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How to Buy a Cellphone
by Ray Strackbein

I got my first mobile telephone in 1966. I was one of the first subscribers to use cellular service in 1984 and PCS service when it was pioneered in 1995. I worked in the mobile telephone industry (mostly in engineering, but occasionally sales) for a span of 18 years. Because none of my local wireless carriers (cellphone companies) provides everything I need, I have subscribed to almost all of them, many at the same time. I use my cellphones throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Asia and Europe. I like to stay connected.

If you want to be connected too, here are some guidelines to help you choose the right cellphone.

Decide why you need a cellphone.

Do you want to call for help when your car breaks down or do you want to stay in constant contact with your customers or office? Have realistic expectations. A cellphone is not a regular phone. You will hear static, lose bits of a conversation, and even drop calls. Your phone won't work everywhere you need it to.

Decide where you want to use your phone.

Watch for people using cellphones there. Ask them what company they are using for service. What do they like and what problems do they have with the service or the company.

Buy a dual band phone.

PCS (personal communications services) and cellular are separate systems on separate frequencies, often using different towers and transmitters in different locations. PCS uses the 1900 MHz band, while cellular uses the 800MHz band. Using a combination PCS-cellular (both 1900 and 800 MHz) phone means you will have almost twice the coverage of a single band phone. True PCS companies, not cellular companies, sell these. (To get the sale, some digital cellphone companies will tell you their digital cellular phones are PCS phones. They are not.)

Avoid an annual contract.

Choose a company offering many month-to-month plans rather than a company with mostly annual plans. A company with many annual plans will often try to convince their monthly-plan customers to accept a feature or offer that requires an annual plan without explicitly saying the customer will be held to a long-term contract with severe cancellation penalties.

Try several companies.

There will eventually be up to 10 different cellphone companies serving each city in the United States. Most major cities now have four competing companies. First, try companies that let you return the phone within 14 to 30 days with a full refund for the phone and without a cancellation penalty -- they should charge only for the phone calls or perhaps a full month's service. Make sure your phone works everywhere you need it to.

Understand the costs of buying and using a cellphone.

Cellphone prices -- both for the phones and for the service -- are falling.  I have just begun (as of June, 2000) to see per-minute rates just above $0.05 per minute for use anytime included in a monthly fee of less than $50.00. In other words, about 900 minutes for $50.00 per month. Another company offers a monthly rate of about $25.00 per month for 100 minutes including domestic long distance calls and $0.15 per minute to roam.

How would you feel if you were locked into a two-year contract for $25.00 for 40 minutes plus $0.75 for roaming plus $0.30 per minute for cellular long distance? Rates are falling fast.

    Be aware that you will be charged for calls you receive as well as calls you place. Some companies give you the first incoming minute free.

Each cellphone company targets a different audience in their game plan to make higher profits. Read the contract and the service agreement carefully before you buy.  Although seemingly identical services may offer 600 minutes for $60.00 per month, you might find that one company requires you to sign an annual contract (or even a two-year contract) with a severe cancellation penalty, while another company allows you to cancel or change plans at any time without penalty.

Further, compare the price charged after the base minutes are used in one month.   Different companies charge anywhere from $0.05 per minute to $0.35 per minute after you used the base minutes you paid for.

Use your phone.

Once you purchase your phone, use it. Use the minutes you pay for, so you will be comfortable when you really need to make a call.


The word "roaming" applies when you try to use your cellphone outside of your local service area: in another city, county, state, or country. The word "roaming" also applies if you use the services of a competing cellphone company in your local service area.

    "On-network roaming" means using your cellphone in another region or area that is served by the cellphone company that sends you their monthly bill.  Some companies call this "traveling" instead of roaming.

"Off-network roaming" means using your cellphone in another region or area that is not served by the cellphone company that sends you their monthly bill.  There are two types of off-network roaming: roaming with an agreement and roaming without an agreement.  Many cellphone companies have cooperative agreements with many other cellphone companies. If you try to use your cellphone in an area without a roaming agreement with your cellphone provider, you will have to give the operator a credit card number before that company will allow you to place or receive calls. At one extreme, on-network roaming might be free.  At the other extreme, off-network roaming might cost $5.00 per minute or $5.00 per day whether you actually place or receive any calls.


