Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Roaming

As with many other millions of Americans, we're on the road for the holidays. While I can write and post my comments from the front seat of the car while roaming across the US, its not something I really want to do. I enjoy the passing landscape no matter how barren. Nice views make me glad I'm traveling, ugly views help me appreciate the beauty of our home state.

The only news is that we haven't found any roaming changes across our travels in Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. We know we're gonna miss roaming on Alltel, although under Verizon (or a new carrier) it could get better. The areas of concern are those with Alltel GSM coverage that Verizon will not be upgrading or expanding. We probably won't notice until next year when we make the trip 'over the river and through the woods'. For now, the status quo feels good, except for that one dead zone behind the Capulin volcano. Who knew a volcano would still affect coverage centuries after its last eruption?

If you're roaming, please use your phone only where it's safe, not where the GPS lady starts arguing with you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

AT&T & Verizon Finalize Swaps

It's not big news, but over on our sister site, Cellular Map Net, shows the recent exchange between AT&T and Verizon Wireless has been completed. Ex-Unicel coverage is now shown as AT&T coverage in NE Washington, NE New York and NW Vermont. In exchange, Verizon got 2 Cellular markets in central Kentucky. There is some additional PCS spectrum going to Verizon, but it isn't shown because we believe it doesn't create new coverage. The maps also show the Dobson areas as AT&T. Sadly, that means Dobson and parts of Unicel have disappeared.

Now some Unicel customers know they will be AT&T customers, and some AT&T customers, who were Dobson (Cellular One) customers, now belong to Verizon. And the fun will continue as some other Unicel customers will be bundled up with some Alltel customers to join either another cellular carrier, or part of a new network in response to the Verizon takeover.

Some of those details will be coming down before the end of the year, or at least before the new federal administration takes charge. As we have recommended earlier, Unicel & Alltel customers should either sit tight, or possibly extend their contract. We feel things will only get better for them, at least for the short term.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Surprise from Mexico

Last March I added minutes to my Mexico TelCel account and called their English-speaking customer service to convert from "Pay Per Minute" to "Pay Per Call." However, they goofed and I lost almost all my minutes even though I followed their instructions to the letter. I reported the experience on This Page of our Blog. At that time I sent an email to TelCel asking for guidance and some credit.

Well, they responded...almost 9 months later! The response was in Spanish and looks 'canned'. The interpretation seems to be, the next time I purchase a card to call them and make sure the account is set up properly. OK, will do. Credit? No mention.

TelCel still has the best network in Mexico, and even though they have made a number of mistakes that have cost me, they are still the top company for customer service, especially if you don't speak Spanish. When a 9-month response from customer service is considered 'the best', it certainly makes us complain less about being on hold with a US carrier for 10 minutes, right?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Yellowstone Wireless Project

The National Park Service (NPS) recently proposed an overhaul of wireless services in Yellowstone National Park. Their 150-page report is a response to those who want more wireless services in the park, and those who want less. Their figures show the former outnumbers the latter, 70% to 30%. The NPS put together 4 choices:
  • Alternative A: Leave everything as it is with 5 cell sites located within the park.
  • Alternative B: Eliminate all cell sites within the park leaving service only available from signals coming from outside park boundaries.
  • Alternative C: A limited increase in wireless services, both cellular and wi-fi and moving some sites out of view.
  • Alternative D: A substantial increase in wireless service, cellular on all main roads and wi-fi in most lodging.

Unfortunately, the comment period on these choices has already expired and no, we didn't get to make our opinion known, either. The NPS prefers Alternative C because with the improvement in wireless services, they will also move some of the cell sites to where they will be less visible. The purists, who are quite vocal, have made it known they only want Alternative B.

While we appreciate the "wild" aspect of Yellowstone, it is treated more like a theme park than a wilderness and we could easily agree to Alternative C, which, barring any extreme support any other way, is the most likely outcome. I really do want them to move that sore thumb cell site at Old Faithful, and if we all can't agree, Alternative A and the status quo wins, wild or not.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sprint Gives Nextel Some Love

Last month we reported that Sprint was hoping to find a buyer for Nextel. Now it seems they want to hold on to it. Is it the realization that there are no buyers or is it the admission that their 800 MHz rebanding hassles have made it a poison property? It could be that letting go of Nextel could allow a competitor with enough facilities to give Sprint even more customer losses they can't afford.

No matter. We have always felt that cellular users are better off with an independent Nextel and each year it stays in the hands of Sprint, it falls that much more out of favor. I guess that, too, could be a business plan. With the success of Nextel of Mexico, we keep hoping that our hero would arrive from south of the border. But Sprint sees things we don't, and it's either too rosy or too toxic for family consumption. So, Lights, Stage, Let's Rock...or Talk.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

In this holiday season we reflect on what we want, and what we're thankful for. What we want is more coverage. To that end, many people have looked forward to their local wireless carrier being taken over by the likes of AT&T, Verizon Wireless and a few others. Now we are faced with not only a dominant "Big 4", but the prospects of maybe only a "Big 2"! This is not good.

We truly feel there will come a time where the Big 2 (Verizon and AT&T) will have no competition. The small carriers will depend on the Big 2 for roaming service outside their home areas and with the demise of Alltel, we expect those roaming fees to eventually not only rise, but rise significantly.

So let us give thanks for the smaller carriers who remain independent and maybe give them a serious look when our current plans expire. Like Verizon and T-Mobile, foreign investors may be the key to maintaining our cellular choices. Latin American companies already have a presence in our market and would love to have more. These are immigrants we should welcome. In the meantime, I keep doing the math on whether I can port one of our main accounts to T-Mobile and doing our part. And just for fun, we're asking Santa for a Cricket Wireless phone. They might end up being part of the Big 3.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sharpen the Knife: Alltel Divestitures

The FCC has released the final recipe for the new Verizon Wireless/Alltel pie. The feds have added 5 markets to the 100 Verizon has already offered to give up. We have posted the current map of these markets, and the list of the additional FCC markets in an attached list on that page. The FCC report makes for some interesting reading, but here are the high points:
  • Verizon will need to give up all kinds of spectrum in these markets, not just 850 MHz cellular, but others like 700 MHz and 1900 MHz, to get under the 95 MHz cap.
  • Verizon will need to continue Alltel's existing roaming agreements for a minimum of 4 years.
  • Verizon must maintain the Alltel GSM roaming network, however, Verizon says there will be no new GSM sites, and none of them will be upgraded to 3G.
  • Verizon will have 120 days after closing to sell off the divested pieces and must sell them in as geographically-adjacent blocks as possible.

We still recommend you stay with, or jump in on, Alltel's current generous plans. Verizon may or may not keep them, but they're good if only for the short term. Residents of the divested markets, watch this space.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

AT&T Buys Centennial

It's always sad to report the loss of another carrier. With AT&T buying Centennial Wireless, could this mean AT&T won't have enough money to offer Verizon Wireless anything for their divested Alltel properties?

Things will probably get better for Centennial customers under AT&T. We like Centennial, but not their plan pricing. It's always bad news to lose a solid regional carrier, but the locals will probably benefit from the deal. And there are a lot of locals...over 1 million customers. Time to get excited, Kalamazoo!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Why Stay With Alltel?

We have received some heat for still recommending Alltel both here and in our Reviews. If you live within their coverage, Alltel is still a great choice for lots of reasons.

First, Alltel's plans are more generous than those of most other major carriers, especially with features like "My Circle." Second, Alltel's network has been continually upgraded to be as advanced as any. Third, Alltel's coverage is usually the best available in almost every region they serve. Fourth, they have roaming agreements that cover the whole country. You should be able to keep your plan as long as you don't change phones or plans.

What about the future? This map shows most of the areas to be divested. If your account is acquired by Verizon Wireless, you will have locked in a superior Alltel plan, and get all the additional Verizon features and coverage. If you end up with US Cellular, you will join a great carrier who will have a much improved presence across the US, about as large as Alltel is now. If you end up with a brand new company, it will probably look just like today's Alltel, and should still be a Top 10 carrier.

Another possibility is that you might end up with a major carrier like AT&T. No matter how you feel about them, it is not a step down from what you now enjoy with Alltel. If you jump on board with Alltel today, you will have these options, with the ability to leave if you don't like the end result. To bypass Alltel today and go with any other carrier, you lose that choice. The odds are you can keep your current features at least for 2 years. Most people will want to change phones by then.

