The world of cellular communications has come a long way since the days of $3,000-to-$5,000 car phones. Gone are service charges stiff enough to prompt humorist Howard Stern to remark that Donald Trump’s famous $475,000-a-month allowance was “almost enough to pay his car-phone bills.” Today, cellular phones actually provide affordable communications.
Everything is different now. Instead of car phone, think briefcase or pocket phone. Instead of $5,000, think $500 or even $50. And instead of paying an arm and a leg for service, think of fingers and toes: still painful, but worth it to anyone who values time at more than minimum wage.
WHAT IS CELLULAR?
The concept of a nation linked by point-to-point wireless communication came to the attention of many in the nightmarish James Coburn movie The President’s Analyst, which revealed an Orwellian Ma Bell plot to implant phones in everyone’s brain.
Today’s pocket phones represent a communications model that is far less invasive in terms of privacy, not to mention surgery. Think of it as a consumer version of Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio. How did this expensive technology once reserved for bulldog-jawed crime fighters and radio cabs come to the masses?
First of all, the reason private radio telephones have been so long in coming is that the airwaves can accommodate only a limited number of radio frequencies. As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) divvied up the airwave spectrum among TV and radio broadcasters, aviators, mariners, police, and so forth, little was left for private, point-to-point uses. What there was went to the highest bidders–commercial users such as radio cabs. Each city had a few radio channels devoted to private use, and that was that. Cellular phone frequencies were taken from channels 70 through 83, which the FCC converted to cellular-mobile use.
Each transmission area is called a “cell,” and by adding computer control to the system, a cellular phone moving from one cell to the next can automatically switch from the old cell to the new one, allowing calls to continue without interruption.
The FCC has divided the country into 305 metropolitan service areas and 428 rural service areas. Two carriers, one of which is usually a local phone company, are allowed to operate in each area–to create some kind of competition. As cellular technology becomes cheaper and more popular, cells, according to theory, will get smaller and smaller. But what is actually going to happen is far more clever. Instead of endlessly increasing the number of cells or increasing the number of channels, carriers will increase the number of conversations per channel. Several schemes have been developed, the most advanced of which use digital signal compression and digital transmission. Systems will gradually adopt digital operation, and owners of today’s standard (analog) equipment will be served long into the future.
Which Phone For Me?
Choosing the right phone is mostly a matter of deciding how much weight you want to carry as opposed to how much money you want to spend: As usual, the less weight, the more money. Bulky phones mean low prices and probable backaches. But keep in mind that bulky phones transmit at a higher wattage, giving them greater range.
At present, you will find three active rungs in the cellular-phone evolutionary ladder: car phones, transportables, and handhelds. The first two rungs seem headed for extinction, so let’s climb the ladder while there’s still time.
Car phones. Cellular was once synonymous with car phone. The demand for communications while on the road was and still is obvious. And the technology is relatively simple: Size and weight are not a consideration, and neither is power–a car’s electrical system can easily power a device that consumes no more electricity than a taillight. A bulky radio transceiver unit can be bolted into the trunk, leaving only the handset in the passenger compartment. Correct antenna placement to make the most of the ‘early, widely spaced cell sites was virtually assured because professional installation was mandatory. This was low-hanging fruit to the cellular business. The disadvantage of permanent car installation is, of course, that as soon as you leave that car, you’re out of touch again.
Transportables. As car phones became cheaper and their components became smaller, manufacturers found that they could join the transceiver and handset with a coil cord and make a unit that could be moved from one car to another by plugging it into a cigarette lighter and screwing on the antenna connector. Adding a big, 12-volt, rechargeable battery and a small antenna creates a completely portable if somewhat bulky phone. Transportables come either as bag phones, in which the components are arranged in a soft vinyl or leather case with a strap, or in hard packs, into which all the components snap to create a relatively sleek unit that can be slipped into a briefcase.
Transportables are dirt-cheap, work well, and, at three to five pounds, are light enough to take to a job site. But they’re still not convenient enough to take everywhere.
