Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Using GSM as Your Backup Phone

With the potential of some of us getting a new phone around the holidays, some will also be looking at our older phones as a backup, often tossed in the glove compartment of the car. For that 2nd phone we have listed a number of choices that have a very cheap yearly cost, some of which are GSM models. These include T-Mobile Prepaid, 7-Eleven Speak Out (GSM version) and AT&T GoPhone. However, we tripped over an important 'gotcha' for using GSM phones for a backup.

If for some reason you don't keep the phone activated through at least the cheapest service available, the "SIM" in the phone eventually "dies". It cannot be used after a certain period of inactivity. This can be from 2 to 12 months after the minutes expire. Fortunately, all of the wireless companies will mail you a new SIM, but this doesn't help if you need your backup today. I dug out an older GSM phone to activate for my son who needed it for just a couple days, only to find that I could not add minutes to it because it was too long since the SIM was last used. I did activate an old Verizon phone with Page Plus almost immediately, which saved the day, but not as cheaply as I had hoped.

So if you're not just moving your SIM from your old GSM phone to a new one this holiday, and want the old one for a backup, don't forget to keep it activated. There are several cheap GSM alternatives, listed above, or on our Switch to Prepaid page.

Friday, December 18, 2009

T-Mobile Gets 3G Credit

Getting lost in the Verizon vs. AT&T 3G battle is how much 3G is available with the next 2 largest cellular carriers. Sprint has done a great job in increasing their broadband speeds with both "3G" and "4G" credits...even more than AT&T. But T-Mobile has a good horse in this race as well, and maybe with some advantages.

T-Mobile got a slower start in rolling out 3G, but they have expanded to the point where they already cover a large percentage of the US population, even though their map doesn't show as much color as the other carriers. T-Mobile had somewhat less capacity available to expand their broadband services, but with the purchase of big chunks of AWS spectrum, they are now able to offer all-you-can-eat 3G nationwide, with their new 1700/2100 MHz channels, which are not competing with their voice traffic in the 1900 MHz band. Plus, they're starting to offer the kinds of phones that can take good advantage of the new spectrum.

You may need to drill down in T-Mobile's detailed coverage maps to see just how much 3G they have to offer where most Americans live. And, of course, there's plenty of GSM/EDGE/GPRS coverage out beyond the core. So, don't give up on T-Mobile just because of the maps you see over the reindeer heads. They just may give you more bang for the buck...or reindeer.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Erin's iPhone

Erin Burnett is a reporter on CNBC and she has an iPhone. She is one of those AT&T customers who experience network dropouts, presumably in the New York City metro area. Often, she will add a small kicker to a story about AT&T, Apple or the iPhone with a comment like, "Even though you'll get dropped calls..." or "If the service works..." based on her personal experience. This is a bad thing for a journalist to do, but I'm sure we feel her frustration. Viewers should not form their opinion of AT&T based on her experience, but they do.

Yesterday, she appeared on the CNBC segment of Stop Trading with Mad Money's Jim Cramer, and she prefaced their discussion with her discovery that the iPhone troubles may be based with the phone itself and not AT&T. Erin admitted that her iPhone worked perfectly in the 12 countries she had visited recently, contradicting her "aha" moment.

Jim shared that Apple has an excellent track record of fixing bugs, and if the problems are indeed with the iPhone itself, Apple will fix them. Since Erin's phone works just fine in Dubai and Nigeria, I would say it's more likely to be a network problem, but AT&T also fixes their problems. If we just didn't love our iPhones so much.

On a related note, Jim Cramer this week recommended the large cellular tower owners as a great investment. He called the need for more wireless capacity a "tsunami" and the carriers need to keep adding bandwidth on these cell sites or they'll get soaked.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

ATN Wireless HQ in Little Rock

The new wireless network of ATN (Atlantic Tele-Network) is beginning to look a lot more like Alltel. ATN is building a new headquarters in Little Rock, AR, even though they will not initially have any service or stores anywhere near the area. ATN is probably taking advantage of some Arkansas support money to keep most of the Alltel jobs in the Little Rock area. The fact that the division's new CEO lives in the area may have some bearing on that decision as well.

This is good news for Arkansas, and it's one more decision completed to get ATN down the road toward a brand new cellular company. The new division is called "Allied Wireless", and the transfer of Alltel assets from Verizon was originally to be made to "Atlantic Wireless". So the name soup still gets stirred around with names like "Commnet Wireless", "Allied", or even "Alltel" as possible monikers for the new company. We're following their progress on the ATN page.

With the new HQ located in Little Rock, they will be able to retain as many Alltel brains as possible. That should be a good thing since Alltel was a great wireless competitor. We still maintain that if you love the old All-tel, you should love the new All-ied Wireless.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

AT&T's Boss Admits Shortcomings

The head AT&T Wireless muckety-muck, Ralph de la Vega, admitted their network needs help, mostly in NYC and San Francisco. Yes, the iPhone has set expectations higher than they planned, but there have been other contributing factors.

In the realm of no-good-deed-goes-unpunished, AT&T gets credit for improving their network by adding 3G service to their 850 MHz cell channels. That enabled a whole new batch of customers to use their iPhones deep within buildings, compounding AT&T's capacity problems. Of course, the expanded service is a good thing, but they just keep feeding us more chocolate and we keep asking for more. de la Vega says the day is coming when the networks will need to limit downloads. After all, only 3% of AT&T's wireless users are consuming 40% of the bandwidth. What a bunch of hogs. I bet they'll still give them some more chocolate!

Monday, December 7, 2009

GoPhone Goes Cheap to Mexico

Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader, we discovered that AT&T GoPhone now roams in Mexico for just .25 per minute! We couldn't believe it, and neither could our connections at AT&T until I directed them to the GoPhone Mexico Roaming link. You are not charged more than this rate, even if your GoPhone plan has a daily access fee! This is a huge savings among Mexico roaming charges with US carriers. Verizon and Nextel charge .99/min., T-mobile $1.49/min., and Sprint a whopping $1.69/min. AT&T's regular accounts charge .99/min. roaming fees, but special plans can drop that to .69, .59 or even Free, but only with postpaid accounts.

Until this rate appeared, it was far more economical to send a Text to and from Mexico, but the Text rate with GoPhone is still .50 sent/.20 received. There's nothing more economical than roaming in Mexico with a Nextel phone which charges NOTHING for accessing the Internet while you're south of the border. This would make make exchanging email the best deal...it's free. Sprint claims this is "temporary", but that's been the case for almost a year. We've been keeping up with the various plans on the Mountain Wireless Mexico Roaming Page.

It's odd that the AT&T GoPhone will not roam off the AT&T network stateside, but roaming in Mexico? No problemo.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Defending AT&T

After the recent Consumer Reports article placed AT&T at the bottom of their ratings, my first reaction was, "We told you so." I can see why my personal view of AT&T agrees they belong at the bottom of the barrel as I live in the market reviewed as AT&T's worst. But now is the time to give AT&T a little love.

AT&T suffers from having very high expectations primarily from iPhone users. Their phones are real data hogs and that has changed the perception of what once was a good network to one that's lacking . The network didn't get worse, our expectations rose up faster than AT&T expected. It's actually a nice position to be in, but it's a sticky marketing problem.

As AT&T works toward adding capacity and expanding their 3G network, things will slowly get better. It will take some time before users realize it as reputations are harder to repair than cell sites...but repair it they will. There are many other challenges ahead as well. AT&T needs to upgrade its newly-acquired Centennial and Alltel sites to 3G, which may hold up upgrades elsewhere.

It was unwise for AT&T to react to Verizon's 3G "map" campaign, but it was wise to end their legal threats. Now what will their lawyers do? Give 'em some overalls and get them out to the cell sites. There's work to be done.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Direction of Boost & Virgin

With Sprint's recent purchase of Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile and Virgin are now both operated by the same company. Both are popular prepaid services and both offer a lot of value with about a $50 per month price level for Unlimited talk. Sprint needs to do one of 2 things with these separate brands: combine the 2, or, more likely, do something to make them contrast even more than they do now.

Virgin uses the Sprint network only, and Boost uses the Nextel network exclusively, with a few exceptions. In the mind of the typical wireless customer this shouldn't be enough of a difference to choose one over the other. They will each need a unique "hook" and the most obvious hook is price. We wouldn't expect either one to rise above the $50 price level, so what's left? We're guessing one of these services will be designated the "Premium" prepaid, and one will become the "Value" service. The Value sibling may be the one that goes after the $25 to $40 prices being charged by Cricket and Metro PCS.

After paying almost $500 million for the Virgin brand, one would not think Sprint would buy it just to lower the price of the product. So that leads us to believe that there may be a $40 Boost Mobile plan coming. Of course Sprint could also consider Nextel's "Direct Connect" (PTT) feature as the premium in the industry, especially as they end their use of the "Q-Chat" PTT service on the Sprint network.

