Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sprint/Nextel Joins the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

Sprint finally came to the dance, hopefully not too late to enjoy the party. Today they announced their own flavor of Unlimited, also at the $99.99 price level. They had a choice between under pricing everyone else, or they could just throw in the kitchen sink and offer everything for that Unlimited price.

Wisely, they have chosen the latter and include all their services in their Unlimited package, truly offering something better than the competition. This diverts an all-out price war, which, we feel, may have caused a fallout of a carrier or two, most likely Sprint/Nextel. They are also offering a slightly cheaper Unlimited variation: for $90 you get all of their goodies minus the Mobile Internet features. Will this spark some price competition?

Like most other carriers, Sprint will let you switch to their Unlimited plans without extending your contract. Most carriers also offer a form of Unlimited for Family plans, but those start closer to $200. This was probably a necessary move no matter how much Sprint thought, "our plans are already generous, we don't need Unlimited." They do. Although most of us don't. Let us just sit in the stands and watch the game and see if this has any effect on wireless pricing for the rest of us. We're still tracking the Unlimited offerings on our Unlimited Plans Comparison page.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Qwest Wireless Death Watch?

The CEO of Qwest, Ed Mueller has announced they are reviewing how they sell wireless service in their 14-state wireline service area. They currently operate Qwest Wireless as an MVNO using Sprint's wireless network and roaming agreements.

Mr. Mueller stated that they are seeking a better "deal" for their wireless bundle, similar to what they have with Direct TV. That could mean he either wants to sell better handsets and advanced services than Sprint will allow...or he wants more money. He stated, "we want our partnerships to be deeper and more strategic, not just co-branding products." Today's Wall Street Journal reports that Qwest is in talks with Verizon Wireless to replace Sprint as their wireless partner. Most likely, Qwest will not become an MVNO of Verizon, but will instead just sell Verizon service in their communications bundle just like they do with Direct TV. No more "co-branding?" That tells me all the people who currently work in Qwest Wireless, they sell their own phones and maintain their own wireless customer service, might be facing job cuts.

The other side of the coin is that Qwest may just be "talking" to Verizon to get Sprint (or any wireless carrier) to offer a better deal for Qwest's use of their network. With over 820,000 customers, Qwest Wireless is relatively popular. Qwest and Verizon are fierce competitors for communications contracts to large customers, and the idea of them in bed together to sell wireless products just doesn't seem likely. Unless, of course, this is the camel's nose under the tent toward the eventual consolidation of Qwest and Verizon Communications.

We'll save that rumor for another day. For now, we'll just watch to see if Sprint does something stupid...again...and give up Qwest's 820,000 customers, opening the door for Verizon to ultimately snap up Sprint/Nextel. Oh my.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Unlimited Plans Update

We hate to stick to one subject too long, but the psychology of the new Unlimited plans is having some interesting effects. After reviewing several forums and emails, we are getting a profile the kind of customer is, or is thinking of, switching to an Unlimited plan.

Many people whose plans are close to, but still below, the $100 price point, are switching just so they no longer need to worry about going over their minutes. You guys make the carriers very happy, but you're gaining piece of mind. The obvious group, those are paying more than $100, are signing up, but not in as big numbers as you'd expect. But if those users need thousands of minutes, they are way too busy to worry about changing their cell plan right now.

The next group are those who have been waiting on the fence to yank out their wired phone. Carriers like Cricket and Metro PCS may have already given them the option, but when a major carrier like Verizon Wireless or AT&T makes the offer, off they go. Then there are the people who have been creative and who may already be using some kind of Unlimited minutes for a baby monitor, an always-connected car-to-car communicator, or mobile conference calls.

