless medium-speed data (2.5G), you've got several choices:
AT&T's older PocketNet (CDPD) based service (pretty good coverage)
AT&T's newer GSM/GPRS network (small but growing coverage)
SprintPCS' older WirelessWeb (pretty good coverage)
SprintPCS' newer Vision network (pretty good coverage)
Verizon's new Express network (pretty good coverage in the Northeast)
Cingular's inherited Mobitex network (good urban coverage)
Nextel's iDEN network (pretty good coverage)
Voicestream's T-Mobile Internet GSM network (large and growing coverage)
Things might get a little simpler with the rumors flying about Voicestream and Cingular merging, though with initially incompatible networks, don't expect a one-phone-fits-all panacea.
With Voicestream, a long-time GSM proponent, and both AT&T and Cingular recently signing onto the GSM bandwagon, there seems to be a groundswell of support for GSM in the United States. GSM has long been a standard in Europe and Asia, enabling easy roaming between countries on the other side of the pond. Hopefully, things will catch on here as well. SprintPCS and Nextel have each invested a lot of money in their own CDMA and iDEN (respectively) networks and aren't likely to switch to GSM right away, though there are migration paths so that when the true 3G stuff is available, there might even be more interconnectivity.
So for me, for now, it looks like AT&T is the best bet -- good coverage where I need it, good coverage along the coasts I'm likely to cruise, and heading in the right direction with their network. Next time, we'll take a look at the phones.
Until then ?
-- Dan Piltch