Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wireless Backup Power: Good News/Bad News

Recently the FCC initiated a rule that requires cellular companies to provide at least 8 hours of backup power to every cell site. This requirement comes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and has us pondering the fallout. This unfunded mandate will be vigorously fought by the cellular carriers, especially when facing an economic downturn. Equally emphatic will be the FCC and other federal powers who want the US better prepared for future disasters and terrorists.

Good News: We will be able to depend more on our cellular phones when wireline services go down. Since most wireline companies already provide backup power, the more likely scenario is when communications links are interrupted by an accident or weather. In that case, cellular sites may be affected by the same loss of service. An electrical outage more often affects the type of customer who needs a computer connection to power their IP phone, or who made the unfortunate decision to use only AC-powered phones such as "cordless" phones or phones with other powered features. We should always have a simple corded phone plugged in somewhere in the house, that is, those of us who still have wireline service.

Bad News: All the cell sites with no backup facilities are going to need additional power capacity in the form of generators or batteries. This could have a substantial visual, environmental or audible impact on nearby residents. A few cell sites wouldn't have a problem, but many more are now located in, or close to, neighbors who would. Expect a lot more boxes, and maybe buildings, to be added to these sites including generators that will need fuel tanks that could result in leaks or spills, and noise from required tests. Expect lawsuits, too.

Oh, and the FCC says this rule is already in effect! I can smell the fumes already...some from the generators, some from the neighbors. And then there are the lawyers...

Carriers Get Hit With Class Action Suits

This week Verizon Wireless was hit with a class action suit on their Early Termination Fees (ETF). We don't know if this ball got rolling before or after they began pro-rating their ETF's. The most common termination situation was when a customer was unable to get service in a new location or lost service where it once worked. When that customer switched to another carrier out of necessity, Verizon said, "too bad", and charged the ETF, around $175.

T-Mobile also has the legal dogs on their tails, but in this case, they are being charged with forcing customers to maintain Text Messaging services that caused users to receive unwanted messages and incurring incoming message charges. In the suit, T-Mobile is being charged with not permitting customers to disable their Text Messaging. Most major carriers allow this.

Additionally, the Attorney General of South Dakota has asked cellular users there to look for unauthorized charged for such services on their bills. It looks like he's going to start his own "class." It's nice to get the carriers to clean up their act, but don't expect much money back. My last class action remedy got me a hands free earpiece that doesn't work with my phone, and a $10 credit that won't appear on my bill for 2 years. I bet the lawyers made out a little better.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Cellular Phone Directory is Here

Some of us had hoped it wouldn't happen, and the carriers said they were being careful not to release their records to the directory services. But at least one directory company is offering subscriber information for cellular phone numbers. You thought your cell number was private? Ha!

Intelius claims over 90 Million cell phone numbers in their directory, and not one of them was supplied by the carriers. How did they get your number? Intelius scans online public records and logs every number registered at those sites and the name associated with it. Let's say you gave the county your cell number so they wouldn't bother you at your home number at tax time. Unfortunately, that number is then part of the public record and can be harvested by a company like Intelius. And if they can do it, someone else can, too.

Intelius will sell you the name or number information for as little as $5, but the normal price is $15. If this catches on, competition could drop the price to as little as a buck or two. There is a flip side to all this, and that is if you're the one trying to find somebody's private cell number, it can be done. So, the next time you see Brittany Spears behaving badly, look her up, give her cell a ring, and advise her she's gonna catch cold if she doesn't dress a little better.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The FCC Ruined Our 700 MHz Fun!

The last FCC auction for wireless spectrum (AWS) was fun! As often as 3 times a day, geeks like us could log on to the FCC's web site and see who outbid who. This time, the FCC decided to make the 700 MHz wireless auction a "blind" auction, and no one will be able to see the results until it's all over next month.

The 700 MHz spectrum is made up of soon-to-be-abandoned analog TV channels and has the potential of yielding even better coverage than current cellular channels. This could be a much bigger deal than any of us imagine. We could end up with coverage in areas not possible today, and applications of technology some us haven't even dreamed about yet.

With entities like cable providers, cellular companies and the likes of Google competing for wireless space, we could be entering an era of untold, unwired possibilities! It looks like AT&T and Verizon Wireless will be the big bidders, but expect a few Dark Horses to cross the finish line in this race. Until then, we'll just watch the money, and not the horses, fly by.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Verizon Wireless Buys SureWest Wireless

Even with the 700 MHz auction on the horizon, Verizon Wireless grabs the PCS spectrum, equipment and customers of Surewest Wireless in Sacramento, CA. In their press release, SureWest tries to assure their customers they won't notice many changes in their service, but historically Verizon converts all customers to their own network and plans. That may mean no more unlimited offerings for wireless customers in Sacramento.