Another group who may be affected by these plans are the smaller cellular carriers who may rack up a large number of roaming charges to the major carriers, either increasing the pressure for the top tier carriers to buy out these roaming partners, or worse, start limiting Unlimited plans while roaming. Neither of these results are a good thing. Talk responsibly, folks.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Compare the Unlimiteds

This is a quickly-evolving story and if you want to jump on a good deal before something bad happens, we now have a resource to find the best Unlimited plans. We just added an Unlimited Plans Comparison page which we will update as these plans unfold. Much of this information isn't yet shown on these carriers' web sites. We also include the original Unlimited carriers, Cricket and Metro PCS for comparison.

US Cellular just added a $99.99 Unlimited plan which includes messaging and we still haven't heard from Sprint/Nextel. Many smaller carriers also offer Unlimited minutes for much less than $99, so don't overlook your local options, most of which are shown on our individual State Review Pages.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What's Next, $50 Unlimited?

With Verizon's annoucement yesterday of a $100 Unlimited voice plan, cellular corporate boardrooms are buzzing, and the stocks of the cellular carriers are slipping. While we salivate at the idea of new cellular price wars, we can't help but think of the downside: the loss of another cellular competitor.

There are rumors that Sprint and T-Mobile will need to not only meet Verizon's new unlimited plans, but may need to beat a healthy margin. Wireless analysts are hinting that these 2 carriers will need to drop to $60, or even $50 for Unlimited service to keep from losing customers. This could mean great news to some of us, but it also could mean the end of one of these companies. Sprint/Nextel, being the most vulnerable, may need to be the most aggressive. Sadly, the direction price wars take us is further consolidation. And if prices do fall to around $50, what happens to the carriers that already offer unlimited at that price like Cricket, Metro PCS and a handful of smaller companies? Cheaper plans? That can't be a bad thing, right?

Let's look beyond the dark clouds for now and enjoy the fact that prices are slipping downward. That may also mean bad news for wireline carriers who will lose more lines to wireless, but we are users, and we love competition. We'll be investors on another day. For now, Let Chicken Little go..."The ski is falling!"

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Verizon Wireless Offers Unlimited Minutes?

Could it be? Is the next round of wireless wars going to be “unlimited” minutes for the major carriers? We found this Verizon Wireless ad for "Unlimited Calling" for $99.99 that briefly appeared in USA Today’s online pages. This appeares to be for individual plans, so don’t expect to bring aboard the whole family…but it’s a trend we like.

The appearance, then disappearance of this ad, makes us wonder. Was it a mistake, or was it a trial balloon that gives Verizon a chance to see if anyone, especially AT&T, would 'match’ the deal? Could be an attempt to see how fast this rumor can permeate through the internet and make Blogs like ours simple pawns in the cellular chess game?

If not, for years in our Reviews and News pages, we have been supporting the notion that all wireless plans will eventually go “unlimited”. At $100, most carriers won’t have that many customers who are paying higher fees drop to the new rate. And they have been adding lots of capacity to their networks to make this sort of plan a reality. Look for Verizon to offer a bunch of other "unlimited" selections, rumored to start on Tuesday, 2/19.

Not being a user of that many minutes, we’ll just sit back and see if the sparks fly. And if we’re being used as a “pawn”, go ahead…it’s your move, guys.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Will Your Phone Die Next Week?

No, it's not a Blackberry warning, it's that analog thing. Most readers of this Blog have upgraded to digital by now, but you may have a friend or relative that just hasn't caught wind of the analog sunset that's coming. Except for Alltel, who has delayed deactivating their analog service for a few months, and a few other small carriers, most cellular companies have slated next Tuesday, February 19th as "D-Day", for De-activation Day for analog service. Some phones will go dead.

Even though you think that may not include you, some of us actually use analog more than we think, and just may get a surprise when the plug is pulled. For those of you who just crawled out of the cave, you have this weekend to get that old analog phone replaced, and we have provided a few suggestions as to what to do with that Old Phone.

And there are still a bunch of TDMA phones out there that will stop working at the same time. When the AT&T cell site tech heads up to pull the analog plug, the TDMA card will go out with it. Will they bring in a few extra customer service agents to handle the fun?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's Your Backup?