How can anyone possibly figure it all out? I have (pretty much) and it took me decades.

I frequently visit websites and phone stores in search of better service. I listen to customers ask questions and the sales people answer with misinformation.

    Misinformation about cellphones is profound. Some misinformation is deliberate but most is because cellphone technology is evolving so rapidly.

Most sales clerks have used only the service they sell, if that. Most have never tried to roam. Most have never been surprised by charges greater than advertised. Most have never missed calls because their phone did not correctly route the call while they were roaming. Most have never driven ten miles out of town to discover their cellphone no longer works at all. Most salesclerks don't carry several cellphones to discover that one company provides horrid or no service in the airport, subway, stadium, or convention center while other cellphone providers cover those areas well. All of these are inconveniences I have experienced.

    Get promises in writing. Do not count on a verbal promise.

Coverage -- Service Area

Analog cellular, the oldest system, is available almost everywhere, and is your best bet for not getting stranded without cellphone service. PCS is the newest digital system and is great when it is available

    Analog cellular has been around since the early 1980's.  PCS began in 1995. Older technologies provide better overall coverage.

Older systems have grown to include more people and more land area. The most profit comes from serving high-density populations. Rural areas are very expensive to cover and serve very few people. Therefore any wireless technology grows in this order:

  1. Major cities
  2. Major commuter roads and highways
  3. Suburbs for commuters
  4. Interstate Highway System
  5. Minor cities
  6. Major connecting roads
  7. Rural areas


Never assume any wireless conversation is private. Some technologies are much less private than others. The worst is analog cellular. Any cellphone you buy should also be digital for privacy when possible.  The most private technologies are PCS: first CDMA digital, then GSM digital, then TDMA digital.

    I would never give a credit card number on an analog system, nor would I check my bank balance while using an analog phone -- whether actually talking to the bank teller or using the telephone number keys to get information from the bank's computer.

Most digital dual- or tri-band cellphones will attempt to make a digital connection first, then an analog connection as a last resort.  Cellphones will indicate to you whether you have a digital or an analog connection.

Dropped Calls

Cellular signals fade in and out as you move about a building or drive along in a car.  Occasionally the fade is so bad that the cellular system loses the connection to your phone and drops the call. Some cellular networks have more transmitters than others. A system with more transmitters and better coverage usually drops fewer calls.

    Some cellular companies automatically credit your bill for dropped calls, others don't requiring you to call customer service and listen to recordings telling you how much they value your business.

Wireless Crime

Wireless crime is more serious using analog cellular and less serious using the newer digital technologies.  Eavesdropping is one type of cellular crime.  Cloning -- the criminal act of recording the signal from your cellphone and then programming the criminal's phone with your phone number -- is another.

International Roaming

Some cellular providers allow you to use your cellphone in other countries in North America -- Mexico and Canada. Other providers allow you to have cellular service in almost all major cities in the world. Some providers require you to sign up for International Roaming and pay a sign-up or annual fee. Some providers allow you to use your normal cellular phone number internationally; others require you to use a special number.

    The cellular frequencies and telephone systems are different in North America than they are in the rest of the world, to roam overseas, you must use a special cellphone to roam in most countries outside North America.

Cellphones are the best service available.

Beeper and pager companies charge extravagant prices while a cellphone will often provide those same services for less money. By choosing the best provider for my needs, I have used my cellphone as much as I needed to, including while traveling internationally, for about $30.00 per month.

Because remaining in contact is increasingly essential, I now subscribe to three different companies and travel with three cellphones, paying each company about $30.00 per month. This is because I keep getting stuck in conference or hotel rooms, convention centers, or office buildings where at least one of my cellphones will not work. Still, I am sold on cellphones.

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copyright (c)  RayStrackbein.

Permission is granted to reprint this article in your newsletter or magazine as long as the
following information is included:

 Ray Strackbein is a speaker and author.
To find out more about his programs and services,
 or call 703-262-0361.


Ray and Sally Strackbein
PO Box 710540
Herndon, VA  20171

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