We are sad to see Alltel go, but joining them now just may be one of the last great cellular opportunities available. Go for it!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Verizon/Alltel-The Next Phase

Verizon Wireless gets to acquire Alltel, but at what cost? The FCC chose Election Day to release some of their most controversial approvals. Were they hoping we wouldn't notice? Even though Verizon offered to divest 100 markets, the FCC asked for 5 more. They also asked Verizon to extend roaming agreements to at least 4 years, and to maintain Alltel's existing GSM roaming network "indefinitely." With that stipulation, AT&T may see the need to offer a premium price for the Alltel spin-offs as unnecesary.

Some people look at this as a positive move, but losing Alltel, a carrier with such a large area of coverage, is a significant loss to cellular choice. An excellent statement by FCC chairman Michael Copps outlines many of the concerns of losing competition over such a wide area of the country, and he notes this may "put some smaller carriers out of business". We have posted a map of the 100 markets Verizon will divest, and, as soon as we can find it, will add the additional 5 markets the FCC requested, one of which is Johnson County, TN.

For now, we still recommend Alltel as an excellent choice of carriers. If you are eventually acquired by Verizon, you will be able to keep what we see as a better value in wireless plans, at least for the near future. If you are among those customers who are divested, you may be able to keep those plans even longer, and will either become a customer of the newest hot cellular carrier, or end up with the number 2 or number 5 cellular operator. That's not a bad choice. But this is a limited time offer. Grab a great Alltel plan before the end of the year and enjoy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Online Coverage Finders

All our Mountain Wireless cellular maps were transferred to a new web site last spring and have grown quite a bit since then. One of the things they added that has been surprisingly useful is a Cellular Coverage Finder page that is nothing more than links to the 'coverage locators' of the Top 9 carriers.

Previously, if you were looking for the carrier with the best coverage in one particular location, and needed a greater degree of detail than the Cellular Map Source web site would provide, you would then go to each individual cellular carrier's web site and seek out their Coverage "Viewer." With the Cellular Map Coverage Finder Page, not only can we get links to all the locators in one place, we can open each one in a separate window and compare them as we see fit.

The good news is that some carriers provide a good level of detail, especially T-Mobile. The bad news is that some carriers don't show any variation in the quality of signal to expect, and others, especially Alltel, are nearly useless. There are 3 different links to Alltel maps to give you a choice of the most usable map for you. There are a handful of carriers who just show you a map of the US with most of the country colored in. Are we supposed to be impressed?

So the next time you want to know if your phone will 'play in Peoria', there's a new convenient way to find out. We love it!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Revisiting the RAZR

It depends on who you talk to, right? We recently reported that the Motorola RAZR phone was still on top of the cellular phone sales charts, only to find subsequent reports show that model missing from other lists entirely. A study from Avian Research, shows that not only is the RAZR not in the top 10, all but 2 phones in that category are "smart" phones, in other words, phones that have more than the normal 12 to 16-button keyboard.

The top of that list is the Blackberry Curve which has a substantial lead over the next place occupant, the Apple iPhone. While these PDA-type phones hold less than 20% of the US handset market, it looks like they are gaining fast. We may be living in a wrong-sized world, but we still believe our phones should get smaller and our TV's should get bigger, not the other way around.

The Verizon Juke seems to be the right-sized phone for us right now, however, the keyboard is still quite a challenge. Just maybe, the new G-Phone from T-Mobile could sit in our car console, but in our pocket? No.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Getting Out of Your Cellular Contract

It's still a big deal and it's one of the biggest headaches with cellular phones. Fortunately, some cellular carriers are making it a little easier to either change your phone, adjust your account, or just leave. But there are still times when you just want to get away from your current cellular carrier and they just want to play hardball.

We have collected 10 ways to get out of your cellular contract, and a number 11 to help you avoid the problem in the future. Some require a lot of work, and others are as easy as getting the courage to walk away. All of them have worked for one user or another. Let's hope one works for you.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Web Site Review

A process that started last spring is complete. The Mountain web site got way too large so it has been split into several other sites. Maps went to, the cell site finder went to, PRL's, SID's and MNC's went to, and last week, the "info" parts of our web site went to CellularBack The final goal is to focus Mountain Wireless just on Reviews and Ratings.

Some of these new web sites are operated by us, and some by others. The immediate result has been more detailed and current information available on these sites. For now, most of the pages are interconnected, so addresses that worked before should work in the future, even though they have been moved.

Along the way we made a few mistakes and started web sites that didn't work and we'll just leave them alone until they expire. Also, there are pages that have just plain old been deleted due to lack of interest. A few of our State Review pages have been consolidated along with the consolidation of the cellular carriers themselves.

It would be wise to update your Bookmarks and Favorites if you see your favorite pages appear at a new address. Expect updates and new pages, as soon as tomorrow, and we'll talk about them here and on each site's "What"s New" column. If you lose a page or find an erroneous link, please Let Us Know.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Verizon Sacrifices More Alltel Markets

Recently Verizon Wireless added another handful of markets they are willing to spin off to encourage the feds to approve their acquisition of Alltel. We would guess that Verizon may have found a buyer for the isolated properties and have already determined the economic impact of losing them. Obviously they don't need those properties, they feel it may help their FCC application, and that it makes economic sense to do so. After all, if you're going to spend $28 Billion, how much can you realistically throw away and still get your money's worth? And they need to be careful who they throw it to...

The map of Verizon's Alltel and Unicel spin offs shows these markets are in widely separated areas, so any buyer will really need help in making such a non-contiguous network succeed...which may be Verizon's intent. Unless you want to be a major player in the Dakotas, there aren't many purchasers who would want the whole enchilada, unless you're AT&T, or Verizon sells at a good buddy price.

The FCC is expected to vote on the acquisition on November 4th. If there are any further restrictions, Verizon could easily determine it isn't worth it and walk away, and pay a hefty penalty. Even their sources of money are getting cold feet. We still hope Alltel survives as a separate company. But if they too are suffering from the high cost of money, who do think should bail them out? Don't look at me, I just bailed out the spa-soaking executives at AIG.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The RAZR is Still King

We have used a number of Motorola phones over the years, but never a RAZR. I see them in the hands of people from all walks of life. I just thought that a large part of the population looked at the upper-crust and early adopters with envy, and when the price of the RAZR dropped to free, the masses were ready to jump on board.

Well, it turns out, according to the NPD Group, the RAZR is still the #1 selling phone in the US. We agree it's a nice phone, but it's just too BIG. When Motorola released the KRZR, I thought they had perfected the RAZR with a phone that was just the right size...thin and not too wide. My wife chose one in hot red. I watched her cling lovingly to her KRZR and I decided it would be my next choice when my contract came up. Well, they stopped selling the KRZR before I had the chance.

While Motorola has since come out with phones similar to the KRZR, the RAZR just keeps humming along, the V3 model being the most popular. But it's so BIG. My wife had a year or two of "my phone's smaller than yours" among her students who all seemed to have RAZR's. However, they must not have had KRZR-envy because most of them upgraded to the iPhone. So at least now she can say, "my phone's MUCH smaller than yours". They reply, "yeah, but..." But then it's too late. Gotta go.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sprint Ready to Sell Nextel

Sprint has been trying to spin off their Nextel assets and the Wall Street Journal reports there are potential buyers. Once upon a time there was rumor that the original developers of Nextel were interested, but that never panned out.

Last spring, after we noticed how happy Mexican Nextel users were of their service, we became even more critical of how Sprint was treating the division, and thought the only hope for Nextel survival was to sell it. Coincidentally, one of the interest parties is from Latin America, NII Holdings. After seeing the warm reception from users and the great coverage offered throughout Mexico, a buyer from south of the border could be a great idea. Other investment firms are looking, too.

The fly in this ointment is how much debt Sprint wants to dump into the deals, and even worse, how much damage they have done to the Nextel subscriber base. Nextel has a lot going for it and we hope Sprint can sell it to an operator who can give it the attention it deserves. It would also mean a brand new competitor in the wireless arena for us. C'mon Sprint, make 'em an offer they can't refuse.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Our 4th Anniversary

We almost let it pass without a comment. It was September 2004 when we posted our first news and commentary pages, and we still have enough readers to keep it going today. In those first weeks our stories included Qwest Wireless and Cellular One/Western Wireless, two carriers who have since disappeared. Commentary elsewhere on our web site got both carriers to talk to us.

We are averaging 10 stories per month and hope to keep it going as long as there are stories we can give a consumer-biased view. Most of the other wireless press seems slanted toward the cellular carriers. We'll call it as we see it. Champagne anyone?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Cricket and Metro PCS Play Nice Again

Leap Wireless, the parent company of Cricket Wireless, is again talking nicely to their flat-rate twin, Metro PCS. While we hate to lose any cellular carriers though consolidation, the combination of Cricket Wireless and Metro PCS makes a lot of sense. The two have similar products and customers and complimentary networks. And now they have buried their differences and signed an agreement with each other for reciprocal roaming, spectrum exchanges and to end their legal differences. Could a merger be on the horizon?