We'll be watching for both our Unlimited page, and our Prepaid site. Let the price wars roll!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The iPhone Killer

Yesterday, we maintained the iPhone as the king of the Smarts, however, there is reason to consider other choices this week. Many of us have a Black Friday purchase in mind, and wireless phones are no exception. A prudent shopping plan would be to look at the deals on Friday and if you don't get knocked out then, you might try on Cyber Monday. We're betting the iPhone will not have a ridiculously low Black Friday price, but a number of other models will.

We just looked at a couple of deals available this weekend. First, Amazon.com has the Blackberry Storm 9530 on Verizon Wireless for only a penny. Maybe even better is the Blackberry Storm 2 at Wirefly for 99 cents for Friday only, $10 the rest of the weekend. Other offers at Wirefly include free activation on both Verizon and AT&T phones through Monday. T-Mobile is offering $50 off several phones, and I bet you'll find a bunch more, including the online stores on our Discount Page. But we're not trying to sell you a phone.

We're pointing out that no matter how good the iPhone is, a great price on another good phone can re-define what's "Best". And that not all online deals will be coming Cyber Monday, check on Friday, too. Just open your mind to find "The Best."

BTW, some of us who aren't fully employed are more likely to be shopping at Kohl's, hoping for Black Friday prices on socks. The phone may need to wait.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

iPhone Holds On

We have been expecting someone to top the iPhone for some time. We have read lots of reviews and have concluded the iPhone from AT&T is still "it". With so many manufacturers trying to create the "iPhone Killer", we would have expected it to have already happened. We even removed the iPhone from our "The Best " page thinking that it had run its course. It's back.

The Droid came the closest, and even tied the iPhone in some reviewers' opinions, but any tie goes in favor of the iPhone with its App Store with hundreds of thousands of useful and fun features. There are indeed a lot of other cool phones available from AT&T and other carriers worthy of our admiration, and there are, indeed, a few reasons to shy away from the iPhone. One of those lowlights is the AT&T network. They really don't have a bad network, they are just victims of the iPhone's success and are trying hard to catch up. In some places, some people have no idea what we're talking about...it's all good. But there are others who are furious that the network isn't as good as their phone.

As AT&T expands with their purchases of Centennial and Alltel Wireless, there are thousands of people who are drooling to get their hands on their own iPhone, and many will be able to jump in with new 3G AT&T coverage. It can't come soon enough.

Tomorrow, we found a reason to overlook the iPhone.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Verizon 2, AT&T 0

The only story of note this week is the reaction to the ad campaign showing Verizon's 3G coverage vs. AT&T's. AT&T took exception to how their network was portrayed, so they ask the courts to intervene. The courts didn't agree and allowed the Verizon campaign to continue. As a result, AT&T responded with an announcement on their web site claiming their data network is really better. Better? Yes! AT&T claims to have the"fastest" 3G network in the US. That may be true, but it just doesn't cover as much real estate as Verizon's.

But it doesn't end there. Sprint continues to roll out their 4G coverage in a handful of markets which is faster than anybody's 3G network. Oh, and AT&T also proudly announced Tuesday they now serve the Bay Area with 3G coverage. But AT&T has the iPhone! Who cares about 3G?

Friday, November 13, 2009

T-Mobile Drops MyFavs, & Everything Else?

We are big-time online shoppers. We shop all the carrier's web sites to see what kind of experience you will have. Looking at T-Mobile's web site, it's obvious MyFavs is gone, but we can't see any other of their previous plans...only their newest Unlimited offerings ("Even More"). Maybe that's all they sell now. That means their lowest price plan is $50...if you're shopping online. A phone call to T-Mobile sales, (with a 5-minute wait) reveals, yes, they do have other plans, starting as low as $30.

I would hope a carrier's web site would show all products, but in T-Mobile's case, we can't find them. You might. We have taken a number of smaller carriers to task about how uninformative their web presence is, or even worse, that the site just doesn't work. Syringa Wireless of Idaho still has the worst-operating web site because some web designer tried to be way too cute. Revol Wireless went from worst to very good, probably after someone in management actually tried to use the site. And then there are the sites that use silly font colors that are totally unreadable.

But we're into the web, it's what we do. A carrier doesn't need their web site to discourage business, the Marketing department can do that, like when they drop desirable plans. Even our own Discount shopping page needs to go through the carriers' own sites, but at least you enter with a specific goal. Remember the good old days when they just raised prices? Now it's who has the best smoke & mirrors. Please stop blowing smoke up my computer, please.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Do Well and Put Yourself Out of a Job

This week Sprint announced layoffs of another 2,000 to 2,500 employees. On the surface you'd think Sprint management was responding to the overall loss of customers from the last quarter or the general drop in the economy. But no. Sprint claims that customer service agents have done such a good job, they don't need as many customer service agents.

  • "Sprint has seen a notable reduction in calls per subscriber to customer care and increased customer satisfaction resulting from customer service improvements for seven sequential quarters. In this period, the company has been able to discontinue the use of 27 call centers as call volume has decreased in the wake of service improvements."
Ah yes, no good deed goes unpunished.

Sprint still has a good network and we salute all the Sprint people who have made being a Sprint customer a better experience. Now that Sprint is only losing thousands of customers each quarter, they don't need you any more...you've done your job too well.

Give me a break.

Monday, November 9, 2009

AT&T Gets Centennial OK

The FCC and DOJ have approved the acquisition of Centennial Wireless by AT&T. The requirements include a little good news for roamers. From AT&T's press release:
  • "AT&T will honor existing roaming agreements with other carriers for the life of the contract — or, for carriers with fewer than 10 million subscribers, will maintain the roaming agreement for at least four years or the full term of the agreement with Centennial, whichever is longer."

The FCC also keeps Centennial's CDMA roaming in Puerto Rico available for 18 months:

  • "We condition our approval of this transaction on AT&T’s commitment to operate and maintain a CDMA network in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for 18 months after the Merger Closing Date." "We find that a period of eighteen months will allow carriers using Centennial’s CDMA network sufficient time to implement alternatives."

The CDMA carrier that roam on Centennial in Puerto Rico is mostly Sprint.

It appears everybody got something. What was surprising was how small Centennial's GSM roaming business is. What seemed like a big concern to some users, turns out to be of little concern to the FCC. Then there's the handful of areas where AT&T and Verizon will exchange customers and networks, requiring some changes in handsets and coverage. A few hundred thousand users will just need to grin and bear it. One upside is that AT&T will upgrade the entire Centennial network to 3G before the transition is complete. And, apparently, before other parts of the AT&T network get upgrades as well.

As a side note, we still lament the loss of any wireless carrier. Centennial did a good job but got out of the business mostly because AT&T's offer was more attractive than continuing to run the network. We all need to grin and bear that reality.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

T-Mobile Outage: No Big Deal

T-Mobile users have had a few headaches recently, but it was just their turn. Outages need to be expected even with wirelines. The variable is the average downtime per service. As part of our study about replacing the home land line, we found wirelines to be the most reliable, but cellular came in at a surprisingly close second place.

In my own home, we have never experienced a wireless outage, but we did have a 24-hour outage on the land line which includes the DSL connection. Phones connected through cable TV go out several times a year, either at the neighborhood level, or with their switching equipment.

Earlier in this decade, we reported difficulties with cellular companies providing enough trunks for outgoing calls, but those reports have become rare. Our difficulties of making calls then with both Sprint and Verizon Wireless were no less frustrating, but look at the percentages...they're very low. Like we found for TheUnWiredHome, it's always smart to have a backup, like a phone with a different wireless carrier. You have one in your glove box don't you?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Go 4G?

Even though though customers are leaking out of the Sprint bucket, they are touting their new 4G coverage in some new markets, which gives them the speedier coverage in parts of Dallas, Chicago and North Carolina. To use their new 4G coverage, you need their 3G/4G air card. But how much difference does it make? Sprint released the following comparison:














It looks like roughly 3 to 5 times faster service than what we enjoy with 3G, although they claim "Up to 10x faster." And how many of us actually experience the top download speeds claimed at 3G? We don't think it's enough to save Sprint, but each improvement does make our broadband life a little better.

Sprint provides a great broadband product and they get credit for improving their network. We still think Sprint needs an image overhaul, which could be a whole lot cheaper than all that equipment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why Do We Tweet?

I thought it would be good to mention that if you want a really inside look at what's going on in the wireless world we are watching, you should follow us on Twitter. That's where we post those really small details that aren't worth mentioning in a Blog. An example is that Syringa Wireless in Idaho bought the ClearTalk network in that state. It's not a big story, but it's a change we made to the Idaho Cellular Carrier Reviews page.