Yesterday's Blackberry outage brings to mind our communications backup plans. The cellular networks have various forms of backup: emergency power, alternative backbone and redundant equipment. But as the most recent failure underscores, we can really only depend on our own resources.

Fortunately, Research In Motion's Blackberry outages have been reasonably short, which begs the question, how much do we really suffer from an outage? Sure we can't communicate for a few hours, and even more distressing, we don't know how long our email will be down. But do we really suffer? If the answer is "yes," then we need a "Plan B."

Our family has a standby wireless phone in the glove box of each car and they get used once or twice a year. It's not the actual communications, it's the piece of mind. And if you can't live for more than a few minutes without being in touch, you either need to explore your backup options or make sure you don't have serious personal issues. A backup could be as simple as any email- or web-capable cell phone. For that, a simple prepaid phone could fill the bill. Even simpler is having your connection information on the thumb drive that's always in your pocket, right? They pose as key chains these days. Then, any nearby computer could get you back in contact long enough to let you know your world is still turning, and your messages aren't lost.

Of course as soon as you realize you are incommunicado, the best course of action may be to head to the golf course.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

More Carriers Join the Class Action Fun!

We recently reported that Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile were part of class-action suits, but it seems other carriers want in on the fun, too. Sprint/Nextel is up before the judge for re-upping customers' contracts for another 2 years without notice when users made minor modifications to their account.

And Alltel may get their hand slapped by Lady Justice for not disclosing all the terms and conditions of their contracts. Many of these carriers got "atta-boys" recently for incorporating some new "consumer-friendly" policies. Now we know why. They needed to hide their spitballs before the teacher came and whacked their hands. Too late. You're going to the principal's office. Oh boy, more hands-free earpieces for us.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

How Do We Take a Road Trip?

One of the things we do at Mountain Wireless is review cellular service by using it in different places, and one of the best ways to do that is by taking one of our road trips. While we have already applied our roaming experiences to our carrier reviews, we have always wanted to post the actual mile-by-mile experience of those trips to assist travelers making a similar trek across the cellular frontier.

Our difficulty lies in how to report these trips. Should we share our experiences as mileposts along the highways, or just selected details? Should those details be just the bad zones and roaming surprises, or the good news as well? We have started a "Road Trip" page several times and stopped because the best format to share these trips eludes us.

We have a file of our accumulated Road Trip experiences, as well those found in newsgroups and cellular forums, ready to publish. Two methods are shown on our Road Trips page: one is an "Outline" of high & low points, and the other is a "Story" of our trips. Only readers of this Blog are allowed a preview of these pages, and we hope you will take the time to comment. You may want to submit a road trip of your own. Most important of all, tell us whether we should even bother with this project.

We have added about one new web page a week to Some pages gather lots of fans (like The End of Analog), while others get no interest (like How Wireless 911 Works). It's a good thing we like to write this stuff, there's still a lot of internet space to fill up!

Friday, February 1, 2008

700 MHz: Hot!

We think 700 MHz is one of the best slices of spectrum wireless providers could hope for, and the latest auction bids verify that. The FCC expected a top of $15 Billion in bids, but as of Friday afternoon they have blown right past that. The auction is "blind", so we won't know who is leading the bidding until the fat lady sings. Other news sources anticipate Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Google to be the major players, but we are looking toward a Dark Horse, hoping it's someone like Alltel.

Bidders from the 2006 AWS auction may now be looking at their 1750/2500 MHz spectrum purchases as bargains. There could be some real premiums to be paid for 700 MHz space and the dynamics may have yet to be felt. The "C" spectrum, the nationwide channels, has yet to reach its minimum bid, but could get new life when the major players find they've been outbid in smaller markets. The "D" spectrum comes with Public Safety strings attached that nobody seems to want...that is until all the other frequencies get bid too high, and the D zone goes from looking like a problem to an opportunity.

Remember when "dual-band" phones were a big deal and "Quad-band" phones were essential for international travelers? "Sex-band" phones may be the next essential. "Sex" means six, right?