The roaming agreements mean that even though the two haven't merged, their phones will act like they have, and should give each others' customers a lot more territory to enjoy their flavor of Unlimited services, and makes each others' plans that much more valuable. More spectrum means more data services available from both.

Cricket's $35 plan offers free roaming "in every Cricket market", and we would hope that will soon include every Metro PCS market as well...and vice versa. An affordable all-you-can-eat buffet! Don't over stuff yourself.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Always a Cheaper Way

My brother dove into the wireless pool recently with both feet. He signed up for a monthly plan and got a gee-whiz phone with a QWERTY keyboard and touch screen. After a few months he's ready to pay the Early Termination Fee (ETF) because his minimum charges are $70 a month and he's only making a few calls, sending a few Text Messages, replies to some email, and visits the web even less.

At that rate he's looking at $1,680 over 2 years for way too little use. He's the kind of customer we at Mountain Wireless try to help. He decided he can't replace his laptop with an 'Internet' phone, no matter how friendly the keyboard, and he can't justify that high a rate for so little use. He needed to Do The Math.

Instead of dumping wireless cold turkey, I showed him my old T-Mobile phone, which, after the initial payment, costs me about $25 a year for occasional use. If my brother makes about 30 minutes of calls and exchanges about 30 messages a month, more than his current average, he would pay a whopping $5.25 per month with this simple T-Mobile To Go Phone. He would get Voice Mail, Caller ID, Email, Text Messaging, access to a smattering of useful web sites and, after he arrives at "Gold Rewards", only needs to refill once a year. Oh, and the phone works in most other countries. And this isn't the only option, but it's one we like. Don't less this get out, but here's always a (really) cheaper way.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Number Love

Like a lot of wireless users, it was important for me to have a "good" number. My first wireless number was ended with "4500." That was da bomb until I received more than my share of erroneous calls made to a business with a similar number. A subsequent change of carriers enabled me to make a few 'adjustments,' and a lesser number was good enough. But it was personal numeric ID. I could see how happy a large number of users were when they were able to move their numbers from one carrier to another through Wireless Number Portability.

But there's a difference between a familar number and a good number. I actually liked having at least one phone with a forgettable number to share with nosy restaurant clerks and Radio Shack employees. But I recently activated a prepaid phone just because I had a SIM laying around and the number automatically assigned to this phone was top shelf. Like a knockout of a woman who strolls across the room to talk to you, this number had beauty written all over it. What a shame for a phone used for a handful of text messages to have this great a handle. To be, or not to be...ported to one of our "better" phones. Maybe it's time to test out the porting process first-hand.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Going Wireless at Home

Recent figures show that 20% of households in the US have gone wireless-only for their voice communications. It's a trend with no signs of slowing, but it has created a new set of consequences. One of the more serious side effects has been what happens to 911 calls. And even more of a problem, Reverse-911 calls.

Locally, 3 cities have asked the local wire and wireless carriers to expand the Reverse-911 capabilities to include wireless phones. Presumably, the carriers can activate an outgoing call to each customer within a area defined by specific cell sites, or potentially, those customers whose phones return GPS location data within the affected area. However, the infrastructure, logistics and paperwork are a good distance away from making that goal possible.

Even our current system is still far from achieving the alert level that public officials wish they had. My home number was "ported" from another part of town and, yes, I get the occasional call about a lost child or Alzheimer's patient in my old neighborhood, almost an hour away. It makes me wonder what I'm missing closer to home. I'm guessing it's the same thing my wireless- (or VOIP-) only neighbors are missing. Do you care?

The best early-alert system I ever had is when my Aunt Ruth would call all her family and friends to alert them to the perils she had just heard about on TV. Now there's an alert system that spread the word faster than a cold through kindergarten.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Welcome to Alaska

For reasons we won't detail today, we finally added Alaska to our Cellular Reviews. Not only is it still America's frontier, it's a cellular frontier with cellular systems that charge for anything extra, are still analog, or that don't allow automatic roaming. It was a real surprise to find a downloadable form we could fill out to apply for permission to roam on one system, and that was only in analog. A few systems are charging some real bucks and I fear it's their way or no way. Fortunately, those are the exception and not the rule.

Except for AT&T, all the cellular operators in Alaska are independent. Even AT&T didn't want to be there and sold their assets to Dobson Cellular a few years ago, only to get stuck with them again when they bought Dobson. Fortunately for roamers, coverage for both CDMA and GSM phones is good along most roads.

The last time I was there I think there was one cellular tower. How did we survive?

Oh, we also added Wisconsin to the State Reviews and immediately stirred up some interest. I guess Packers fans really are extremists!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The 20 Cent Lawsuit

Normally we overlook legal affairs of the wireless carriers because these lawsuits come and go. But one legal move just won't go away. There are multiple class action, anti-trust lawsuits against the top 5 wireless carriers, Alltel, AT&T, Sprint/Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. It seems as though a number of people, or is it a number of lawyers, feel that there is some kind of collusion among these carriers because they all recently raised their a la carte Text Messaging rates to .20 each. That is the basis of lawsuits filed in Ohio, Illinois and Kansas.

We're not quick to come to the defense of the now-too-large wireless carriers, but in this case, what's wrong with 20 cents? I agree it's outrageously high, but if all carriers are being sued for charging that price, why aren't they also being penalized for all having a $39.99 price place, or a $99 Unlimited plan?

I can smell attorney's fees and out-of-court settlements that will not benefit the customer with anything other than higher prices or reduced services. I have yet to receive my free headset from the AT&T settlement of 2002, and even though my Campbell settlement from Verizon Wireless involves a cash discount, that is still over a year away. Real people don't win anything from these lawsuits.

What do we do? I handed my SpeakOut prepaid phone to my son so he can Text away at .05 per text, and if I should want to send a Text, I'll use my T-Mobile to Go phone which is still .05 in/.10 out. Normally, I just use my monthly minutes of use (MOU) and send an email to these addresses for no additional cash charge. Make money in wireless? Be an attorney!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sprint is 'Ready Now' to Catch Up

Earlier this week we were refining the Mountain Wireless Ratings Page and noted that Sprint/Nextel is still one of just a few carriers with below average customer service. As if they were listening to us, Sprint announced a new "Ready Now" program this week which involves teaching employees at Sprint stores to sit down with a customer and explain the use and features of their new phone. This is a good example of playing catch up...Sprint should have been doing this all along.

Sprint is watching their customers leave in droves and we know it's not the network, it's how they're being treated. That won't be improved by a lecture at the store. It will be improved with better customer service internally. They need agents who are empowered to solve problems on the first call, and who are supported enough to actually want to help their customers. All carriers say they want to improve their customer service, but it can't be done with pay scales that are too low to keep quality people, and it can't be done without incentives to do whatever it takes to keep paying customers.

Sprint has some great new phones, and they have a good-performing network, but they have run out of feet to shoot themselves in.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

September Web Site Updates

When this page isn't being updated we're either roaming or updating some of our web pages. Scott and I have added some new maps at The Cellular Map Source. First, we reflected the takeover of Unicel (Rural Cellular) by Verizon Wireless in our Regional 850 MHz Cellular License Maps. Several markets are still in the hands of Unicel until they can be sold to another company, so most Unicel markets are still shown under that name. And Unicel customers can sit and wait a little longer. Hellooo...are you listening US Cellular?

We also posted a new 3g Coverage Comparison Maps for Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. The maps were created by Verizon who has a lot to brag about, so keep that in mind. We also finally posted a new Metro PCS "National" map. We have some new Unlimited plans posted, including several new Unlimited "Family" plans. Also, turned over to us their Alltel Back Door Voice Mail Numbers list. Don't confuse them with the new Cellular Back Door retail site, which provides sites like ours all our phone and service discount links.

We also transferred over all the PRL, SID and MNC pages over to a new site, The Roaming Zone, which contains the familiar roaming lists along with additional roaming advice. Look there for updated data, but the older links will still work at Mountain Wireless. I'm going to take nap...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

US Cellular Aims for Alltel Spinoffs?

This week US Cellular, and their parent company TDS, announced the moving of their stock exchange listings from the American Stock Exchange to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). When a company moves to the NYSE, they are presumed to become a "bigger player". This may be totally unrelated, but wouldn't it make sense that US Cellular is gearing up to hit the financial markets to take out a loan so they can purchase the assets of Alltel that Verizon Wireless is about to sell for approval of their acquisition of Alltel?