Also, when we created the Kentucky Reviews, it required us to re-review some of the local carriers and found that one carrier, Revol Wireless, has expanded into both Kentucky and New York. It's another not-so-big big story, but it's the sort of info that we deal with every day, and it's certain worthy of a Tweet...but not much more.

Follow us, and we promise not to Tweet you more than once or twice a day. 'Nuff said?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Old Phones: Good for 911?

Should we encourage, or even mention the idea of depending on a deactivated wireless phone for 911-only calls? When I was putting together the new Cellular For Seniors web site, I asked my colleagues for ideas, and used them all. One, however, has caused a big disagreement. They asked me to write about it because I sit pretty much in the middle.

Bill thinks keeping an old cellular phone charged and available for 911 calls is practical, and, in the case of some users like Seniors, a potential life-saver. Mike, on the other hand, says depending on a phone like that, especially for Seniors, is a bad idea. He claims it's a false security due to the fact that is probably a cast-off phone that the Senior has absolutely no experience operating. I agree with that somewhat because I have a brother-in-law who has a normal cellular phone that he often claims it has a dead battery when he actually can't figure out how to turn it on.

Bill states "it's better than nothing." A Senior, or any user with no cellular phone, is better off to have something, even if it has a less than 100% chance of working. In consideration of Mike's objections, I added to that part of the site that an old phone is not as reliable as one that is used often enough to know the basics. After all, light users like Seniors could keep a regular wireless phone for just a few dollars a month. Dare I say they're both right?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sprint Welcomes Google - We Get Call Forwarding

Sprint has been riding on the open development bandwagon with new invitations to application ideas that will further the use of their network. One such move has opened a useful door to all Sprint users: free Call Forwarding. Until now, Sprint Call Forwarding of all kinds cost us .20 per minute. With the idea that Google Voice voice mail works with existing wireless and wireline numbers, Sprint realized there is a need to make Call Forwarding more user-friendly.

There's still no totally free lunch. "Immediate" Call Forwarding, where you program the forward-to number into your phone and it forwards right away, will still be charged the .20 per minute fee. Beginning in mid-November, "Conditional" Call Forwarding, which forwards if you don't answer or you're talking to another party, will now forward for free. This encourages us to actually use our Sprint phone more as serious business line, or as our only home phone line.

It's great to see Sprint as a leader in this area of development, and not only do we hope it encourages other carriers to follow suit...so does Sprint! Yes. They hope that developers create applications that work across all wireless networks. It's one more reason why we need to keep Sprint hangin' in there. 'Now' is good.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Why Do You Hide Your Coverage?

“Your network has such great coverage, why do you have such lousy coverage maps?” That was a question we posed to Verizon Wireless just a few years ago, and somebody eventually agreed. Now they’re better, but still not the best.

Recently we asked that same question to a small regional cellular carrier in the Midwest. They have great coverage, but they refuse to show it for “competitive reasons.” I got a great laugh later while visiting one of that network’s competitors and seeing a big wall map showing the coverage and cell sites of all the carriers in the area! So much for hiding coverage from the competition!

We have been trying to convince this regional carrier to show their coverage on their web site, or at least let us post it on www.cellularmaps.com. They sent us a detailed map, but told us not to post it (then why send it?). When I went to file it, I discovered a 2005 press release with a map heralding the coverage of this same network. It has gotten better since then, but now they hide it. Why? We posted the old map and those from the FCC until this carrier decides to exercise their bragging rights, and if they do, we’ll help them...and even tell you their name! We’re working on it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

PRL Text

You may have wondered what happened to our most recent Preferred Roaming List (PRL) “Interpretations” that appear on our PRL pages of the Roamingzone. It seems our interpreters have "retired." To create an accurate text of these lists takes quite a bit of work, and so far, that work has been entirely voluntary.

When those who interpret the PRL as a hobby find something else to do, the rest of us go scrambling for another source…but there isn’t any. We have offered these PRL volunteers the full control of one of our web sites, only to watch them create their own. The sad result is that once that happens, they lose interest…and we lose our source.

There are a handful of users who take the time to save and even post the actual .prl file, but for most of us, they’re just a list of meaningless numbers. We even offered to pay to have PRL’s decoded, but once the fun is over, it becomes too much like a job. And we understand that. We have considered at least posting the raw lists so that serious PRL fans can at least look at the order of things and look for their favorite System ID (SID). We hate to just leave you with so little detail, but I guess you can always decide whether it’s useful.

Let’s just hope the process hasn’t been interrupted by the carriers who don’t want the data made public. No conspiracy theorists, here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Roaming With No Analog-and No Service

BillRadio is out roaming the west again, and he tried to call from one of those remote areas where not even the antelope play very often. Bill was the advocate of keeping your analog phone until the last analog signal faded away, and in this case, it has.

Forced to digital-only phones, and digital-only cell sites, most of that stretch of I-70 from Green River to Salina, Utah now has absolutely no cellular coverage. There used to be analog if you really tried. I can see Bill standing on the roof of his car just to make sure…”Can you hear me now?” Nope. Its 70 miles of interstate and no cell service.

A few years ago the state of Utah asked several carriers to consider the area for cellular coverage, and the reply was a very polite, “No.” Of course you and I know it’s possible. Solar power, multiple-hop microwave and bear-proof fences can make it happen, but can it make money? Apparently not. And Utah didn’t offer to pay…at least not yet. The best thing you can take with you there is advice: “don’t go there if you break down.” But it'll be a nice way to meet your fellow travelers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cell Phones for Seniors

We just finished up another wireless web site; this one is specifically designed for the fastest growing group of cellular users: Seniors. Before you think this subject doesn’t apply to you, think about your family. There must be at least one person you know over 50 who, up ‘til now, has resisted going wireless. Yet, this may be a group who needs it more.

You can spread the word about how much help cellular can be to seniors in your family. One of the services that caters to the senior set, Jitterbug, even has nurses on call to assist with customer health problems. It's quite revolutionary for Jitterbug to introduce an old-school Operator for their users, and now they’ve gone further. Customer Service, What a concept!

Another easy idea to help an older relative or friend is to add them to your Family Plan. It could cost as little as $10 a month, and in most cases, you won’t notice what few minutes they use. With most Family plans, you can call each other with no use of your minutes. If nothing else, send ‘em our way, to Cellular For Seniors.com.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Union Wireless Upgrades

Every few months we get an email from a zealous PR person telling us "your review of so and so wireless is way wrong." In many cases, the reason for that is that we depend heavily on what each carrier shows on their web site, and they don't always keep it updated. The latest carrier taking exception to our information is Union Wireless based in Wyoming. Union gets a thumbs up with us and they admit their latest material isn't posted online, yet. So, we handed over this page to let them share what's new in Wyoming:

Union Telephone began wireless service in 1990 under the name of Union Cellular with eight cell sites which has grown to more than 300 cell sites in Wyoming, northwest Colorado, and northeast Utah. There are plans for 25 new cell sites in Laramie County by the end of the year, with sites along highway 59 from Douglas to Gillette, throughout Albany County and more, in 2010.

The company has negotiated roaming agreements with other GSM carriers, creating a wireless footprint that covers more area of the continental U.S. than any one of the large wireless companies. In some areas, Union is the only provider available. Union has negotiated international roaming agreements with GSM wireless providers in many foreign countries. Union also offers "Telular" service, a landline replacement system that uses wireless service connected to home wiring for those wishing to disconnect from landlines or in places where landlines are not available.

Union features National Calling Plans starting at under $30, with no roaming or long-distance charges including a larger bucket of minutes than plans offered by competing companies. Other plans and options mirror that of much larger national companies including unlimited calling to and from any 10 numbers, any network, landlines included; FREE Unlimited Night and Weekend Minutes - from and to anywhere in the country; Talk, Text Internet and Unlimited calling plans.

Friday, October 9, 2009

AT&T Unlimited for $60

AT&T has fired another shot in the Unlimited wars as the AT&T GoPhone will offer an Unlimited Talk & Text plan for $60 a month, starting Monday, October 12. There are Unlimited plans at $40 with carriers like MetroPCS and Cricket, and T-Mobile and Boost Mobile compete at the $50 level, with more features. So, at $60 a month, the AT&T plan shouldn't attract that many price-shoppers, unless of course you really want AT&T. Of course this doesn't include the iPhone.

The good news? This move might some carriers might lower their Unlimited prices just to stay in the price-cutting news. The bad news? It may mean that the day MetroPCS and Cricket will merge draws closer, or more disturbing, a few other really small carriers, who had hoped their Unlimited offerings would keep them competitive, will slip out of favor.

