Monday, March 31, 2008

A Bright Spot for Nextel: Ole!

Our experiences with cellular in Mexico recently produced one positive surprise: Nextel of Mexico, very different from its Sprint-owned counterpart, seems to be doing well, thank you. Nextel Coverage in Mexico is expanding rapidly and works very well, especially in the interior of the country. What caught our attention was their recent introduction in some of the coastal resorts, and how well they have been received.

Nextel of Mexico uses the same iDEN technology, but Mexico users like it for the strengths that Sprint seems to downplay in the US. "Direct Connect" works very well, even nationwide, and it attracts serious business users. Although we were not big fans of Nextel, mainly because of early audio limitations, we have a new respect for what they were here, and how much damage Sprint has done to the product. While Sprint may be a potential takeover candidate, we're hoping they'll just spin off Nextel and allow it to be all it can be.

It was experience in Mexico that caused us to dig deeper into how useful US-based Nextel phones can be in Mexico, and found that Sprint hasn't updated the Nextel roaming map in years. We have added positive comments about Nextel service on our Mexico Roaming Page, and Scott has posted their current Mexico Coverage Map in comparison to the other cellular carriers in Mexico. Viva El Nextel!

Friday, March 28, 2008

International Travel: Check & Double Check!

In our Mexico roaming report number 2, we get slapped in the face with the reminder to check & double check. This year I thought we would try the Movistar network as their coverage maps show moderate improvements. But finding a Movistar store was nearly impossible, except for the girl in the tight jeans at the supermarket who wouldn’t sell just a SIM. TelCel has as many as 4 retailers on one block in the city, and almost every soda store sells their refill cards. Movistar seems to locate in malls and big stores. As on our page for Mexico roaming, the 3rd carrier, Iusacel, is almost impossible to find.

The story here isn’t which carrier is best in Mexico, it’s how to prevent problems like ours. It seems few Mexico cellular customer service agents know the procedure for “Pay per Call” (pagar para la llamada), and rarer still is an agent who can speak adequate English. Get to know your concierge, you might need their help. Our CS agent told us it would take 30 minutes to switch over to Pay per Call, when it can actually take as much as 24 hours! Sure enough, after 2 calls, our minutes were all gone. We now know to check our balance after our first call to see if the account is set up right. And this emphasizes the value of dealing with a stateside SIM supplier with English-speaking agents (at a higher cost, of course).

However, our negative surprises were offset by a positive surprise: our year-old SIM and its associated number were still active, we just needed to add a refill for more service, saving $23USD. This may be an isolated mistake, but it underscores the need to check and double check. Don’t assume. Oh, and keep your old SIM’s…you never know…

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Cost of Convenience

Recently we made one of our regular trips to Mexico and added more to our fuzzy knowledge of the cellular world South of the Border. This most recent stay was in one of the newer resort areas that is removed somewhat from the main town. In previous writings we advised you can save huge roaming fees charged by your home carrier by getting a Prepaid SIM (programming chip) from one of the Mexican carriers and place it in your own unlocked GSM phone. After all, Mexico cellular dealers seem to be on “every block.”

Such is not the case in resorts where there are only hotels and condos, and few, if any, other retailers. Sometimes it’s hard just to get enough time to break away from the family and buy local cellular service. The only nearby cellular retailer was at a kiosk in a large discount store about a mile away. But the little girl in the tight jeans would not sell just a SIM, she would only sell a phone, which, of course came with a network SIM.

Since she was asking over $60USD for the cheapest phone with service, we decided to pass and look for our $25USD SIM. The bus went the wrong way at the wrong time, so I was limited to a more expensive taxi ride which was $14 round trip. And the cellular store in the next town would only sell the SIM and $20 worth of time for $43, so the cost was now up to $57 plus my time, just short of what the little girl at the kiosk wanted. Sure, I could wait for when the whole family took the bus into town and find one of those retailers who would sell a SIM with minutes included. But should I?

I already knew Mexican cellular companies offered their prepaid phones and SIM's in US stores. But knowing I could get a good deal in Mexico, why pay the US store premium? Or, why purchase the SIM from one of several online dealers who would add the cost of shipping (why is it so much more than a .41 postage stamp?). The reason: convenience. While we try to be the champions of bargain-basement cellular buying, it’s all too easy to be penny wise and pound foolish. That little girl with the attitude at the kiosk was actually trying to save me money and time. Who knew?

Friday, March 21, 2008

700 MHz Auction Winner Maps

Now that the FCC 700 MHz wireless auction is over, we have the results posted in map form on our associated map site, Cellular Map Source. Since Alltel didn't win a single market, we fear those carriers who are currently paying Alltel roaming fess will no longer need to do so once they get their own rural networks up and running. Of course this is not news since AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless already landed spectrum at 1700 MHz. But with some carriers winning at 700 MHz, Alltel loses their advantage.

On the positive side, it was encouraging to see US Cellular land several licenses in markets adjacent to their existing areas. This hints of some very thoughtful expansion. While they won't be going "national" with their new assignments, they will be able to expand out from their existing markets.

We haven't heard the final word on these assignments. We expect some horse trading between now and when the first new wireless assignments hit the airwaves, so let's hope our favorite small carriers get some space in the sandbox, too.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

700 MHz: Surprise! No Surprises!

It was a fairly big disappointment to read the initial report from the FCC that the 700 MHz auction was indeed dominated by Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Secretly we hoped a new national challenger would emerge like Alltel...or even Google. But it is not to be.