Verizon did just this same kind of deal when they combined Bell Atlantic Mobile, GTE Cellular, Airtouch and several other companies to create Verizon Wireless in 2000, and spun off the 'extras' to Alltel. A deal with US Cellular would satisfy the feds, place the network in 'friendly' hands, and keep it away from AT&T who still has serious gaps in the western US. And US Cellular just happens to be a CDMA carrier like Alltel.

We were holding off writing a story about such a deal because it seemed like a "wish list", but now with US Cellular entering the circus center ring, they just may be ready to play with the big boys. Are you feeling the tingle, too?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The End of the ETF!

Yes, it has happened! Consumer Cellular, a wireless re-seller that gets a positive review from us, has announced a deal with AARP with no Early Termination Fees (ETF). While some carriers are reducing ETF's over time by pro-rating your contract, this deal eliminates any such charge.

This means Consumer Cellular is taking the chance of losing money on some customers, but they have been taking that chance for several years by being one of the only non-prepaid cellular companies that doesn't require a contract. I remember signing up with Sprint back in the 90's mostly because they didn't require a contract then, and I stayed for more than 2's a good gimmick. You need to be an AARP member, but that's not expensive and anyone over age 50 qualifies.

Consumer Cellular uses the AT&T network and our experience with them has been variable. But the unique services they offer is certainly worth any shortcomings we may find with them. While we applaud the move, it does make us wonder how any company with the word "Consumer" in its name can actually benefit the consumer. Let's just hope the elimination of ETF's catches on.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Excellent Customer Service

As a result of the difficulties noted in previous posts, I had to deal with Verizon Wireless's customer service in resolving the problems brought up by unwanted plan changes. Charges began to accumulate when we upgraded to a new phone that included data charges by the mb, prorated minute usage and overages. The agent I contacted said she needed time to contact other departments to make everything right again. She said she would call me back as each step was completed. Yeah, right.

Indeed, she did call back. The first call was to tell me the account was returned to the original plan, and then a second call to explain that all overages and unexpected charges were credited back and were effective immediately. Yes, it was all surprising and refreshing. I don't know what I liked better...the extra attention or the account credits themselves.

Recently, Verizon Wireless received an improved rating from JD Power, and we couldn't really find a relevant way to report the subject...until now. As we have said before, excellent customer service isn't a big deal when things are going right. It stands out when things go wrong.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Changing Plans Without Your Knowledge

Recently a few carriers have either been sued or otherwise penalized for changes made to subscribers' plans without their knowledge. It actually happens often, and it happened to me again recently. We replaced one of our Verizon phones with a new all-digital model, and even after asking the store representative not to do so, the plan associated with that phone was changed. Of course that change resulted in higher monthly charges.

I watched the agent enter the order and I watched that he did not change the plan. Therefore, I must conclude that the billing computer made the change automatically. This isn't really illegal, but it isn't ethical. Fortunately, Verizon Wireless allows changes back to previous plans within 30 days, but you and I need to be aware of these changes. It makes sense to read over your monthly bill to catch these, and other changes, which are easy to overlook if your detailed billing is only available online.

Always check your account after any plan or phone change. The machines may be programmed to help "adjust" your decisions, and then there's the human error thing, too.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Get in Line to Restrict the Verizon-Alltel Marriage

When AT&T and Cingular started their hook-up process, there wasn't that much opposition. Now, with Verizon Wireless and Alltel coming to the alter, the opponents are little more vocal. At issue is the amount of spectrum that will eventually be controlled by Verizon, which will be considerable, especially in light of their recent AWS (2100MHz) and 700 MHz spectrum additions. It means a large amount of the 800 MHz cellular band being totally controlled by Verizon, leaving only the less robust frequencies available.

Opposition from smaller carriers and associated trade groups has also taken on the issue of "in-market" roaming, which they claim will be necessary until these small carriers can build out networks using their own newly-gained spectrum. While Verizon claims that all roaming contracts will be honored, these carriers fear what will happen when the agreements expire over the next 4 or 5 years. We do too.

Guess what? You and I can help the process along. The FCC welcomes thoughtful public input, and if you don't think your voice will be heard, consider how few people will take the time to comment. Your opinion becomes a big percentage of the discussion. We agree with the smaller carriers. Bigger isn't always better. Yes, Verizon and Alltel can merge, but not at the expense of competitive rural coverage. No carrier should own both 800 MHz channels, even though AT&T got away with it. And the idea of Verizon controlling both CDMA and GSM roaming is worrisome, too.

If nothing else, your comments could slow the process down a bit to give everyone more time to mull it over. If Verizon wants to 'fast track' the process by making these concessions, the end result could benefit us all. Visit and make 'em think about it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Cutting Off the Antenna

It has been a difficult process. After being an advocate of using a pull-out antenna, I finally started using an all-digital phone with an "internal" antenna. My last CDMA phone with its long antenna and analog circuitry is always nearby, but my experience with phones without analog and extendable antennas is surprising me. I have spent many days out at the edge of coverage this summer, and have found little reason to curse the all-digital phones.

Yes, the new phones do seem to be more sensitive, and life in the "sticks" with no bars and only the antenna icon showing on the screen seems to be survivable. With Verizon and AT&T no longer using analog, I wondered just how important it was. The answer lies in where you go, and unless you are wandering in the areas of the small carriers that still support analog, it really has become unnecessary. There are some areas of rural New Mexico and Arizona that gave us some concern, but we have noted that in many spots where service was wanting, the 'infill specialist', Commnet Wireless, has indeed added new cell sites both in GSM and CDMA.

Most users will never get near analog and will see no need to pull out an antenna, but I wanted to champion the idea of maximum service, and for me, that's what it takes. That is, until I was working out in the local recreation center, a consistent dead zone, where my digital-only phone with the internal antenna, rang...where no phone has rung before. Progress indeed!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Verizon Purchases Unicel

Verizon has officially taken over Unicel. The news isn't about what Verizon Wireless acquired, it's what they haven't acquired. As reported here previously, several Unicel areas were too hot for Verizon to handle, so they will spin off certain markets include the entire state of Vermont. The Verizon Press Release outlines which markets are affected, but gives no hint of what will happen to these "orphan" markets.

It was thought that AT&T might pick up most of these markets but that hasn't happened, and Verizon has every right to keep it out of their hands. Could these be the next markets for the 'new' Cellular One?

For those Unicel customers not being acquired by Verizon, it's business as usual, which is not a bad thing. Just hope your phone doesn't break. The good news is that Verizon will maintain all the current Unicel GSM roaming, so your Unicel phone should work everywhere it has worked before. For now, the political powers-that-be in Vermont are happy...but we see a cloud over their heads.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

More Towns Without Cellular

Pick a "white" spot on any cellular coverage map and you have a good chance of finding no service. If that spot appears at the same place on every carrier's coverage map, you have an area of no coverage. If that spot appears deep in the mountains or inside a protected area like a National Forest, we aren't too terribly concerned. But if that spot appears in a populated area, what's up with that?

We reviewed a few towns with no cellular service in the west which were surprising due to their popularity with tourists and notable full-time population. But they aren't unique. We spend a few days in southeast Ohio each year for the family reunion, and accept the fact that there's no cellular service. Why haven't the locals complained? I guess you don't miss what you never had. But visitors like us sure miss it, especially when some family members get lost.

Relief is possible, if these residents have broadband service, and if they don't mind only using that phone around the house or in the next town with service. T-mobile offers their HotSpot at Home which utilizes wi-fi equipped phones, and the new Sprint "femtocells" are now available using cellular frequencies. "Femtocells" are the next step smaller than "picocells", which are smaller than "microcells" which are used inside public buildings like shopping malls and airports.

An even bigger surprise was that a walk to a nearby hill sometimes formerly yielded a weak analog signal which would rarely support a call. Now those hilltops have digital service, and we could actually make calls. If we could just drag that signal to the know, where the people are?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Verizon Concedes More Alltel Properties

Possibly in a rush to get the deal done before a new President, Congress or FCC leans in another direction, Verizon Wireless has thrown in several "concessions" to get their acquisition of Alltel approved ASAP. They're emphasizing that they will maintain any and all roaming contracts with all other carriers and even go so far as to allow carriers to choose which roaming agreement, Alltel's or Verizon's, will apply going forward.

Verizon offered to divest themselves of wireless properties in as many as 85 markets in 18 states, containing about 15% of Alltel's customers, to get the deal done. Could the feds want more? It means spinning off mostly rural parts of the Alltel network in North and South Dakota, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Ohio, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Do we see AT&T drooling?