We said it here almost 5 years ago when we started this blog, Unlimited is the evolution of wireless, but the price may be too high. We can't afford to lose any more carriers.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

AT&T Opens the VoIP Door to iPhone

AT&T gave in to the inevitable and will allow the iPhone to make VoIP calls. They needed to look long and hard at an App that allows iPhone callers to bypass the AT&T network for long distance calls beyond the US, but if they didn't, something else would. Sure, AT&T might lose some revenue on LD, but they will probably make it back with additional usage at the other end.

This is one case where AT&T saw the writing on the wall, and we're glad they did. However, this is an iPhone-only function, and I'm sure they'll drag their feet on making it available to other users. This also means products like Skype go mobile.

But it's only one alternative for free or very cheap international long distance calls for wireless customers. It's already available to those of us who just add a prepaid LD card to our cellular phone book, or just use TracFone's free international access. Can you believe some wireless carriers charge .65 per minute for calls to Mexico? How long can that last?

Friday, October 2, 2009

iPhone irate? Get Your Credit Here!

Through the summer, AT&T customers have been grumbling about dropped calls and lost data. As we reported just a few weeks ago, AT&T was slowly starting to admit there may be a few problems, with most reports blaming data-hogging iPhones for maxing out the AT&T network. Sadly, the cure is not a different phone model, but to just leave.

An article in our local media highlights what some AT&T customers are doing, and how the carriers are responding. T-Mobile credited at least one AT&T expatriate $150 to help pay the AT&T Early Termination Fee. Another unhappy AT&T camper got a $20 monthly credit from AT&T while they muddle through their network upgrades, which, in this case, means taking entire cell sites off the air for a significant period.

Neither AT&T, T-Mobile or any other carrier will confirm they are actually helping any customers with credits and discounts, but if you are tired of dropped calls and data with AT&T, there seems to be room for negotiation, and you don't know what you'll get until you ask. Don't expect a quick offer, you may need to be persistent. And keep in mind, AT&T will eventually work out these problems and you might be going through the ETF process all over again to come back. If you don't have luck making your escape, we list ways to cancel your contract, which may still require some time commitment.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

FCC Holds AT&T's Feet to the Fire

Recently AT&T and Centennial Wireless officials (and lawyers) hiked over to the FCC to find out what the holdup was for their acquisition application. On September 25th, the FCC had sent them a rather terse request for information about the transaction. In that request, the FCC asked well over '20 questions' related to the deal. Here is a small sampling of those questions:
  • Please provide AT&T’s equity interest in America Móvil and in Telmex.
  • Please provide additional detail on whether the handsets of Centennial’s customers will function on AT&T’s GSM network in the continental United States immediately following the transaction, as well as at each stage of the transition of integrating the AT&T and Centennial networks.
  • Will Centennial’s customers be required to obtain new handsets or Subscriber Information Module (“SIM”) cards?
  • If Centennial’s customers will require either new handsets or SIM cards, will these be provided either free of charge or at a significantly reduced price?
  • If new handsets will need to be provided, please detail the exchange process including the type of handset offerings and prices for these handsets. Please provide additional detail on AT&T’s integration planning process and its impact on existing Centennial customers in the continental United States.
  • The Rural Cellular Association and Cincinnati Bell propose that the Commission adopt conditions on roaming in this transaction that are similar to the ones that the Commission imposed in the Verizon-Alltel transaction. Please explain whether the roaming conditions in the Verizon-Alltel Order are or are not appropriate for the AT&T/Centennial transaction.
  • Centennial has deployed a 2G GSM network in the continental U.S. and a 3G CDMA network in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For what services does Centennial providing roaming in the continental U.S.?

This is from the first 6 paragraphs of over 19, most of which refer to the relationship of AT&T and Mexico telecoms. AT&T quickly responded to the inquisition last Friday, but their response may not be made public due to "confidentiality."

It looks like the FCC is more concerned about AT&T's relationship to Mexico companies, and network integration in the Caribbean, and less how the transaction will affect US wireless customers or roaming. We're a bit surprised that AT&T didn't make it clear early on if Centennial customers will be able to use their existing phones. But AT&T stated, "the integration planning process is in its preliminary stages, and there are numerous contingencies that could affect any network integration schedule." Does that mean they hadn't thought about it, yet?

AT&T left the door open for protesters like Cincinnati Bell and the Rural Cellular Association to challenge the deal. No wonder the FCC is taking their time.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The March of 3G

If you've had a cell phone for several years, you might recall the joy of watching the coverage of your favorite carrier march across the country, slowly giving you that greater range of communications freedom. Now that voice coverage is almost universally expected, we now watch with equal anticipation as 3G coverage moves outward from the cities. It's moving fast enough that the 3G coverage maps can't keep up with it.

AT&T and Verizon add 3G to at least a few sites almost every week, some in remote locations. Verizon has completed more than anyone, however, there are some smaller networks that are already all-3G like Metro PCS, Pioneer Wireless and a few others. AT&T can't keep up with the demand for 3G services, mostly because of the iPhone, but they are working on it. Even T-Mobile adds some new 3G on a regular basis, and oddly enough, their mapmakers seem to be right on schedule with the 3G updates, if not actually preceding the sites upgrades themselves.

Just like the "good ol' days", the more the better...and faster.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Femtocells: Don't Pay Per Month

AT&T recently announced the availability of their version of "femtocell", a cellular repeater that extends coverage into small, indoor areas like a house or an office (one step smaller than a pico-cell). AT&T joins Sprint and Verizon Wireless who offer a similar device, with a similar cost and a similar monthly charge. It's great to see carriers addressing one of the most perplexing problems: indoor coverage. However, there are many other extended coverage solutions already available to us, with no monthly charge!

Prices for some cellular extenders are considerably cheaper than those offered by the carriers. We found one cellular "extender", or repeater, for about $160, for both 850 and 1900 MHz service and aren't limited to one carrier (although few of them work with Nextel (iDEN) phones). Some carriers sell theirs for as much as $250.

If you're considering a femtocell, look at the types not associated with one carrier. You'll make everyone in the office happy, or give yourself a way to finally cut the cord at home.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What's With "The Noise"?

Our group of web sites is the result of work from several individuals and we decided that the name "The View from Mountain Wireless" doesn't include the other contributors in areas like Coverage Maps, PRL's, Cell Sites, Prepaid phones and others. So we agreed to rename this blog with a "neutral" name: "Cellular Noise", with a URL of www.CellularNoise.com.

I guess that means we need to make more "noise" about wireless subjects, and you can too. Over the next few days we will be converting all the old addresses to the new address, so you might experience some delays while your links are forwarded, and your Reader might also get confused. We'll keep the Feedburner name at MountainWireless. I'm told all the pages should still be connected, but let us know if you suddenly don't find us. Let's make some "Noise!"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We Hired a Moose!

A few years ago, the Mountain Wireless web site grew too large for one person and one web site, so we started separate web sites to cover separate topics like Coverage Maps, Cell Sites, PRL's, Cellular Tips & Secrets, and more. Each site had it's own "Discount" page that provided links to various online discounts, to help us defray the costs of maintaining all those web sites. Now all those 'shopping' pages have become too unwieldy for all the different people involved.

So we hired a Moose to do the shopping. Most of our Discount links now forward to Moose Wireless, but the offers remain intact. Visitors get the best deals available online...some of them are pretty small...but they're still the best you can get. The Moose posts more deals than the rest of us could find.

We realize most readers of this blog don't use our shopping pages because you're just too savvy a group to look in just one place. However, since The Moose's only mission is to 'graze' around the internet and find the best online wireless deals, please bookmark the site and give him (her?) the chance to find you the best cellular deals on the web. It's the economic reality we face...there's still no free lunch.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

T-Mobile Gives In

For those who didn't follow the thread about T-Mobile and charging for a paper bill, they changed their mind about adding the $1.50 fee after a rather loud consumer response in opposition, and a threat from the New York state Attorney General. This is the right move on T-Mobile's part, but many customers, both current and potential, may not forget this anti-consumer move.

One of the biggest objections was the universal belief that there would be absolutely no amount of saved paper. If anything, it would create even more waste when customers are forced to print their own bills. T-Mobile can make many other moves: offer a discount for online bills, semi-monthly billing, or just plain raise prices, to save money and maybe trees, without raising the ire of otherwise loyal fans. Oh, and guys, maybe wait until the economy gets better before adding even a penny of additional charges...OK?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

T-Mobile Considers Buying Sprint

In a story that appeared in the Sunday Daily Telegraph, European cellular provider Deutsche Telekom, the parent of T-Mobile, is talking to their bankers about the possible purchase of Sprint/Nextel. We were hoping for a savior for Sprint and Nextel riding in on a horse of a different color. This means, if successful, the number 3 and 4 wireless companies in the US will combine to become the number 1 or number 2 carrier, and we lose another competitor.