If this purchase follows the same pattern as the Qwest Wireless purchase, Verizon will use the SureWest sites for additional coverage and the PCS spectrum for broadband services. The upside is that Sacramento customers will get more features on Verizon phones. Surewest's wireline and video services will remain intact.

Since SureWest serves such a small area, we don't want to say this is a bad transaction in the larger world of wireless, but for cellular users in Sacramento this could be a step backwards. We could hope MetroPCS may be interested in bringing their unlimited service to town now that Sacto users have whetted their appetite for all-you-can-eat wireless.

As usual, we have preserved the SureWest Wireless coverage map on our map page.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sprint/Nextel Continues to Slide

The bad news just keeps coming for Sprint/Nextel. The last quarter of the year is the most important in the cellular business, and Sprint's was bad. Their financial wrap-up of the quarter showed a loss of customers, which continues a trend from earlier in the year. Unfortunately, this leads to "Streamlining Operations" which means 4,000 of our friends in the company will be laid off, and 125 of their stores will be closed.

The Sprint/Nextel execs saw this coming, but we can't see what they tried to do to stop customers from leaving. It looked like more of the same. Of course, nothing would attract more attention than good ol' price cuts, but I guess they'd rather set themselves on fire than cut. Now they need to slash.

We tried to help with several suggestions in previous articles, but they just didn't listen. If logic prevailed, we would be excited to see what they might do next, but it looks like they hope "streamlining" will solve their problems. Come on guys, T-Mobile had a "weaker" network, but keeps growing because they found a way to excite's call low prices. It's the same reason Wal-Mart had a good 4th quarter, and other stores didn't.

As we reported last month, most of their problem is with their image. Now it's time to offer their great network at a great price. We can dream can't we?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Clues from the CES

Visiting the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is inspiring yet frustrating. Some things are very cool, but with others you ask, 'why would anyone buy this?' With wireless phones, the trend is toward more iPhone- and PDA-like devices. But I don't see us rushing out and replacing our "ordinary" cell phones anytime soon.

However, in other countries of the world, people are accessing the Internet more with wireless devices than desktop or laptop computers. Even in Japan, a computer in the home is not common, but an Internet capable phone is.

My young son has been using the family computer castoffs, but now pines for more speed and capabilities. It just could be his generation won't be tied to something with a 14-inch or larger screen, but something much smaller and portable. My kid's first "computer" may be one of these devices with the eensy-weensy QWERTY keyboards that most of us wouldn't (or couldn't) touch.

Those guys at the CES may be on to something. However, I am still not interested in watching TV on a 2-inch screen. I'm over at the 150-inch plasmas. Even bad TV looks good there.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Best of 2007

Like all the other wireless media, we feel compelled to choose the most important story of last year. I hope our choice is unique. We chose the software-based cellular base station technology chosen by Mid-Tex Cellular who can now switch from GSM to CDMA almost with the click of a mouse.

In a story we reported in November, Vanu Inc, run by a member of the Bose family, has developed several innovations for the cellular industry that includes software-based technology that allows carriers to change their service without changing their cell site equipment, and "femtocells" which provides both GSM and CDMA cell service on several cellular bands (700, 850 and 1900 MHz) in a unit that can serve a small building such as a customer's house.

As usual, we take the position that anything that helps expand coverage is a good thing.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Countdown to the Analog Sunset

There are three developments to report as we approach the cellular analog sunset, scheduled for 2/18/2008. First, there is word that a preliminary Alltel PRL has appeared (in Utah) with some analog roaming entries missing. This means you might want to download the latest PRL from your CDMA carrier in the event that a new PRL download in the near future may exclude analog roaming partners that still may be useful to you.

Also, Alltel has announced their analog and TDMA turndown in three phases based on market with March, June and September deadlines. This is changed from their "wait and see" attitude announced earlier.

Third is the realization that when analog channels are indeed discontinued, an analog-only phone will not only not make normal calls, it won't be able to access 911, either. This is different from other phones that are deactivated but can still call 911. When the analog channels are gone, there's nothing for that phone to connect to. Yes, that phone will be deader than a door-nail, a big paperweight, or a battery-pollution problem headed for a landfill near you.

Wireless Email Update

It was one year ago we reported on our first entry into the data use of our phones, (Mountain Wireless News, January 5, 2007) seeing how cheaply we could retrieve email from our regular cellular phones. We were seeking the best way to occasionally access our email accounts with the hopes of not being forced to a Blackberry or PDA-like device.

