Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Joys of Sprint

I just caught a thread in one of the forums started by a traveler who was roaming in northern Arizona. A few months ago we were roaming in the area and wondered how to word a scathing report on the lack of service there. The coverage "hole" we were most concerned about is centered on the Navajo Reservation. The dominant cellular carrier in the area is Cellular One of NE Arizona, a GSM and analog carrier, but they don't seem to have roaming agreements with anyone other than AT&T, and that's only AT&T post-paid customers, not pre-paid.

Verizon Wireless has almost no coverage there and depends on what little signal is supplied by Commnet Wireless. Verizon has plenty of spectrum available there but has chosen to not only not build there, but actually shut down one or more of their Navajo County sites. Alltel, whose licenses and coverage are only available around the perimeter of the Navajo Nation, has an equal amount of "no service" areas.

But the story here is that the forum poster reported somewhat continuous coverage while roaming on Verizon, Alltel and Commnet, using his Sprint phone. In our reviews, one of Sprint's greatest assets is their ability to roam on more systems than any other carrier. Of course they are limited to CDMA and what's left of analog, but their roaming capabilities are extensive. This ability provides a glaring contrast between Sprint and all other carriers, especially in this area. Sure AT&T customers have no problems roaming in this part of Arizona, but they have problems in other surrounding areas, depending mostly on Alltel GSM roaming.

After searching for an acceptable solution to roaming problems in this area, whoda thought it would be Sprint. They needed some good news lately and until Verizon and Alltel start playing nice in the area, Sprint really rocks like nobody else in Arizona, especially when we "go native"...as in Native American.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Best Cellular Deal

We've been using it for about it for 2 years, but now we're ready to stick our neck out and recommend one cellular plan above the rest. On our "The Best" page we have chosen T-Mobile To Go as the best overall cellular deal around. Of course it isn't right for everyone, but you only pay for the minutes you use and once you have achieved "Gold Rewards" status, you only need to worry about paying for, or 'refilling', your account once a year.

T-Mobile To Go has almost the same coverage as T-Mobile's regular accounts which is very good, although not necessarily the best, but usually good enough. 'To Go' accounts also include some online access to a handful of select web sites through "T-Zones" which includes free web access to news, sports, weather, games and the like. If a deal comes along that we feel is better, we'll change "The Best" page, but any new offer must also be time-tested. The thing to watch out for is that T-Mobile could change the 'To Go' deal at any time and make it less attractive to value shoppers like us.

The thing that caused us to assign this "Best" status is that T-Mobile recently changed the price on their SIM Activation Kit to just $5, eliminating the need to deal with any eBay sellers of T-Mobile To Go cards. To get familiar with T-Mobile, we have Reviews, Ratings, Coverage Comparisons and Online Discounts.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cell Phones On Planes? No!

A few weeks ago the European Union announced that talking on a cellular phone on a commercial aircraft while in the air would be OK in Europe if the airline provided for it. Many Americans looked at that and saw the camel's nose appear under the tent and feared that a yakking passenger talking about their latest cancer surgery would be coming to a crowded airplane seat next to you.

Not in our planes says Congress! Not only is talking on an airplane (while off the ground) a violation of FAA rules, several congressional supporters are taking another step to make it illegal whether the FAA says so or not. It's a good thing our representatives in Washington take regularly-scheduled airlines, or this would fall on deaf ears. They fear in these trying times for fliers, US airlines would seek allowing cellular phones on their planes as long as they get revenue from every call. Internet and email are still safe, just don't hit the keys too loudly.

The House of Representatives bill is called The HANG UP Act and it has little opposition. A few manufacturers say this will hurt US airlines, but nobody is listening. While we are FOR anything that allows expansion of cellular coverage, this is one where Congress is doing the right thing. I have heard one too many calls about personal details I didn't want to know, and corporate doings that nobody should know. What little time I spend in the air is the only chance I get to catch up on my reading. Don't make me come back there and shut you kids up!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

An Instant Nationwide Cellular Network!

With brand new spectrum coming online for wireless service of various flavors, we have been alerted to a company that claims they can provide a coast-to-coast service within months. Space Data's "SkySites" can provide seamless, wall-to-wall coverage almost instantly by launching a bunch of balloons carrying micro-sized cell sites. Before you laugh this off, SkySites coverage is already operational and covers large parts of 10 states with just 6 cell sites!