Of course there will be a few kinks to iron out, like differing (GSM, CDMA, & iDEN) technologies and potential Department of Justice considerations. But it seems to be the next step down the inevitable path of consolidation, and eventual price increases. And the 'what-ifs': will they stay separate, switch to all-GSM or CDMA, and will Nextel be sent packing?

Sprint needs the help since they can't seem to fix their own problems, but it's sad it may come at the expense of yet another major wireless player in the US. Hello Cricket...hello MetroPCS, you guys ready to move up?

Monday, September 14, 2009

T-Mobile Goes Consumer UN-Friendly

After winning awards from JD Power for consumer satisfaction, it seems unusual that T-Mobile would do something that will irritate their customers. T-Mobile has initiated a $1.50 charge for paper bills. That's the bill, not a detailed statement. While other carriers are trying to cut their bills down to a 1-page statement, this move by T-Mobile goes farther. It has created an enormous amount of ill-will for such a small increase in revenue.

T-Mobile customers who are irate about this charge are considering this enough of a change in contract terms that they intent to cancel their T-Mobile service, expecting the Early Termination Fee to be waived. A few state attorneys general agree.

I can think of a number of ways to make this change a lot more consumer-friendly, and T-Mobile may eventually regret this move. But we advise customers who like T-Mobile to consider carefully before jumping ship. This really IS a small change and shouldn't make T-mobile any less of a great value. It may also be a good time to consider switching to T-Mobile Prepaid.

Friday, September 11, 2009

AT&T and Sprint Add More Free Calls

It's almost too little too late. AT&T announced Wednesday they will be adding a "Calling Circle" plan called the "A-List" that allows free calls to 5 numbers of your choice, wireless or landline. The next day Sprint started offering a mobile to mobile plan to any other wireless customer on any US network called "Any Mobile, Anytime".

AT&T comes to the dance rather late as Verizon Wireless announced their Calling Circle plan last spring and T-mobile has had theirs much longer. Coincidentally, both AT&T and Verizon's step into the calling circle world comes on the heels of each company's upcoming acquisition of their respective parts of the Alltel network with the implication of continuing Alltel's successful "My Circle" plan. AT&T does need to offer some carrots to keep their slice of Alltel customers from jumping ship.

Over at Sprint, we give them credit for coming up with something new with an "all-carrier" mobile to mobile feature. However, it requires a minimum $70 Sprint plan, which puts them perilously close to their Unlimited voice plan at $80.

These are small steps for these carriers, but it does keep the competition ball rolling. We already expect Atlantic Tele-Network to be competitive with their part of Alltel. It's cool to see Alltel having such an influence on the industry on their way to the grave.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

AT&T Responds

While not admitting their wireless network needs help, yesterday, AT&T released a statement that they are making substantial improvements in several markets. Surprisingly, none of the markets mentioned are those that users mentioned as being surprisingly deficient. Which is it, a veiled attempt at addressing the problem, or making enough noise on this side of the curtain so no one can hear the outcry coming from the other side?

As one reader noted yesterday, AT&T has a lot of good products that are not the iPhone. Look behind the Apple to appreciate what AT&T offers, and that works well!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

AT&T's Dirty Little Secret

It is becoming a little more obvious that AT&T has a problem: the iPhone. Yes, one of AT&T's biggest benefits is also one of their greatest downfalls. While we have known that the iPhone is a real data hog, and that AT&T's 3G network is still not ready for prime time, these problems have recently appeared in mainstream media. Until recently, AT&T claimed they did not have any coverage or access problems. But now with inquiries from local newspapers and TV stations, they are finding it harder to deny the reality: AT&T users, and more specifically, iPhone owners, are suffering from a lot of dropped calls.

Our most recent exposure was reports on local TV about these coverage problems, showing maps of the greatest amount of dropped calls. Finally, AT&T has admitted they are working on the problem. Really troubling is that AT&T reports there will be substantial outages as some cell sites actually go offline "for a day or two" to replace equipment. A day or two?? And customers should expect bad service for several months! Refund? Hah!

The cNet article implies that the fault may not be solely with the network, but as we have hammered for years, AT&T needs to step up their network upgrades. There may be only so much they can do so fast. But they'd better do it, and tell us they're doing it...their dirty little secret isn't much of a secret any longer.

Oh, did we mention that there are dozens of Alltel cell sites that need to be upgraded to GSM?

Monday, August 31, 2009

With ATN Comes More GSM Roaming

The recent reactions to our report on AT&T's roaming agreements with other GSM carriers got us thinking about the Atlantic Tele-Network (ATN) acquisition of the Divested Alltel properties across the US. ATN's subsidiary, Commnet Wireless, supplies GSM roaming to almost twice the geographic area as CDMA roaming. It leads us to believe that eventually, ATN will add GSM to their newly-acquired Alltel sites in their 26 market areas.

We got a 'back door' confirmation of that possibility as part of the protest being lodged by a group of Georgia telephone company operators. Their complaint to the FCC is partly based on the fact that while ATN will probably continue to be a CDMA carrier, they will sacrifice spectrum with a GSM roaming-only overlay, thus providing inferior service. Other arguments by the Georgia group seem silly, but if I were sitting at the FCC seeing that a CDMA operator may add GSM roaming to their CDMA sites (just like Alltel does in other markets, today), I would say, "Hurray!"

Not only do we get a new, independent cellular operator across the US, who will probably expand their local service across several other licensed markets in the country, but we also gain a GSM roaming partner with a company that specializes in hard-to-cover rural areas. Contrary to the Georgia naysayers, this sounds like a win-win for the cellular customer.

The Georgia group probably has an agenda that is unrelated to the ATN transaction and focuses more on Verizon Wireless. ATN responded with another press release which is posted on our ATN information page. Thanks for the protest, guys. Without it we wouldn't get updates.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Unlimited: Picking Up Speed?

We have been waiting for the next Unlimited shoe to drop. Since several carriers and resellers have dropped their Unlimited prices to the $30 to $50 range, we wonder how long can the major carriers hold their prepaid options to the $99 level. We have been watching a rumor that AT&T will announce a $60 Unlimited rate soon, but we have absolutely no confirmation. Is it just wishful thinking on someones part?

Switching to get a better rate has been very popular lately, but the large carriers claim there has been no loss of customers moving to prepaid. Since there is no longer a stigma attached to using Prepaid, users are happy to cut their wireless bills in half.

We actually expected Sprint to be the first to make a move to a cheaper Unlimited rate but they may be hanging their hopes on the popularity of their Boost Mobile Unlimited plans, and maybe their upcoming purchase of Virgin Mobile. If Pocket Wireless in Texas is selling Unlimited at $25 a month, and is still making money, how low can we go?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Atlantic Tele-Network Review

There was much speculation about what service will be like when Atlantic Tele-Network (ATN) takes over part of the divested Alltel network. We have taken the next step and actually added our review of what service should be like with the new owners. ATN estimates that approvals from the US Department of Justice and the FCC should come in the 4th quarter of 2009. That means around October or November things should begin a slow change from the "old" Alltel, to the "new".

We use "old" and "new" because we think the new network will resemble what Alltel looks like today, and that's good. Their Customer Service might be answering the phone in Little Rock, Arkansas, which will not be served by ATN. There will probably be some confusion as Alltel customers get "The Letter" detailing who goes where. And then there's the Alltel web site that sends you merrily on your way depending on what Zip Code you enter...which may or may not be the right place. Our review will reflect these changes as they happen.

For some of us it will be fun to watch. For a few others, it will cause headaches. But we bet there will be several hundred thousand customers who won't notice any change to their service and won't even think about it unless their phone breaks. The status quo can be wonderful.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Unlimited Joy

While we don't see an "Unlimited war" brewing, we do see a competitive situation getting warmer as Cricket Wireless and MetroPCS each "improve" their Unlimited offers. Both carriers have made the $40 price point much more attractive by adding many more features, including some roaming. This would be in response to recently offered Unlimited plans from Boost Mobile for $50, Virgin Mobile for $50+, and TracFone's StraightTalk from Wal-Mart at $45 (with Verizon-branded handsets).

Fortunately, Cricket and MetroPCS now have lots of features they can add or subtract to create a custom-made plan at several price points. Our favorite feature is roaming, both on and off their own networks. Oh, and don't forget all the other well-priced Unlimited plans from all the smaller carriers we spoke of last week. The pressure will be on them to keep their prices in check, too.

I still don't talk that much...

Friday, July 31, 2009

Small Carriers to the Rescue

Our last article, reflecting our worries about reduced roaming capabilities, struck a cord among several users, including a few who posted here on the blog. Of their biggest concerns are the potential loss of roaming on the major carriers, most notably AT&T and Verizon Wireless. One of the bright spots we did not point out was the fact that there are several small carriers who are filling a handful of these voids and may become critically important.