While this sounds like a decent deal for the consumer, smaller wireless carriers are quite concerned and want more roaming issues to be clarified, especially what happens when all their roaming contracts expire. It may be like buying an SUV in today's market: Verizon is willing to give more concessions now to get that vehicle out the door before the market, or the feds, make a left turn.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

T-Mobile Loses Spam Case

Say it isn't so. One of favorite consumer-friendly carriers, T-Mobile, can't, or won't, stop text-message spam that appears on subscribers' phones. As a result, they have lost the latest round of a class-action lawsuit to get them to stop. Verizon Wireless brought a few of these transgressors to court and at least slowed the problem in Verizon phones. But T-Mobile seems to ignore the problem and acts like they haven't done anything to prevent it. You can't even cancel Text Messaging on your phone like you can at other carriers.

I can't believe T-Mobile has chosen to pay the lawyers to defend a slowly sinking ship instead of seeking a technical solution. But the attorneys' fees will eventually give them incentive to start working on their network, as long as they keep losing their case.

I guess this is a heads up that if you get Text span on your T-Mobile phone, it's an ailment without a short-term solution, unless enough customers start clogging the customer service lines to complain. Fortunately, we don't think this is a widespread problem, but as spammers begin to find out T-Mobile phones are fertile ground for their messages, watch them grow.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

SK Telecom Denies Sprint Rumor

SK Telecom today says they were only talking to Sprint about working together on developing technologies for future services, not a buyout. After looking at how well foreign-owned T-Mobile operates, it's too bad. Sprint needs some fresh ideas. It looks like they won't come from South Korea...unless somebody's blowing smoke.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

SK Telecom to Buy Sprint?

This one is still in the rumor stage, but SK (South Korea) Telecom and Sprint/Nextel are talking. People "close to the talks" note that Sprint is thinking their big recovery is "right around the corner", based mostly on the introduction of the new Samsung Instinct phone. After all the things Sprint has done to chase away, or at least not try to keep, customers, we think it's too little too late.

Sprint has the resources to improve their situation, but either they are too big to steer the Titantic on a different course away from the iceberg, or don't have the courage to just copy a successful wireless model, like maybe T-Mobile...who, BTW, are also owned by a foreign company.

We have outsourced so many of our technical jobs overseas, I guess there's nothing left but for our management to go, too?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sprint Kills SERO

It was one of the worst-kept secrets in cellular. It was Sprint's "SERO," Sprint Employee Referral Option, with excellent-priced plans and all you needed was an email of a Sprint employee which was readily available in cellular forums. It has been replaced with Sprint's "Everything Plus Referral Program" and the plans aren't as generous, and the "referral" is harder to get.

Sprint has the right to end such programs, but they are not a company who can just raise prices without further destroying their customer base. Yes, they have now raised the other foot and are aiming the pistol carefully. Bang!

Friday, July 11, 2008

The new iPhone price increase

I'm watching buyers lined up to be the first to buy the new Apple iPhone here on Day One. To this group, price is no object. But after the rush is over, a number of people will be looking at upgrading to the new, "cheaper" iPhone. But, like we always say, do the math.

The iPhone's US carrier, AT&T, will be charging more each month for the new iPhone, probably at least $480 over a 2 -year contract. Look completely past the purchase price and determine if the cost over time still works for you. In our opinion, the "new" iPhone isn't that much of an upgrade over the old, and few AT&T markets have 3G available, yet. Also, the first day introduction of the phone came up with a significant problem: the phones would not sync with iTunes at the stores. Just that fact that an iTunes account is required gives me pause to reconsider.

While waiting for the dust to settle, check out the iPhone competitors. Some of these phone models come with more economical plans, and many of them have cool features that are worthy of your consideration. Some also come with faster networks. AT&T's 3G network has a ways to go before it's available in a significant number of markets.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

AT&T Without Alltel?

Much has been discussed about the pros & cons of the upcoming Verizon Wireless-Alltel merger. We wonder what will happen to AT&T coverage after the deal is done. Much of AT&T's rural roaming coverage in the western US is provided by Alltel. Yes, they have an extensive GSM network...a byproduct of their purchase of Cellular One/Western Wireless.

As Verizon's most direct competitor, AT&T could either be offered some of Allltel's precious spectrum and cell sites, or, they could have the entire Alltel GSM network snatched away. Very few people in the industry have anything to say until they see what Verizon will need to give up to get the deal approved by the feds. Verizon says only a small percentage will need to be divested.

We have put together a map showing AT&T's coverage without Alltel. Since we don't know the extent of AT&T's actual roaming on Alltel, we took the extreme example of drawing up a map that excludes all roaming partners in the western US. Fortunately, AT&T has a number of possibilities to keep this from being the disaster it looks like on the map. They can change roaming partners in some areas, and they have lots of of their own PCS (1900 MHz) spectrum available to construct their own cell sites.

Some of these 'repairs' can be made quickly, and others, like adding new cell sites, could take years. But AT&T can't consider changes until the deal shakes out. There's also the possibility that Verizon, either by choice or by mandate, could just leave things as they are. It wouldn't be a bad thing to receive a nice big check for roaming charges from AT&T and T-Mobile each month. Give a little and Take a little, right?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

T-Mobile Raises Text Rates

It really isn't big news that T-mobile has raised their a la cart texting rates to .20 each, however, when a carrier makes a substantial change like this, you normally can get out of your contract, free. While it depends on your specific terms of service, most wireless contracts are legally invalidated by a "substantial change" like this. You should have about 30 days to tell them you want out, or you are assumed to have accepted the new terms. While T-Mobile joins all the other carriers in raising texting fees, they also join the others as they are just now starting to pro-rate their Early Termination Fee.

Texting bundle prices will remain the same, so for those of us who use less texting, it may be worthwhile to consider adding Unlimited texting to our packages. It's almost sad to see what has been one of the more consumer-friendly carriers (they often win the JD Powers satisfaction surveys) do like the others, but a carrier has to eat, right?

Oddly, with this "get out of jail free" card, we don't know of of any T-Mobile customers who want to leave. There's no hope for a satisfied customer, is there?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Town Without Cellular 2

Two and a half years years ago we discovered a town with no cellular coverage. At that time, we reported the small town of Victor, Colorado, an old gold mining town behind Pike's Peak, had no signal from any cellular carrier. This town was small enough to not have many residents, but it had a significant number of tourists...tens of thousands a year. Since then, only T-Mobile has grabbed the opportunity for exclusive service to the community, which also allows AT&T and other GSM roamers coverage.

This past weekend we visited the Nederland, Colorado Art Festival and found another town with the notoriety of no cellular service. The local predecessor to Verizon Wireless, Airtouch, had service there, but no more. AT&T's coverage viewer claims service there, but our AT&T phone was bar-less. This is a real town, almost 2,000 population, and is the first "suburb" in the mountains west of Boulder, Colorado. Alas, no coverage. There is some to the north from some carriers, and to the south with others, but not in town. This is also home of the popular "Frozen Dead Guy Days" Festival. Have they no respect for the dead? To add insult to injury, T-Mobile, who saved the town of Victor, claims coverage just west of Nederland at the Eldora Ski Area. However, there's no snow, and nobody home at Eldora.

We asked what happened, but locals claim the cellular carriers just aren't interested, and the carriers themselves claim they are 'looking into it.' It was frustrating carrying around several dead phones hoping one would come alive. The upside was that the little girls attending the local charity pop stand had time to give you their full attention, they weren't constantly watching their cell phone screens. I bet they get their homework done, too.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Alltel Keeps Getting Better

We have been holding back our commentary on the coming Alltel/Verizon merger, partly because it's hard to be objective...we really feel bad about losing Alltel. But Alltel keeps making their product that much more desirable, and that much harder to give up. Today they added Unlimited Texting to their already generous "My Circle" plans, the next best thing to a full Unlimited plan. This is on top of their utilization of "Rev. A" technology, which actually puts them ahead of their suitor, Verizon Wireless.

This encourages us to recommend Alltel even more, and with a 2-year commitment, you'll probably hold on to these advantages for the extent of that contract. There is always the possibility that the merger won't happen, or at least won't happen as quickly as Verizon hopes. It also leads us to wonder what would happen if the deal gets delayed enough that approval may need to pass through a new, Democrat-dominated federal government...either the presidency or Congress. That may have influenced the timing of the application. But these wonderful companies wouldn't play that kind of game....would they?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Do the Math on Your Wireless Plan

It's a good idea to review your cellular plan from time to time to make sure your usage fits the plans available. In our case, it's belt-tightening time, and I "did the math" on our most expensive plans. I felt we could be dollars ahead by switching to a prepaid plan where we would only pay for minutes used.