At first blush we were saddened at the prospect that these new wireless channels will only make the big, bigger. But, in this case, being held by the 2 largest carriers means there will be a greater chance of construction of an actual new network, and less of a Nextwave-like owner who is long on ideas, but short on cash.

And all this new spectrum becomes available in less than one year, right after all our nice, old analog TV's go dark. Won't it be great to replace all those 19-inch TV screens with a nice, bright 2-inch screen? Now that's progress!

More Site Updates

I may have missed some wireless news this week, but I have been helping Scott transfer over all the Mountain Wireless maps to Moving over files that have accumulated over the last 7 years has proved to be more of a challenge than we thought. He also put together a much more detailed Cell Site Finder page, so we'll be linking over to that as well. We have created these "specialized" links to provide more detailed information and spread the work around among a few more "experts." Scott has already come up with a few maps I couldn't find.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Wireless Top 10

Even with cellular consolidation going strong, I was surprised at the Wireless Top 10, ranked by the number of subscribers. And that is changing. Number 9 Dobson is now part of AT&T and number 10 Suncom is now part of T-mobile. The Unlimited providers, Cricket and Metro PCS, are gradually moving to the middle and if they ever get together they'll challenge US Cellular for the #6 position. These numbers come from each company's quarterly reports. There won't be new numbers until the end of the 1st Quarter, so here's the Top 10 as of the end of 2007:
  1. AT&T, 65.7 Million
  2. Verizon Wireless, 63.7 Million
  3. Sprint/Nextel, 54 Million
  4. T-Mobile(US), 27.7 Million
  5. Alltel, 12 Million
  6. US Cellular, 6.1 Million
  7. Metro PCS, 3.6 Million
  8. Cricket (Leap Wireless), 2.9 Million
  9. Dobson, 1.5 Million
  10. Suncom, 1.1 Million

Who will move into the new Top 10? Centennial has a total of 1.1 million customers, but only 690,000 of them in the US. Unicel had potential, but soon should be gobbled up by Verizon Wireless. And will anyone snag Sprint? Pick your favorite small carrier and see what happens by the end of this month. Cincinnati Bell, anyone?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Better Coverage Maps?

Coverage maps are still a big deal. We keep asking the carriers, "when will they be more accurate?" T-Mobile was one of the first to provide the most detail with AT&T eventually coming a distant 2nd. Alltel still remains the worst of the large carriers, but our biggest disappointment is Verizon Wireless. Depending on market, they are either the coverage leader or a close #2. But their coverage maps have these huge holes. For some reason, there are areas of the country where Verizon does not show coverage for their roaming partners. We keep asking them, "why?" Their answer is, "we can't be help responsible for coverage for our roaming partners." Sadly, this means, "the coverage leader" doesn't show all their coverage which may explain the popularity of our Coverage Maps pages.

So popular, we can't keep up with all the maps we have, some 5 years old, so we're turning over the maps to someone else. Scott will be taking over cellular map duty on his new web site, He copied all of the Mountain Wireless maps and started to add some new ones of his own, so it's all good. If you have bookmarks for our old pages, they will forward to the new site, so the transition should be seamless. Scott is planning for the new AWS (1700 MHz) and 700 MHz bands, which could be waaaay over our heads. We will focus on our reviews and cellular data. Hopefully, with we can peek in the holes that Verizon and other carriers still leave unfilled on their coverage maps.

Of course, there is that segment of the population who checks coverage by turning on the phone: Signal? Good! No Signal? Turn the phone off! How crass can they be?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Alltel Finally Joins the Unlimited Party

They entered the Unlimited corral kicking and screaming, but for $100 Alltel will give you Unlimited voice calls and free Long Distance, but not much else. I'm sure they looked at the fact that they need an Unlimited plan to look good and that it would only affect 2% or 3% of their customer base. Their "My Circle" plans are closer to Unlimited than anybody else's plan (among the biggies) below $90, so their Unlimited plan is pretty much just window dressing. But what's not to 'love'?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Analog Sunset Update

We waited until analog cellular (and TDMA) disappeared in our market before commenting on the analog switchoff. I am surprised there aren't more problems. We have been scanning forums and Usenet for anecdotal incidents.

Some OnStar users say the green light on their analog-only units went out some time ago (December 31st?) so there are no surprises now. A handful of people noted there is no AT&T service at their location, but I suspect they are TDMA users, not analog. A couple of Verizon Wireless users posted they are suddenly getting roaming charges where there were none before, but this may not be related. Calls to AT&T and Verizon, both top- and bottom-tier employees, report very few complaints.

So, 2 weeks after the analog and TDMA sunset, the problems seem to be few. And some problems are not necessarily related to a loss of signal. This transition will be ongoing since some carriers, like Alltel, will be turning off analog and TDMA in stages, and some not all. Many of these incidents will be hard to track since the complaint would be, "my phone doesn't work," and that may have many other causes. But I'm not tossing out my 'tri-mode' phones just yet.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

We're Now More GSM-Friendly

Mountain Wireless has been on top of the current Preferred Roaming Lists for the larger carriers, but those are all CDMA. Someone recently asked, "what about GSM?" Good Question. So we have added more data for GSM phones and we'll see if we can keep it updated.

First, we added a current MNC (Mobile Number Code) List which evolves as GSM carriers come and go. And we have the MNC Priority List for AT&T which is found on active AT&T SIM's. We hope to add to the list, but let it not be said we aren't GSM-friendly.