Cricket's latest coverage map shows available roaming in some surprisingly remote locations, and a lack of coverage in some mainstream locales. Further review shows Cricket depending on some extremely small carriers like Farmers Mutual Telephone Company of Idaho, and Strata Networks in the states surrounding northeast Utah, and less roaming on Verizon or Sprint. Using a T-Mobile phone showed some pleasant surprises with roaming on Viaero Wireless in Nebraska and Colorado, and Cellular one of Texahoma. Another player who may see gains as a roaming partner is Commnet Wireless who supplies coverage to both CDMA and GSM customers and focuses on coverage in "surprising" locations.

These small carriers have become an important part of the roaming mix. Some of them are doing very well as they provide a much better choice for local users. Others are slipping downhill, likely due to a lack of local promotion and forward-thinking service. Over the years, we have posted articles in praise of the small regional carriers (the most recent on March 9th), mostly because of what they offer the Local user. Now, it's what they offer all of us.

More than ever before, I heartily encourage you to consider these smaller cellular companies for your cellular service. Most of us do not have these great alternatives available, however many do have that choice in suburbs of some large cities and don't even know it. Always include them when considering a new carrier. We'll keep our data base up to date so you can include them in your decision. Our roaming future may depend on it!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Roam Rage

Since the announcement of the takeover of Alltel by Verizon Wireless, we have been predicting an eventual increase in roaming rates, and a reduction of roaming capabilities. Even more serious is the total loss of GSM roaming in some of those areas. AT&T will maintain some of that GSM coverage, and ATN should as well. But with so much roaming coverage controlled by just AT&T and Verizon, we can’t help but think the coverage of Sprint, T-Mobile and dozens of smaller carriers are in peril. Fortunately, the news is not yet all bad.

Verizon Wireless announced today it will allow “in-market” roaming for 2 years for a few of the newer carriers, such as Cricket and MetroPCS, who are still building their own network. This is in addition to Verizon’s agreement with the FCC to maintain the existing Alltel GSM roaming for 4 years, as well as their existing CDMA agreements. After that, things could get scary.

We worry even more about what these and other forces will do to the viability of every other wireless carrier. While we may not have a Sprint to worry about in 4 years, we will have a handful of smaller carriers who may suffer fatal injuries if the “Big 2” start acting like they’re the only game outside of town. And they may be.

Part of this lies in our own hands. Will we subscribe to Cricket knowing it won’t work without extra charges in Montana? Will we cancel Sprint for not providing free roaming in the cornfields of Nebraska? The day of reckoning is still a few years away. Will it be only the buffalo who will roam then?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Alltel Keeps Getting Better

We still believe Alltel Wireless is one of the best carriers in the country, and their latest promotion reinforces just how much we may miss them when they're gone. Alltel today announced a "Back to School" promotion that includes 3 months of free service for all new added lines. The offer is limited to the non-Verizon Alltel markets (shown in Red and Yellow on this Map), and you still only need to sign a 1-year agreement.

This past weekend marked another milestone for those Alltel customers who are being absorbed into Verizon Wireless as their accounts are now being serviced exclusively by Verizon. There are several markets yet to be integrated, and a few Alltel customers who live in markets that will be sold to AT&T or ATN now appear to be Verizon Wireless customers, but in reality, a quirk in the conversion process make Alltel phones show "Verizon" on the screen while they will still end up with another company.

Those eligible for these great Alltel deals is a dwindling number, but for those others who watched their great Alltel accounts turn into so-so, or even unappealing Verizon accounts, those who are still Alltel customers may be looked at with some envy.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

ATN Update

The Atlantic Tele-Network story is a big deal to us because when the deal is complete they will be the 8th largest cellular carrier in the US. And once they take over the divested Alltel properties, they have the potential of adding thousands of additional customers in their existing Commnet Wireless markets.

What caused our interest most recently is ATN president Michael Prior's latest press release from last Tuesday. "ATN is decidedly not a national carrier and will not be replicating their one size fits all approach. Rather, the plans and differentiated service offerings currently enjoyed by these customers will stay in place." This strongly hints that they intend to keep some or all of Alltel's existing plans.

From their 2007 annual report, "The large carriers are focused on adding subscribers and services and we can enhance the subscriber experience by providing coverage in unexpected areas..." How many of us have been pleasantly surprised to find cellular coverage where we didn't expect it? Here's a company that seeks out these locations and install cell sites there! Gotta love that.

Like a number of vocal Alltel users, we're surprised US Cellular didn't pick up these divested Alltel properties. Now that we are looking at what looks like a completely new cellular provider, we may be getting something even better: competition! What a concept.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Who Is ATN (Atlantic Tele-Network)?

A new cellular carrier has appeared on the horizon, but they aren't really new. Atlantic Tele-Network (ATN) has been involved in cellular and landline telephone service for many years. We just can't wait to add them to our list of Carrier Reviews because it will be fun to watch their evolution.

We have assembled all of the important facts about this company and posted them at a Who Is ATN? web page. ATN, along with their US cellular subsidiary, Commnet Wireless, are probably putting together a game plan on how to become a successful cellular carrier. They are already an experienced network operator and have extensive roaming agreements already in place.

We are happy to see parts of Alltel survive, even if the name gets changed. We told them not to use "Cellular One", but who knows what the perceptual surveys will indicate.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

AT&T Gets Cheers for 850 MHz

While we feel many of the networks that utilize 1900 MHz (PCS) frequencies do an adequate job, many AT&T customers lament the overloads experienced presumably from so many iPhone users who are limited to 1900 MHz spectrum. So we have received more than just a few inquiries about the addition of AT&T's recently announced purchase of most of the divested Alltel network. While we feel the new spectrum and facilities will make a significant contribution to AT&T's rural footprint, it won't do much to improve the experience of those users who suffer from dropped connections in urban areas.

Fortunately, AT&T has admitted that most of their data is transferred at 1900 MHz and is now in the process of making it available on their 850 MHZ channels. One of our major complaints about AT&T was the limitation of using the 1900 MHz spectrum from their 850 Mhz cell sites during the rollout of GSM, and we are equally disappointed to find they are still doing that for data. Surprisingly, Verizon Wireless does the same thing where they have both 850 and 1900 MHz active...with few complaints. Are AT&T users more demanding of their network, or is the network not quite ready for prime time? We fear the latter. But AT&T has announced thousands of new cell sites on the drawing board.

You know what's funny? When Cingular and AT&T combined, it resulted in the largest US cellular network based on the number of cell sites, around 15,000, and still coverage suffers. Keep building, guys...it's still the network, ya know.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sprint Roaming Response

For the last few years we have rated Sprint higher due to their good Roaming capabilities. Last year Sprint phones began to prefer roaming on Alltel over Verizon, and while Alltel is an excellent roaming partner, it involved a change. Some Sprint users told us their roaming coverage degraded. Others liked the improved data throughput Alltel offered. This discussion has expanded in newsgroups and forums, and we're seeing more and more Sprint customers with problems with their roaming coverage.

We can only speculate why Sprint roaming would be deteriorating. The change to preferring Alltel should have made things better and Verizon's acquisition of most Alltel sites should improve it even more. Sprint phones will not choose the carrier with the best signal, but rather the signal that costs them the least in roaming fees. This could cause your Sprint phone to hold a weaker signal longer than you'd like, but it shouldn't be any worse coverage than that experienced by an Alltel or Verizon customer. It makes us conclude that this is just one more dark cloud that hangs over the heads of the Sprint/Nextel. For the time being, we'll give Sprint the benefit of the doubt.

In the future, possibly a year from now, some Alltel sites will disappear and will be replaced by nearby Verizon sites...another change...and maybe new dead spots. With the loss of Alltel, Verizon will still maintain Sprint's roaming possibilities, but what happens when their roaming agreements expire and there is only one CDMA roaming carrier available, and it's an 800-pound gorilla? We'll roam across that bridge when we get to it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rest of Alltel Goes to ATN

Who? ATN is Atlantic Tele-Network who owns a few small cellular systems that includes Commnet Wireless. In a move that shouldn't have surprised us, they agreed to pay $200 Million for what appears to be the balance of the Alltel assets required to be divested by Verizon Wireless. If so, this would complete the list of Alltel properties to be sold, and it seems to preclude US Cellular who at one time was thought to have the most to benefit with the addition of the spun off Alltel properties. The ATN purchase includes over 800,000 Alltel customers who would probably love to continue to be Alltel customers. Just for fun, we added the ATN/Alltel properties to the Top 10 cellular carrier rankings just to show the relative size of the affected network.