The results were surprising with services available for a little as $2 per month (Remomail) and usage rates limited just to time used, charged by the minute. In that year we found our $2 service was not only a bit primitive, it was also pervasive enough to crash 3 phones.

Last summer I changed to a nicer service for a still-nice price of $2.50 per month (SodaPop mail). Unknown to us, that service was discontinued by the carrier, a fact not to be discovered until we were traveling far from home, right where you'd want to use it most.

So now we're paying the big money, $5 per month, for infrequent use of (POP3) email access (Genesis Vemail). At that price level, you get a really nice email service with slick features like voice response returned by email attachment. But at that $5 level, some carriers offer you real Internet access where you can not only get your (web-accessible) email, but you'd also get wireless access to web sites, sometimes handy for an address or phone number.

For now, we prefer deluxe email features over web access as $5 a month is a big expense in our world. But the big news is that email is still usable with your plain vanilla cellular phone, no PDA phone required. In light of that, the $5 fee seems cheap since a little over a year ago we thought a much more expensive wireless device and its associated air time was required to attach that email ball and chain to our leg.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Yikes! 20 Cents per Message!

What we had hoped would not become an industry trend has indeed gone that way. Following Sprint/Nextel's increase in Text Messaging fees to 20 cents each, Verizon Wireless has decided to follow suit.

After getting kudos for introducing features that were a little more consumer-friendly, this one takes them back into the realm of "we gotta make a profit". Let's face it, this is a price increase with no corresponding increase in costs. It's a small bite, but for those of us who have no desire to wear out our thumbs sending text messaging to our buds, it's a step backward.

The majority of a la carte Text users use this form of messaging for conveniences like tracking a UPS package, flight departures or maybe stock quotes. This rate increase gives us the incentive to not explore the additional benefit of text messaging. Of course the carriers are hoping we'll now more seriously consider their text "packages", generally starting at $10 per month. No, I'm not yet getting anywhere near the 50 messages a month to make that worthwhile, and, since they raised the rates from 10 cents a minute, I don't even get weather warnings any longer.

Sadly, many customers will not notice this rate increase and continue to use Text with little care, potentially encouraging additional price increases. We can only hope that the carriers who don't raise their text rates will receive some competitive advantage, and exploit it.

Monday, January 7, 2008

US Cellular Expands!

One of the questions that crosses our screen after every announced cellular merger is, "who's next?" It looks like it won't be US Cellular. According to our neighbors over at RCR News, US Cellular has purchased some PCS spectrum from an "unnamed wireless carrier" in 8 markets in 4 states for $13.1 Million.

While this new spectrum could just be used for additional capacity in current markets, it's still great to see them expand, and be bold enough to actually build this new coverage, not just take over existing sites. US Cellular did buy a chunk of spectrum in the 2006 AWS auction, 17 licenses for $180 Million, so this latest purchase reinforces that move as well. They are high on our list of
favorable carriers with good coverage and good customer service.

I actually roamed on US Cellular this past week. It gave me a warm fuzzy feeling knowing they were there and at the top of my wireless provider's
Preferred Roaming List.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Holiday Deals Aren't Over Yet!

As usual, we, as consumers, are fairly predictable. Each year after Christmas, there is a surge in buying toys for ourselves that weren't under the Christmas tree. The wireless stores know this and over the last few years have extended their holiday promotions to take advantage of this selfish phase of our gift-buying frenzy.

This is your heads-up to grab one of these deals while you can. They soon will go away. The date is uncertain, possibly as soon as the start of the "normal" work week, like Monday, January 7th. Historically, these specials don't last too far into January, and just the mention of a promotion's end date gets many buyers off the fence to make that purchase.

How many times have you wished you took advantage of a deal that you thought would last a lot longer? Well, now's the time. The reason we won't see too many promotions over the next few months is because cellular purchases drop to very low levels no matter what. So that is the time the cellular retailers establish their "regular" prices, so that later in the year their special prices will look that much better.

There will be exceptions. Products that are late in their life-cycle (after maybe a year on the market) get reduced, and there are stores who want to clear out the really slow sellers, especially stores who are going out of business like CompUSA. Also, if business drops more than expected, say, with inflation fears, maybe deals will re-appear.

But if you've been thinking of grabbing a deal over the next few months, nope, now is the time. Oh, and this might be a good time to make the pitch for our own online discounts. If there's a better deal available by buying online, you'll find it there.