Handhelds. Convenience is the hallmark of truly portable cellular phones. The larger handhelds will fit into a purse, a bag, or a coat pocket. The smallest, latest, lightest units are more the size and weight of a scientific calculator and fit into a pants pocket.
Handhelds generally come with rechargeable battery packs that clip on to form the back of the phone. This allows battery packs of different sizes and energy capacities to be used with the same phone. Some smaller packs might allow 30 minutes of conversation on a charge or seven hours of standby operation; larger packs could triple those figures.
Even the largest battery for a handheld is a lot smaller than the battery of a transportable, yet both last about the same amount of time. This is partly because circuitry in the hand-held is more efficient, but mostly because the handheld requires less transmission power. While the handheld units’ lack of power might seem to give transportables an advantage, in most circumstances the handhelds, er, hold their own. As cellular becomes more popular, the cells have become more numerous and therefore more closely spaced–so close that in most urban and suburban areas they are always in range of a handheld, even from inside a car. In fact, to keep your phone signal from interfering with transmissions within nearby cells, the cell you are in usually tells your phone not to transmit at its full power, whether you’re using a 3-watt transportable or a 0.6-watt handheld. In fact, the power can be ratcheted down to as little as 0.003 watts, which means that handhelds usually have considerable reserve power in all but fringe situations.
Even when reception might be a problem, you may still find that you can take advantage of the convenience of a handheld. Many handhelds can be used with car power boosters that put them on an equal footing with transportables and car phones in the reception-broadcasting challenge of calling from inside a moving metal box.
Within the handheld category, phones fall into three weight and price classes. Phones 8 to 12 ounces generally run $500 to $800; 12 to 16 ounces come in at $300 to $500; and 16- to 24-ouncemodels go for a little as $50.
PAYING THROUGH THE NOSE?
Note that these prices represent heavy discounts compared with the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices in most cases. This is due to heavy subsidies from local cellular-service providers and cutthroat discounting as cellular phones have moved into the mass market. A provider will give dealers subsidies of $300 or more for each phone sold with that provider’s service, since customers who sign up with one provider are apt to remain forever. Only in California and North Carolina is this practice, called bundling, illegal, and even in those states it is done on a wink-and-nod basis. In the rest of the country the practice is legitimate and therefore places legal obligations on you to stay with the subsidizing carrier for a certain amount of time: three months, six months, even a year. Before buying a phone, you should ask your service careers what their rates are and whether they offer special features that you might find especially valuable. An example would be voice mail.
Service costs vary from place to place. In Chicago, a light-usage plan could cost as little as $20 a month for 25 minutes of service. Extra minutes go for 31 cents, or 19 cents weekends and after 9:00 p.m. A heavy-usage plan could cost $150 for 500 minutes, and extra minutes go for about 25 cents, or 12 cents. In New York, a light-usage plan costs roughly $20 a month and 80 cents a minute, and a heavy-usage plan goes for $50 to $80 a month and 20 cents a minute (no time is included in the monthly fee). These figures do not include the various taxes, which can add up, because if you have a cellular phone, of course, you must be able to justify it financially and hence use it as much as possible.
On the following pages, we review 10 cellular phones of varying weight, range, and price. The value of each phone is determined by your needs: portability, packability, and affordability. Within their categories, all the phones tend to be of equal quality.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Which phone to get? Here are the real considerations: Size: The smaller, the better. Price: The lower, the better. Comfort: The greater, the better. Does the phone fit your hand and face? Are the buttons easy to operate?
Sound quality: The louder and clearer, the better. Is it to your satisfaction? In most places you can test a phone while shopping, even if it is not activated, by dialing any number. You’ll get a recording from the service carrier giving you a free sign-up number. If you call that number, you can determine whether the operator can hear you clearly.
Special considerations: Can the phone be used with a car power booster? Can it be used with the modem of a notebook computer?
Durability: The tougher, the better. Does the phone look like it could be dropped on the sidewalk without breaking? Many phones come with cases that should increase their survival potential. Is there a service contract available that covers dropping the phone? Otherwise, you should ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky?” and if not, maybe the idea of implanting the phone in your brain isn’t such a bad idea after all.