We have been waiting for a response from ATN as to what the plans are for this part of the divested Alltel network. Will it continue to be known as Alltel, or might they apply one of their other subsidiary names which include Commnet Wireless and even a Cellular One (of Bermuda)? If the history of the cellular name game is any indication, we could see the Alltel name live on. Or how about something new and clever? And will there be consolidation of the existing markets, mostly rural, of Commnet Wireless into this new network? And should we expect CDMA to live on? ATN supports both CDMA and GSM.

We are thrilled to see a separate network survive from the Alltel divestiture. May they live long and prosper.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mexican Cell Phones Play Hard-to-Get

The Mexican government changed the rules for getting a cell phone in 2009, requiring anyone signing up for a new account to provide complete documentation. While it’s still possible to purchase a Mexican cell phone or SIM, the requirements have taken the convenient storefront or kiosk cellular dealer out of the picture. You’ll need to go to a corporate-owned cellular store, show them your passport, and fill out an application, including for Prepaid, and even just for a SIM, if they will sell it to you. The problem is most cities only have 1 or 2 such official stores in each town, with several in Mexico City. This makes the Mexican cellular phone a less desirable choice for roaming in Mexico.

The good news is that once you acquire your cellular account, most convenience stores can refill your account with their store computer. This eliminates the need for you to deal with Spanish-speaking prompts on the phone, you only need to show them your Mexican cellular number and a few hundred pesos.

In my case, I was able to refill my Movistar Prepaid account, which has yet to expire after almost 1 year of non-use. But I am not willing to take the time and expense to travel across town to get a new TelCel account ‘by the rules’. Yes, it means we’re going to start paying even more roaming charges by using our US-based phones more often. After the problems we had last year, even .99 a minute seems reasonable considering the challenges of the alternatives.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Future of T-Mobile Roaming

With AT&T working toward taking over Alltel markets in the rural west, our concern turns to the future of Roaming for T-Mobile. Currently, T-Mobile gains extensive roaming coverage in rural areas with an agreement will Alltel. Those GSM parts of the Alltel network that have been taken over by Verizon Wireless, will remain as they are today, no better or worse, for the next 4 years. But what happens when AT&T takes over the remaining Alltel (and Unicel) areas? Will they make life more difficult for T-Mobile and other GSM carriers?



We will assume that AT&T's acquisition of those Alltel areas with GSM service will continue to be available to GSM roamers for the same 4 years. We would also expect AT&T to expand GSM coverage beyond what Alltel offers, but will they offer that expanded roaming coverage to T-Mobile and others? And in 4 years, will AT&T say, sorry no more roaming for you.



CDMA operators (like Verizon and Sprint) normally do not play nice with GSM operators (like AT&T and T-Mobile). But when Verizon agreed to sell their Alltel spin-offs to AT&T, we know it's all about the money and not any technology alliance. AT&T allows T-Mobile roamers in some areas, but will this hold true for the future? T-Mobile may not necessarily be limited to their AT&T brethren to maintain their service levels. Spectrum leasing has changed the coverage playing field. Let's hope the sandbox stays civil, but that the cell site builders stand at the ready to add more equipment should there be a roaming call to arms.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Alltel Goes to 1 Year Contracts

It's good news-bad news at Alltel. If you live in an Alltel Divested area and you didn't get the Alltel plan you wanted to hold for 2 years, it's almost too late. Wireless Week reports Alltel divested customers will now get plans with a 1-year contract. Alltel customers who are being acquired by Verizon Wireless (non-divested) most likely are already being offered only Verizon 2-year plans.

Whether it's good news or bad depends on your outlook of your Alltel service. There's a good chance Alltel plans as we know them won't exist 2 years from now. And if you're one that looked at a 2-year agreement as a bad thing, then it's all good now. Alltel claims everything else is business as usual. Let's hope that means handset prices won't increase as a result.

This change takes effect tomorrow, June 5th. Wanna lock in that cool plan, now?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Coverage Leader: TracFone!

In our latest project, one of our contributors switched to Prepaid, so he built up a web site dedicated to finding the best Pay-As-You-Go plans, CellularByTheMinute.com. The surprise he came up with is which company has the most extensive coverage for Pay-As-You-Go plans. TracFone, it turns out, has the most coverage without additional roaming charges. Verizon Wireless, even with the recent addition of Alltel properties, does not have as great Prepaid coverage.

The difficulty with TracFone's coverage is that it is handset-dependent. To get their best coverage you need to purchase one of their CDMA handsets, and you can only buy one if you live (or want a phone number in) certain CDMA markets. You need to do your homework, but TracFone does give you a list of phone models on their coverage page. Most of the phones offered by TracFone are GSM, often based on the AT&T network. AT&T is good, but GSM coverage isn't as extensive as CDMA coverage, especially in the rural west. Check before you buy from a retailer's shelf.

Remember, this is all for Prepaid. Verizon Wireless and AT&T both offer thorough coverage with their 'postpaid' plans, but most carriers limit Prepaid coverage to just their own network. That is greatest with Verizon's network, but there are still holes. TracFone serves those holes. We also give credit to T-Mobile's Prepaid for offering included coverage in a larger number of roaming areas than AT&T GoPhone, and Alltel U who offers included coverage in more areas than Verizon's Prepaid.

TracFone...go figure.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Don't Sweat Your Next Phone Choice

This happens to active wireless users more than once every 2 years. We agonize over the choice of our next wireless phone, and often buy several, searching for the "perfect" phone. I have been in the same position, but in my case, I have been agonizing for years on how to make a web spreadsheet that will assist others in making this decision.

Recently, I was introduced to a study, The Tyranny of Choice, by Barry Schwartz, a Professor of Social Theory, who introduced the idea that the larger our number of choices, the less satisfied we are with the choices we make. The most important lessons taken from this study were:
  • Learn when to choose (restricting our options to the minimum necessary)
  • Learn to accept "good enough" (settle on the choice that fulfills our core requirements)
  • Don't Worry About What you're Missing (focus on the positive parts of your choice)
  • Control your expectations (yes, expect less and you won't be disappointed)

With cellular service and phones, we always suggest you limit your choices to 3, and one of those 3 could be your current phone or carrier. With rapid changes in technology, whatever you think is "Best" today will be stale tomorrow. You can start the process over in the future, but don't worry about your choice after it is made. It's OK to be obsessed with you cellular phone selection, but once it's made, you must go on with your life, or you will rapidly become unhappy with your decision.

I am thankful daily for the things I never had that I never wanted.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another Pay As You Go Convert

I just heard from a reader who decided to try out our suggestion of Going Prepaid to save money. He discovered on our Unlimited Comparison page that AT&T's GoPhone was offering Unlimited calls for $3 a day. He makes lots of calls Monday through Friday, but keeps his phone off on weekends. He converted his expensive AT&T account to GoPhone, and now expects his bills to be no more than $60 to $70 a month...for Unlimited! When he takes a few days off, he keeps the phone off, giving him even more savings.

We believe the carriers would rather you not pay by the day, but competition is forcing their hand. Our reader had reservations about "going prepaid", but when he realized he would have Unlimited minutes and would be paying about half of his old rate, we was an immediate convert.

Instead of describing this as a trend toward Prepaid, we would rather view this as a movement toward paying as you go. And I bet the carriers hate it. Will Verizon Wireless follow with a drop in their Unlimited prepaid (now at $4 a day)? Hopefully, there's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Uncle Gary Went Prepaid

Uncle Gary reluctantly went wireless last year. He strolled into a Verizon Wireless store and walked out with a phone with a touch screen and all the bells & whistles. Uncle Gary thought it was cool, but he was paying over $75 a month. After the first month or two, he was using less than 100 minutes a month. He tried to switch to a cheaper plan, but he couldn't because that model of phone requires certain plan minimums.

A few months ago, Uncle Gary dropped his Verizon account knowing that he will save more than the Early Termination Fee within a couple months. He was ready to dump the phone, but it's shiny screen and cool features made it hard to part with.

After creating our Converting to Prepaid page, I suggested activating his snappy new phone on Page Plus Cellular. Page Plus uses the Verizon network, any Verizon phone, and activating on Page Plus is only $12. If you search around, you'll find people online who can activate it for free. Then, Uncle Gary can refill his account for as little as $10 for up to 120 days of use. The only limitation is that he must pay roaming fees when traveling off the Verizon network. As you can see on the right, the new Verizon native network includes a lot of real estate.


I'm guessing Uncle Gary will need a little more than $10 worth every 4 months...maybe $25. There are even discounts available on that. So the result is: before: $75 a month, now: $6.25 a month. He could even save by switching to Verizon's own prepaid depending on how many days he uses his phone.