Fortunately, most wireless carriers offer some kind of analysis for your account, so it was fairly easy to figure out how many Anytime, Off-Peak and Mobile to Mobile minutes we use. The 'extra' charges that are added to post-paid accounts, like taxes and "administrative" fees make them more expensive than the "$39.99" you signed up for, whereas the prepaid plans charge a flat amount, normally based on so many cents per minute. Prepaid (with a different carrier) was looking good.

In wireless, just a few dollars more buys you a lot more minutes. So if we were to have a month where calling increased 25% or so, the post paid plan looked a lot better. But more importantly, we found that a "Family" plan would actually save us some money each month and we would still have some breathing room. Also, paying for text, data and email use by the Mb has turned out to be cheaper than subscribing to a specific email plan, at least for our usage level.

I also work with more than one salesperson who is too busy to increase their wireless plan to the next tier, and with all their overages, they would do better with one of the new Unlimited plans. But they won't take the take the time to "do the math." Can you? Most Customer Service agents will guide you, and in many cases, you might be pleasantly surprised. Oh, BTW, we're not going prepaid, yet. We did the math.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Driving & Talking

There is a movement to restrict the use of cellular handsets while driving. 6 states have banned the practice, and studies show teenagers are ignoring rules that restrict their use of wireless devices. Today, the federal government decided NOT to require car manufacturers to install an interlock that keeps built-in cellular phones from working while the car was in motion. While "distracted driving" is an increasing concern, most of us aren't willing to give up talking on our phone just because we're on the road.

Mountain Wireless wants to do our part and implant 3 very important thoughts into your head:
1) Never write, send or read Text Messages or email while driving.
2) Avoid using the phone in congested areas. Wait until traffic is moving more freely.
3) Get a 'hands free' headset for your phone. It's required in some places, and if you don't have one, we've made it cheap and easy to get one on our accessories page.

Don't be the driver who contributes to making Driving & Talking illegal, and also set a good example for younger users...they'll be talking even more than we did here in the "good 'ol days".

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sprint Adds Roaming Limitations

We don't know when it happened, but Sprint has added another gotcha to their roaming limitations. Formerly, Sprint customers who used more than half of of their monthly minutes roaming had the potential of having their service terminated. Now Sprint has set an 800-minute roaming maximum, on- or off-peak, that will also get you the boot. The terms: "Sprint may terminate service if (1) more than 800 minutes, (2) a majority of minutes or (3) a majority of data kilobytes in a given month are used while roaming."

Unfortunately, Sprint has some of the best roaming agreements among all carriers (for now) and some users have come to depend on this. Fortunately, Sprint is still expanding their own network so roaming is needed less and less. Also, we have not heard complaints that anyone has actually been kicked out as a result of excessive roaming, but it adds a cloud of uncertainty that Sprint's broadcast commercials try to specifically address. The new limit may have come as a result of their new "Unlimited" plans.

While Sprint/Nextel is losing customers at an alarming rate, the last thing they need is a reason, or even a hint, to terminate even more business. Raise foot...Aim...Fire!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Verizon Is Pushing More PRL's

Many savvy users have been able to pick & choose which PRL (Preferred Roaming list) gets loaded into their CDMA phone. The procedure was to check the latest List of PRL's and then either allow the PRL download (by pressing *228, or other means) or ignore it. Over a year ago Verizon Wireless began to force PRL updates, normally only to customers who made account changes.

Now some Verizon customers report even more of these updates are being forcibly downloaded to users with certain phone models without the customer's knowledge. This was an expected step and we are looking toward more such updates in the future. GSM users have normally had these updates (to the "MNC") "pushed" to their handsets so this isn't a unique event among wireless users. Knowing how beneficial PRL and MNC updates are to the carriers, we're surprised it hasn't happened sooner.

Sprint formerly "suggested" customers manually update their PRL and only in areas affected by any changes. We expect these capabilities to eventually be possible with all CDMA carriers. While this will limit how easily we can "choose" our PRL, it doesn't diminish our desire to know which carrier our phone will use while roaming. We expect lots of PRL changes over the next year, and change is good, right?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Verizon Wins, Vermont Loses

Back to Domestic Issues. It looks like the Department of Justice has responded to Vermont's objection to Verizon Wireless taking over the Unicel network in that state. We reported on this last December, and while we're sad to see Unicel disappear, we thought wireless service could indeed improve for Vermont residents with Verizon. It appears Vermont lawmakers mostly wanted to maintain the status quo, but there's no way the feds would refuse Unicel from selling their Vermont assets.

Instead, the DOJ has decided Verizon can buy the Unicel areas as long as they spin off everything in the state of Vermont, a couple of markets in Washington state, and one in New York. While this is good news for Verizon who won't need to further confront the Vermont politicos, it still leaves a void in New England that Verizon would love to fill.

However, the biggest losers may be Vermont wireless users. Of course it depends on who Verizon decides to sell the properties to, AT&T first comes to mind, but they could end up with service that is less desirable than Unicel's...they were good. Have you noticed that every time local politicians try to mess with wireless things rarely improve?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Where Roaming Charges are a Good Thing

After all the surprises and disappointments while roaming in Mexico, we have adjusted our Mountain Wireless Mexico Roaming Page to reflect our experiences and our now more conservative recommendations. Judging by how many Americans sitting near me at the pool in Mexico freely use their US phones, I believe the exorbitant roaming charges either aren’t that big a deal, or they don’t know what’s about to hit them when they get their bill. I know a few young users don’t care.

So if we tell you to just go ahead and use your US phone in Mexico, even at $1 a minute, it really is the most efficient way to go. And considering the barriers the Mexican carriers throw at us, it usually ends up as the cheapest.

I also saw a few smart users using a good amount of text messages which are very inexpensive, and there were a number of guests just using data. I feel fortunate most of my “business” is conducted by email, and free wi-fi, or at least reasonable internet access, makes talking so '20th Century.'

One Mexican cellular service I haven't mentioned is Iusacel, the number 3 carrier. They offer CDMA service and are offered in even fewer retailers than the others. However, at the airport, Iusacel has a huge sign that says, "Welcome Verizon" customers, implying we are able to use our Verizon phones just like we were home. I took that as a warning. That sign loomed larger than the roaming triangle on my phone...and that's HUGE!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

You Can't Press 2 for English

Today, we are readjusting our calling habits, and our budget, to go back to using our stateside phones for calls both into and out of Mexico. Even though we thought it was handy to have English language prompts on our TelCel “Amigo” account, not everything is in English.

Every TelCel call is preceded by a “sales pitch” in Spanish which is annoying whether you know Spanish or not. And any informational message, like “you do not have enough minutes left in your account to make this call” are also only in Spanish. What’s really irritating is that in the US, every network prompt is available in Spanish, while in Mexico, only a few messages are available in English and only on TelCel. At least Movistar has not provided any English-speaking assistance, so far.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel we “deserve” any better treatment just because we are English-speaking tourists, but because the American carriers have been so accommodating to Spanish-speaking customers, it makes me feel like I should expect reciprocal treatment. However, I will feel different from now on when I hear, "para espanial, marque dos".

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

You Can't Get There From Here

Until now, our method of operating our wireless phones in Mexico involved either not answering our American phones, or leaving them off completely, then periodically calling our US voice mail to see if we need to return any calls. The hope was that our Mexico cellular accounts were able to make calls back to the US much cheaper than our Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile phones. Now that we’re not sure what will happen with our outgoing calls, our plans have changed, but as expected, even our best attempts at economizing with our original phones fall flat.

Wouldn’t be nice to look at caller ID and determine if the person calling justifies the $1 per minute expense? Good idea. The problem is none of our CDMA phones pass through caller ID. Ah, but we also have a handy GSM phone that does. So it shouldn’t be a problem for us, right? We can just call Verizon customer service (it’s a free call from here on a Verizon phone) and have them forward our calls to our T-Mobile phone. Good idea, right?

Not so fast! If we receive a call on our GSM phone, and see on Caller ID it’s crazy Uncle Larry, we can choose to not answer his call and save the roaming charges it would cost us to tell him we would prefer to call him back at a less expensive time, right? No, because when you allow calls to go to voice mail on a GSM system, you are still charged roaming air time, and that could add up if Larry leaves a wordy message. And our T-Mobile phone charges $1.49 a minute in Mexico, even for voice mail deposits. Yikes, change that call forwarding to the AT&T phone and pay only $1 a minute.

So far, we can’t find a way out of this quagmire of unreasonable charges.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Are We Having Fun Yet, in Mexico?

Until now, our method of operating our wireless phones in Mexico involved either not answering our American phones, or leaving them off completely, then periodically calling our US voice mail to see if we need to return any calls. The hope was that our Mexico cellular accounts were able to make calls back to the US much cheaper than our Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile phones. Now that we’re not sure what will happen with our outgoing calls, our plans have changed, but as expected, even our best attempts at economizing with our original phones fall flat.