At 700 MHz and the AWS channels, where we begin within a clean slate, this might be at least an interim solution. We would expect an eventual terrestrial network at these new wireless frequencies, but with 30 or 40 balloons, operators can jump start nationwide service, and as the network expands, provide service in places where there was none before.

With a range of 400 miles for each cell, this technology would certainly benefit holders of large national and regional licenses. But can you imagine the holder of one Cellular Market Area license being able to cover it all with just one cell site? Did I mention this far out service is already in operation serving the oil industry in the southwest US? This isn't just a bunch of hot air!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

First Use of AWS Channels is by Cricket

It was just a few days ago Scott and I were throwing together a few maps of the FCC Auction 66 AWS Winners, just in case one of the carriers started using their AWS assignments. Sure enough, about the same time, Cricket Wireless announced a handful of handsets that utilize their AWS (1700/2100 MHz) frequencies. They will be using the new channels and the new handsets with Cricket's rollout in Oklahoma City. OK City is the last of the Top 100 markets to finally be served by Verizon Wireless, and here come those upstarts at Cricket invading town already.

It's great to see the AWS frequencies finally getting used, it's great to see Cricket's flavor (and price) of Unlimited service come to OK City, and it's even greater to the see the 7th largest carrier not only survive, but expand into new markets. Hopefully there will be more new occupants in the AWS bands stirring up dust in other new markets.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

One 'Cellular One' Too Many

In 1983, George Duncan, Metromedia Corp's cellular negotiator, hushed a group of marketing executives by saying he was tired of all the names they thought up for new cellular service coming to Washington DC, and exclaimed, "Why don't we just take a simple name like 'Cellular One' "? That matter-of-fact-name became the best-known and trusted name in the then infant cellular industry. Today, the name has mostly fallen into the dusty shelves of cellular history. However, it is being resurrected in the wrong place: Montana.

The Montana PCS carrier with the rather hip name of Chinook Wireless has decided to change their name to the tired "Cellular One". Their new web site, http://www.cellonenation.com/ now makes very little mention of its Montana roots and tries to make itself look like one of the corporate titans we love to hate. Cellular One of East Texas made a smart move by re-using the name to make their tiny company appear to be part of something larger. But in Chinook's case, they are taking aim squarely at their foot and shooting.

Not much else has changed at ex-Chinook, but for most Montana residents the reappearance of the Cellular One name surely will conjure up memories of cellular days gone by...for better or worse...from Western Wireless, now part of Alltel. Scott has wisely saved and posted Chinook's last local coverage map, instead of Chinook's...uh...Cellular One's new map that shows national coverage, except for the glaring holes created by the lack of GSM roaming service provided by Alltel, their biggest competitor in their home market. They rely mostly on AT&T, whose coverage is none too good in the rural west. Another foot, another perfect shot.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

No April Fool: US Cellular Gets No Respect

I watched a short interview on CNBC this morning with John Rooney, CEO of US Cellular. It's CEO Week at CNBC, and Rooney was the best they could get from the wireless world. However, he was introduced as CEO of a "small regional carrier" and was captioned as serving "Chicago & Milwaukee." Most of us know US Cellular as one of the largest regional carriers serving territory in almost 20 states, and with recent acquisitions of 700 MHz, AWS and PCS spectrum, could serve even more.

However, the interviewer was right, that US Cellular has been slow to introduce the advanced services many of us enjoy from both larger and smaller carriers. The CEO actually admitted they have been "experimenting" with EV-DO for the last few years, and that only 35% of their markets will see EV-DO by the end of 2008. Still, US Cellular gets high marks from us, and customers, and has very low churn (turnover). While it seems they are expanding, they need to pick up the pace considering that they are the #6 cellular company, and serve far fewer urban areas than the #7 and #8 carriers, Metro PCS & Cricket.

Mr. Rooney also emphasized the company is not looking to sell out and we hope that's true. But if they don't start offering more advanced features, we're gonna cry...someone's gonna sneak up and grab 'em...no Foolin'.