Uncle Gary is now a happy wireless user, it just took some time to get him on the right plan. You can be, too.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

More Cellular One

A little over a year ago we complained when an established cellular carrier in Montana, Chinook Wireless, switched to the old school name Cellular One. We felt it was step backward, especially when there was a previous Cellular One in the area with its own set of baggage. Today we find the Cellular One franchise ball continues to roll. Amerilink Wireless along the Texas/Oklahoma border has also taken up the moniker, as Cellular One of Texoma. We still think this is a step backward, and yes, there was an old Cellular One in this area as well.

Also, Cellular One of Northeast Arizona stopped using the web address, 4cornerswireless.com. So, while they aren't changing to Cellular One, they stopped moving away from it. Confusing us even more, if you were to access http://www.cellularone.com/, you are presented with ads and links for T-Mobile and Skype, Cellular One competitors! What were they thinking? I'll tell you: they weren't.

For a phrase that was muttered nonchalantly in 1983, Cellular One lives to preserve cellular history, but as a trade name, we feel it lacks the edge of a hot, new name, like, uh...Cingular?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Joy in Rural America

While we are nearly in tears about the loss of Alltel Wireless, there is a segment of America that is drooling at the coming of AT&T. Yes, the loss of Alltel means less competition, but if you live in Big Horn, Wyoming, the only thing you see is the name of the local cellular store getting changed from Alltel to AT&T. Many of these users don't see the reduction in the number of cellular carriers. They see a whole new set of cool phones, especially the Apple iPhone, coming to their town. And that makes them happy.

In larger cities like Cleveland, Phoenix, and even Pueblo, Colorado, the Alltel store just disappears, and people in those towns may notice there's less competition. But in Big Horn, whether or not they are Alltel customers, they'll be excited about the coming of AT&T, and GSM, and the iPhone, and a new cellular choice.

At Mountain Wireless, we're adapting, too. As Alltel gets split up into several pieces, we have adjusted our Ratings and Reviews, and will update them as necessary. This includes updating reviews of AT&T which will make some huge gains in the rural west. This is a good thing, except if it propels us into a 3- or 2-carrier dominated cellular market. And the feds will make sure our prices won't skyrocket, right?

Friday, May 8, 2009

AT&T Gets Most of Alltel!

Today the deal was announced by AT&T. AT&T will get about 75% of Alltel with the rest still to be decided among US Cellular and investor groups. The deal will cost AT&T $2.35 Billion. AT&T says they will convert the entire network to GSM within a year after closing. Parts of the Alltel network already provide GSM roaming coverage.

Verizon Wireless grouped the Alltel markets into 30 "regions". AT&T will get 24 "regions" and US Cellular and the bidding investors are looking at the other 6. We will assume a "region" is a collection of geographically adjacent markets and AT&T's region contains 74 Alltel and Unicel markets. US Cellular did indicate they were mostly interested in markets closest to their existing service areas.

Hey, rural America gets the iPhone!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Converting Your Phone To Prepaid

As family finances get tighter, many people are looking at the cost of cellular service. Most users don't want to give it up, but can't find ways to save money, even by switching carriers. We'll help you save potentially big bucks by guiding through the Switch to Prepaid.

The cellular carriers do not want you to pay by the minute, so they throw a lot of obstacles in your way. They make more money by charging you for a fixed number of minutes, even though you never actually use those minutes. Several carriers actually eliminated certain price points so you'll need to pay for the next higher priced plan. Even with AT&T's Rollover, you're still paying for minutes you'll never use. For example, if you have a $60 plan that gives you 900 Anytime minutes, but you only use 500, you can pay just $50 with most prepaid plans, and maybe less, even with some Unlimited plans. Your savings will depend on how close you get to your calling plan threshold.

Think about your time on holidays or vacation when you made few calls. You still paid for those minutes. Or how about the month you went way over your minute allotment. You paid .45 each for extra minutes. It could have been as low as .10 a minute (or nothing with Unlimited).

The easiest method to Convert to Prepaid is to switch with your current carrier. Not all carriers offer Prepaid and many Prepaid plans do not include off-network roaming. We show you the options. Prepaid is becoming more consumer-friendly and is no longer just for the credit-challenged. In tough economic times, if you can only justify spending $20 a month for cellular, you can do it. We'll show you how.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Verizon Asks for Alltel Extension

In a move that everyone expected, Verizon Wireless has applied for a 60-day extension of the deadline to make the required divestiture of certain Alltel and Unicel markets in order to get approval for their acquisition of Alltel Wireless. This confirms the expected divestiture date of July 9, 2009 as the best guess date that Verizon will split away their required properties.

The most recent information shows that there were a few bidders on all or parts of the Alltel, Verizon and Unicel divestiture properties in a private "auction". Verizon claims, and we believe, they need time to sort out the best deals for themselves and then get the required approvals. In our book, anything that keeps Alltel a separate operation a little longer is a good thing for cellular customers. An extension of the divestiture certainly gives current Alltel customers an extension of the anxiety already felt about their service, but it lets many of them enjoy what we feel is still one of the superior cellular operations the country a little longer.

If you read in July that Verizon asks for yet another extension, that just could be another good thing. And for those savvy Alltel customers who know what a good thing they have, it will be a chance to extend their contracts yet again. I know, who thought wanting to extend your contract would be desirable?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cellular Carrier Changes

When you don't see a blog entry for a few days, you know we're either roaming or our noses are buried in serious web site updating. This time we have been checking our links among our Review Pages, visiting the associated web sites, and calling some of the carriers to get additional information. It's something we do on a regular basis, with a complete update at least once a year. We found some changes, but no big surprises:

Airpeak Wireless just plain moved from northern Nevada to southeast California. We've never seen a network move before.

Brazos Cellular in Texas sold out to AT&T.

Also in Texas, West Central Wireless took over 5 Star Wireless, but the two are still operated separately, although with nearly identical plans.

Cellular One of Northeast Arizona, the only carrier that serves the entire Navajo Nation, has stopped hosting their site at www.4cornerswireless.com. Why did they change their mind? Hopefully, it has nothing to do with the flap over the actual location of the real 4 Corners!

Sagebrush Cellular is now called Nemont Telephone (as in NorthEast MONTana) to reflect the name of parent telephone cooperative.

Wilkes Wireless, the phone company in Georgia that shunned wireless customers, changed their name to Via Wireless and now at least gives you an online application you can send in to ask for wireless service. Who would bother with an application when you can just call any other carrier to start service? And why did they bother changing the name?

As usual, we recommend you check the offers from the smaller carriers in your state. Some of them offer a truly superior product.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mexico Roaming Update

Our trip for Spring Break this year was to Asia, so we're depending on the reports from Mexico that are trickling in from other beach-goers. The first notable change is that the 2 top GSM carriers, Movistar and TelCel have both lowered the number of minutes you get with their "Pay Per Call" plans, now at 15 minutes per call to the US, with each call costing about $1.50USD per 15 minute segment. That is still a good deal, but it's only half the number of minutes originally offered with these plans a couple years ago.

Sprint users were especially disappointed to find their roaming charges are now $1.69USD per minute, and their Text Messaging doesn't work in Mexico at all! It's ironic Sprint is one of the top roaming phones in the US, but not so south of the border. However, Nextel phones work quite well, but not for Voice or Text, but for the time being, free Internet access. Is it a glitch or a real promotion? Enjoy it while you can.

Alltel users are still getting their calls at no extra charge in Mexico (and Canada) with their North America Freedom plans. Still no word on what might happen with these plans. Considering renewing for another 2 years.

All changes are reflected on our Mexico Roaming Page. Of course, we'll need risk sunburn and head down there later this year to find out for ourselves, especially with a wi-fi phone. Now, if the carriers there would just let us "press 2 for English" like they do in Asia.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Alltel Auction

Bloomberg.com reported earlier this week that there were 4 bidders for the Alltel properties that must be divested by Verizon Wireless. In a quiet auction, the list of potential buyers includes AT&T, US Cellular, the Blackstone Group, and a joint bid from KKR & Co. and Carlyle Group. Missing from the report is Cox Communications who, as recently as 2 months ago, was reported to be considering the Alltel assets. Reuters reports that Verizon Wireless claimed there were 30 bidders showing interest in various Alltel properties.

Whew, it's a relief that US Cellular is still in the running. It's also good news that an investment group is making a bid, although there is no guarantee that they will keep the Alltel network separate. They could just slice up the pieces and re-sell them to bidders that couldn't afford the bigger package. For consumers, it would be beneficial if these investors would keep the Alltel network independent, but we could also benefit if these properties were combined with another network, maybe even US Cellular. But the business world rarely makes that kind of sense. It's all about the money. And there may be bidders we'll never know about.

Verizon Wireless has about a month left to identify the buyers before the feds take over. Nobody wants that to happen. The taxpayers have a bunch of toxic assets on our hands, already.