Wouldn’t be nice to look at caller ID and determine if the person calling justifies the $1 per minute expense? Good idea. The problem is none of our CDMA phones pass through caller ID. Ah, but we also have a handy GSM phone that does. So it shouldn’t be a problem for us, right? We can just call Verizon customer service (it’s a free call from here on a Verizon phone) and have them forward our calls to our T-Mobile phone. Good idea, right?

Not so fast! If we receive a call on our GSM phone, and see on Caller ID it’s crazy Uncle Larry, we can choose to not answer his call and save the roaming charges it would cost us to tell him we would prefer to call him back at a less expensive time, right? No, because when you allow calls to go to voice mail on a GSM system, you are still charged roaming air time, and that could add up if Larry leaves a wordy message. And our T-Mobile phone charges $1.49 a minute in Mexico, even for voice mail deposits. Yikes, change that call forwarding to the AT&T phone and pay only $1 a minute.

So far, we can’t find a way out of this quagmire of unreasonable charges. Back to the beach...

Monday, June 16, 2008

A New Week in Mexico

As our wireless adventure in Mexico progresses, I am facing the awful truth that we will go back to paying .99 a minute for our calls both within and out of Mexico. But before I flush this Movistar SIM down the toilet, it’s time to experiment. Instead of worrying about plans or minutes or prompts or balance, I made a few calls. Keep in mind this is a bare-bones Movistar SIM, and I have not yet “wasted” any money on a refill. Lo and behold, it makes calls, including to the US!

So, unlike TelCel, Movistar’s SIM comes loaded with an unknown number of starter minutes, perfect for checking it out. This Movistar SIM is actually working out. And it was much cheaper. At $14US, it’s quite a few pesos less than TelCel’s $23US, so we’re not out much tequila money. So, I’m changing strategy. We’ll use this Movistar SIM until it quits working. My guess is it’ll give us about 50 Local minutes or about 10 minutes of calls to the US. The little girl at the store claimed it was already set up for Pay-Per-Call, but there’s no way of knowing until it quits working.

Over on our TelCel account, their customer service agent claims my account is grandfathered in on my original Pay-Per-Call plan, but the balance lady says otherwise. It’s another case of making a call and seeing what happens. I have never been disconnected in the middle of a call in Mexico, so I’m not sure what happens when you run out of minutes during a call…maybe nothing.

So the news is not all bad. We may still have a lots of calls we can make…or none. And other TelCel users tell us when they travel away from the “home” city of their TelCel account, all expected rates go out the window. Roaming charges, long distance fees and other surprise deductions magically cause the account to dry up like a tumbleweed.

Tomorrow, we plan to start answering our American phones again.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mexico Series Part 3

While in Mexico, we’re becoming quite disenchanted by the wireless possibilities. Since TelCel has made their Pay-Per-Call service almost unattainable, we tried Movistar’s more consumer-friendly services. However, our first hurdle was Movistar’s inability to offer English-speaking prompts…at least we think that’s the case. We can’t through to ask.

However, Movistar has a whole web page dedicated to roaming on their network, written in good English, claiming that while roaming on their system, you can call their customer service, “*611”, and your calls are answered by English-speaking “executive agents” who will help you with any problems you might have. And they also have a handy toll-free “800” number you can call for the same helpful information.

So we slipped in our T-Mobile SIM to give Movistar’s “executive agents” a try at getting us English prompts and a Pay-per-Call plan. But when we call *611 nothing happens. If we call “611” we get T-Mobile’s customer service, or AT&T’s, depending on the phone. That’s great, but we want to talk to Movistar. Not to be thwarted, let’s pay the $2 charge on our hotel phone to use that handy-dandy Movistar “800” number. Guess what? No English and no “executive agents.”

We really tried to give Movistar our business, but we should have listened when, in our search for a Movistar “chip” (SIM), a shopkeeper at an electronics store asked “Why? Nobody uses Movistar here.” I guess that will include us. But our trip isn’t over, yet. More? yes...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mexico Challenge #2

On our current trip to Mexico, we’re suffering through an early monsoon season and a series of wireless problems that have reversed our opinion of Mexico cellular service, 180 degrees.

After our disappointing experience with TelCel, we hoped Movistar would be far more consumer friendly…but our hopes were quickly dashed. As usual, finding Movistar phones, SIM’s and refills are much harder to find than TelCel’s. But if you read Movistar’s web site, the page concerning roaming in Mexico, written in English, they claim all kinds of favorable service for Americans roaming here, so the search should be worth it right? Wrong!

All we wanted was to have our menu prompts changed to English so we can add minutes, make calls and choose various features, like TelCel’s Amigo service. Unlike American carriers, there’s no “for English Press 2” at Movistar. Do they actually bother to have employees speak English? We’re beginning to think not. Tomorrow, we'll climb the Movistar stone wall.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Roaming South of the Border

Here we are in Mexico, and on this particular trip, we have been presented with a whole series of wireless disappointments. What we thought was the best feature since voice mail, "Pay-Per-Call", has become a joke. We found it first offered by Mexican cellular carrier, Movistar, and TelCel soon responded with a similar program. However, much has happened since then.

First, Movistar responded by dropping their included Pay-Per-Call minute limit to 20 minutes to match TelCel’s less generous rate. Then, on May 23rd, TelCel made their Pay-per-Call feature only available if you switch to that plan at an authorized “service center.” Guess what, there aren’t many “service centers”...mostly in large cities. That pretty much eliminates the ability of the average gringo to sign up for service unless you happen to be staying in the hotel next door. We are so sad to see this economical program go beyond the average tourist’s reach.

Tomorrow, we’ll share our experience with the number 2 cellular carrier, Movistar, and what happened with them that made us cry even more.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Verizon Buys Alltel

Verizon made it official in a release on 6/5/08. It was originally reported by CNBC on 6/4 at 2:25pm EDT, that Verizon Wireless is in discussion to buy Alltel. Also reported on Reuters, Verizon will offer a slightly higher price the current owners paid, $28 Billion. Most of us think that Alltel's current owners overpaid for the network. After less than a year of ownership, getting out for almost the same price, instead of a big loss, would be lucky. Patience, and leveraged value, have been among Verizon's greatest virtues. Yesterday Verizon's stock price dropped, today it is jumping up.

We'll be saddened to see this happen. There goes a major competitor, and what about other considerations like what will happen to Alltel's GSM? That may be the best reason to buy Alltel. Losing Alltel GSM roaming will leave a HUGE hole in AT&T's coverage. T-Mobile might suffer as well. Yikes! Of course, Verizon might want to keep that GSM roaming money coming in. Dare we hope? AT&T would need to pay handsomely for some of those markets, even if they are required to be spun off. Would they? Could they?

Of course there would be savings in roaming charges, and there should be areas that need to be spun off, but we're wondering if there is another story behind the story, beside the GSM conflict? Oh well, we saw this coming...

See Verizon, Alltel and Combination maps.

Wifi at Starbucks

I can't tell you how many people I asked thought wifi at Starbucks was free. It was often their internet "Plan B". Those who actually used it found out it isn't free. With the recent switch at Starbucks from T-Mobile wifi access to AT&T, some things have gotten better.

While you could purchase wifi time, all AT&T wireless customers who have a data plan can access these sites for free. The key word here is "data plan." Now, Starbucks gives you another route to get that free wifi, and that's with their Starbucks card rewards. You might an eligible card in your pocket. But if you access the Starbucks web site and add $5 to that card, you get several "rewards" include free AT&T wifi for 2 hours, each day. Our wishes may have come true, even if only for "Plan B".

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Doesn't Everyone Have a Cell Phone?

We were able to extract more information on cellular use from the FCC and another figure came up for cellular penetration, or the percentage of population who own a cell phone. The latest official figures come in at about 82%, which, by now, has increased even more. Using that number, a few days ago a CNBC reporter asked Lowell McAdam, the CEO of Verizon Wireless, if, at that level, cellular penetration in this country had reach its maximum. His answer was surprising.

Mr. McAdam, whose company is partnered with Vodaphone, a major European wireless carrier, reports penetration levels there of over 140%! Zowee! Every man, woman and infant there has at least one cell phone, and some have two! Take out the babies and lots of people have more than two! Get ready, it's coming our way.

Sure, some of us at Mountain Wireless have even more than that...but that's different, right?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Are You Average?

