Focus on the Big Picture: Where the Phone Works

By Rob Pegoraro

Sunday, September 28, 2003; Page F01

Getting a cell phone should be simple.

But competitive markets that run on rapidly evolving technologies rarely
are. Picking a wireless-phone service demands a lot of homework, between the
fine-print-laden price plans, the varied coverage areas and all the add-ons
packaged with voice service, such as text messaging and Web access.

It's easy to focus on the one thing you can instinctively grasp: the phone
itself. But that's a mistake. A cell phone's job is to let you talk to
people, not take pictures or play MP3s. And that happens only where the
phone gets a clear signal.

The most important thing to gawk at in a wireless carrier's brochure or on
its Web site is not the catalogue of phones. Nor is it even the price plans.
Instead, inspect the coverage maps -- both of them.

First, eyeball the map of the Washington area to see the carrier's digital
reach. None of the six firms doing business here (AT&T Wireless, Cingular
Wireless, Nextel, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless) cover all
of it. Cingular leaves out the Eastern Shore, Verizon hits a wall west of
the Blue Ridge, AT&T omits a generous chunk of Charles County, and so on.
(Don't forget to ask neighbors and co-workers which services they like.)

Then look at the carrier's nationwide map. You'll see immense gaps that may
overlap the roads you take and the places they lead you to, whether it's a
college, a beach house or Grandma's house.

The second issue to ponder is a wireless carrier's digital dialect. Four
technologies are in use: CDMA ("Code Division Multiple Access," offered by
Sprint and Verizon), GSM ("Global System for Mobile communication," offered
by AT&T, T-Mobile and soon Cingular), iDEN (Nextel's "Integrated Digital
Enhanced Network"), and TDMA ("Time Division Multiple Access," sold by AT&T
and Cingular).

I've written before that, since these standards all provide about the same
voice quality, the differences among them don't matter. That's no longer

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