The only public figures available for how many minutes we talk on cell phones are from the FCC, and those are a bit dated. But with those figures we can estimate that over the past year, the average cellular customer used 720 minutes per month. This includes "anytime", "night & weekend" and "mobile to mobile" minutes. These figures don't include text messages and only include data if it is paid for by the minute.

This number brings to mind the range of usage of cellular customers. We have heard so much of "power" users who can benefit from "unlimited" plans, but their usage is certainly offset by some who use very few minutes. Most of our acquaintances use less than the average amount, although some use lots of data time. But we're all over 25, close to being 'over the hill'.

More of my contacts now communicate through email instead of the phone, and my cellular usage has actually dropped over the past few years while my email access through cellular has been increasing. I use actual minutes to access email and the loss of minutes making phone calls has been offset by a corresponding increase in reading email. Yin & Yang...the world seems to be in balance. As we allow more cell phone usage into our lives, we should assume we will grow beyond the 7 minute yearly increase we have today, especially as some of us cut the wire line.

Where do you fit in? I bet none of our readers are "average". You either use a lot more or a lot less, and I also bet the wireless carriers still don't really offer a plan that fits you best. They are very clever that way, because they also know that few of us are "average."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Cell Site Fight

When multiple companies apply to the FCC for cell sites in the same location, the FCC resolves the conflict with an Auction. Two competing applications for cell sites in the same place have created just that scenario, one on the mountains northwest of Denver, and another in Angel Fire, New Mexico, a town with a sizable ski area. Fortunately, the two competing parties in the Colorado conflict, Verizon Wireless and Keystone Wireless, have come to an agreement, avoiding the auction process.

The other conflict is for a cell site at the top of the Angel Fire ski area. The competing parties are Excomm LLC (Commnet Wireless) and ENMR Telephone Cooperative (Plateau Wireless). Excomm is trying to establish a site to serve CDMA and other roamers, and ENMR, who already has a cellular site on the air at Angel Fire on a different cellular channel, is trying to block any new service to the area claiming they "need" the spectrum. It appears ENMR just wants to keep their monopoly in the area.

Instead of weighing the merits of each argument, the FCC scheduled an auction to award the license to the highest bidder. The sad part about this is that the original application was made almost 3 years ago and during that time, many of us have been denied coverage. The FCC has scheduled the auction, Number 77, to resolve these conflicting applications, which will be held next month. In the meantime, Excomm has found Angel Fire spectrum from another source, and even Sprint has turned on a cell site in the area. But ENMR continues to hope they can block new service from competitors, while the world sneaks up and bites them in their other extremities.

Plateau Wireless has been one of our examples of a small cellular company that feels the heat from the FCC and large wireless companies toward unwanted changes, when, instead, they are the ones applying the heavy-handed tactics usually associated with corporate bad guys. Shame!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Coverage: Is 10% More Worth It?

We were on a short road trip this past week (700 miles total) and I had the usual collection of phones beeping away on the dashboard. On this trip, I was paying special attention to one phone, one that I would consider using as my main phone some day. I remember telling my passengers, "this phone doesn't have coverage along the entire route." their response was, "So, what's the difference?" My answer would be, "I want coverage" The reply was, "How much less would you have?" The answer was, "about 10%." "Is that a lot?" hmmm

To me that seems like lot of no coverage area. But it was only on this trip, and another route may have resulted in less than 1% difference. So just how important is continuous coverage? How much of a problem is missing that one phone call? I often think long and hard about this very question and came to the conclusion that indeed, if I was waiting on a very important call, I would probably take roads with better coverage. However, over the years I have had the phone with better coverage, and have still missed calls in an area of poor coverage. That's just the way luck is.

I'm fairly certain that if a new carrier serves our needs on a daily basis and travel away from home is infrequent, what is the difference? I've been telling people for years not every carrier has coverage everywhere...make the best choice based on your acceptable trade-offs. Is it time to actually heed my own advice? hmmm

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

For the Want of a Battery...

I can't believe how many people dump their cell phone because it's "broke", when all it needs is a new battery. It would seem obvious to me that if your battery needs charging more often, it's time for a new one. But a lot of users use this as an excuse to get a new phone. You might be wasting more money than you think.

Now that 2-year cellular contracts are the norm, the contract often now survives longer than the battery. I always buy a spare when the phone is new, even though I might not need it for a year. Recently, I needed another battery, and not for one minute did I think it was really time for a new phone, even though a new phone might be cheap, or free, if I wanted to renew for yet another 2 years.

Fear no battery! You can usually pick one up at your cellular dealer, or, easier and cheaper, is to buy online. And, since the shipping charges are normally the same, why not get 2, or more for other family members. It was just coincidence my wife and I have phones that use the same battery, so I bought in each phone and a spare for whoever needs it first. Then you have time to consider what kind of new phone you really want and delay that next 2-year obligation. If you gotta have a new phone, go ahead and get one and save the battery money. Replacing your phone in less than 2 years makes you...uh...average.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Sprint's Nextel Knee-Slapper

The Wall Street Journal earlier this week reported Sprint is considering dumping it's Nextel unit. Sprint needs to do something, but dumping Nextel rings of re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. While the rumors and ideas float, Deutsch Telecom (owner of T-Mobile) is considering buying up Sprint even though they'll need to convert everything to GSM. If the price falls far enough, there will be plenty of cash left over.

But the knee-slapper comes when you look at the (short) list of potential Nextel buyers, and at the top of the list is Nextel's founder, Morgan O'Brien. Sprint buys Nextel for $35 Billion and might need to sell it for as little as $5 Billion. I'm sure Morgan is scrambling to come up the money as you read this. Sprint has other options with Nextel, but they certainly have proven they can't run the company and they need to do something before their stock drops completely out of sight.

We would hope there would be some kind of advantages on the horizon for current or potential Sprint users, but almost any idea now is too little too late. Virgin Mobile is making good use of the Sprint network, Sprint should be able to, also. But they won't until they cleanse themselves of past sins. As we said last year, Sprint needs to change their name to something really sexy, or at least really different. Could they try "Cingular?"

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Qwest Dumps Sprint

We're always looking for good news to share about Sprint, but there is so little. This time, Sprint gets kicked in the teeth by Qwest. Qwest Wireless sold and supported their own phones, but they operated on Sprint's network as an MVNO. Qwest has signed an agreement with Verizon Wireless to sell Verizon phones as part of Qwest's "bundles", but they will be Verizon-branded phones. So this means the death of Qwest Wireless as well. This deal is similar to that with Qwest and Dish Network.

Qwest's official position is that Sprint wouldn't let Qwest have the latest gee-whiz phones, at least for 4 months after Sprint gets them. Verizon will...of course they will...since they are Verizon phones. One of the few advantages I can see is Verizon Wireless users (who sign up through Qwest) will be able to combine their home and wireless voice mail, which was already available to Qwest wireless and landline customers.

We think this is an unfortunate decision because it means more trouble for Sprint, a good network with a bad reputation, and the end of one more name in the wireless world, Qwest Wireless. This will mean a few more layoffs at Qwest, but overall it must mean more for Qwest's bottom line. Fortunately, current Qwest Wireless customers won't need to make any changes until next year. But we can start moaning now.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Big Jumps in International Roaming Rates

It was just a year ago we lamented the increases in roaming rates for American visitors to countries like Mexico. Not only did we lose the availability of Verizon's "North America's Choice" plan, which included free calls into and out of Canada and Mexico, regular roaming rates increased, Mexico's from .69 to .99 per minute. Now, it appears the other shoe is dropping and roaming rates to many other countries are increasing substantially as well. What tipped us off was a release on new international roaming rates that are coming to Verizon Wireless on June 30, 2008.

A sampling of what's to come is that roaming calls made from countries like China and Isreal, countries that have CDMA service, will be increasing from $1.29 per minute to $1.99 per minute. Verizon's new rates show some savings with new "Global" rate plans (at $4.99 per month), however, those rates only apply with a Verizon Global phone (with GSM capabilities) and traveling in a country with GSM service available. At first look, it seems like international CDMA services are becoming a problem for US carriers. But a look at AT&T's GSM roaming rates show equally high international fees both with and without their "International Traveler" package.

In the age of falling international Long Distance rates, you can call England for as little as .02 a minute (or free), it seems back-asswards that cellular roaming rates are not only going up, they're skyrocketing. This, of course underscores our recommendation that you're better off using a local, prepaid phone when out of the country, and even more, not even using cell service internationally. Using email and IP-based services are now much more cost-effective, and potentially free.

While we think our wireless phone is our best connection to the world, we now have a great economic incentive to do something else while traveling abroad. Do you remember the days of calling home, ringing the phone twice, hanging up and the family calls you back for a fraction of the price it would cost you? Well, what's old is new...again.