Monday, June 29, 2009

Who Is ATN (Atlantic Tele-Network)?

A new cellular carrier has appeared on the horizon, but they aren't really new. Atlantic Tele-Network (ATN) has been involved in cellular and landline telephone service for many years. We just can't wait to add them to our list of Carrier Reviews because it will be fun to watch their evolution.

We have assembled all of the important facts about this company and posted them at a Who Is ATN? web page. ATN, along with their US cellular subsidiary, Commnet Wireless, are probably putting together a game plan on how to become a successful cellular carrier. They are already an experienced network operator and have extensive roaming agreements already in place.

We are happy to see parts of Alltel survive, even if the name gets changed. We told them not to use "Cellular One", but who knows what the perceptual surveys will indicate.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

AT&T Gets Cheers for 850 MHz

While we feel many of the networks that utilize 1900 MHz (PCS) frequencies do an adequate job, many AT&T customers lament the overloads experienced presumably from so many iPhone users who are limited to 1900 MHz spectrum. So we have received more than just a few inquiries about the addition of AT&T's recently announced purchase of most of the divested Alltel network. While we feel the new spectrum and facilities will make a significant contribution to AT&T's rural footprint, it won't do much to improve the experience of those users who suffer from dropped connections in urban areas.

Fortunately, AT&T has admitted that most of their data is transferred at 1900 MHz and is now in the process of making it available on their 850 MHZ channels. One of our major complaints about AT&T was the limitation of using the 1900 MHz spectrum from their 850 Mhz cell sites during the rollout of GSM, and we are equally disappointed to find they are still doing that for data. Surprisingly, Verizon Wireless does the same thing where they have both 850 and 1900 MHz active...with few complaints. Are AT&T users more demanding of their network, or is the network not quite ready for prime time? We fear the latter. But AT&T has announced thousands of new cell sites on the drawing board.

You know what's funny? When Cingular and AT&T combined, it resulted in the largest US cellular network based on the number of cell sites, around 15,000, and still coverage suffers. Keep building,'s still the network, ya know.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sprint Roaming Response

For the last few years we have rated Sprint higher due to their good Roaming capabilities. Last year Sprint phones began to prefer roaming on Alltel over Verizon, and while Alltel is an excellent roaming partner, it involved a change. Some Sprint users told us their roaming coverage degraded. Others liked the improved data throughput Alltel offered. This discussion has expanded in newsgroups and forums, and we're seeing more and more Sprint customers with problems with their roaming coverage.

We can only speculate why Sprint roaming would be deteriorating. The change to preferring Alltel should have made things better and Verizon's acquisition of most Alltel sites should improve it even more. Sprint phones will not choose the carrier with the best signal, but rather the signal that costs them the least in roaming fees. This could cause your Sprint phone to hold a weaker signal longer than you'd like, but it shouldn't be any worse coverage than that experienced by an Alltel or Verizon customer. It makes us conclude that this is just one more dark cloud that hangs over the heads of the Sprint/Nextel. For the time being, we'll give Sprint the benefit of the doubt.

In the future, possibly a year from now, some Alltel sites will disappear and will be replaced by nearby Verizon sites...another change...and maybe new dead spots. With the loss of Alltel, Verizon will still maintain Sprint's roaming possibilities, but what happens when their roaming agreements expire and there is only one CDMA roaming carrier available, and it's an 800-pound gorilla? We'll roam across that bridge when we get to it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rest of Alltel Goes to ATN

Who? ATN is Atlantic Tele-Network who owns a few small cellular systems that includes Commnet Wireless. In a move that shouldn't have surprised us, they agreed to pay $200 Million for what appears to be the balance of the Alltel assets required to be divested by Verizon Wireless. If so, this would complete the list of Alltel properties to be sold, and it seems to preclude US Cellular who at one time was thought to have the most to benefit with the addition of the spun off Alltel properties. The ATN purchase includes over 800,000 Alltel customers who would probably love to continue to be Alltel customers. Just for fun, we added the ATN/Alltel properties to the Top 10 cellular carrier rankings just to show the relative size of the affected network.

We have been waiting for a response from ATN as to what the plans are for this part of the divested Alltel network. Will it continue to be known as Alltel, or might they apply one of their other subsidiary names which include Commnet Wireless and even a Cellular One (of Bermuda)? If the history of the cellular name game is any indication, we could see the Alltel name live on. Or how about something new and clever? And will there be consolidation of the existing markets, mostly rural, of Commnet Wireless into this new network? And should we expect CDMA to live on? ATN supports both CDMA and GSM.

We are thrilled to see a separate network survive from the Alltel divestiture. May they live long and prosper.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mexican Cell Phones Play Hard-to-Get

The Mexican government changed the rules for getting a cell phone in 2009, requiring anyone signing up for a new account to provide complete documentation. While it’s still possible to purchase a Mexican cell phone or SIM, the requirements have taken the convenient storefront or kiosk cellular dealer out of the picture. You’ll need to go to a corporate-owned cellular store, show them your passport, and fill out an application, including for Prepaid, and even just for a SIM, if they will sell it to you. The problem is most cities only have 1 or 2 such official stores in each town, with several in Mexico City. This makes the Mexican cellular phone a less desirable choice for roaming in Mexico.

The good news is that once you acquire your cellular account, most convenience stores can refill your account with their store computer. This eliminates the need for you to deal with Spanish-speaking prompts on the phone, you only need to show them your Mexican cellular number and a few hundred pesos.

In my case, I was able to refill my Movistar Prepaid account, which has yet to expire after almost 1 year of non-use. But I am not willing to take the time and expense to travel across town to get a new TelCel account ‘by the rules’. Yes, it means we’re going to start paying even more roaming charges by using our US-based phones more often. After the problems we had last year, even .99 a minute seems reasonable considering the challenges of the alternatives.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Future of T-Mobile Roaming

With AT&T working toward taking over Alltel markets in the rural west, our concern turns to the future of Roaming for T-Mobile. Currently, T-Mobile gains extensive roaming coverage in rural areas with an agreement will Alltel. Those GSM parts of the Alltel network that have been taken over by Verizon Wireless, will remain as they are today, no better or worse, for the next 4 years. But what happens when AT&T takes over the remaining Alltel (and Unicel) areas? Will they make life more difficult for T-Mobile and other GSM carriers?

We will assume that AT&T's acquisition of those Alltel areas with GSM service will continue to be available to GSM roamers for the same 4 years. We would also expect AT&T to expand GSM coverage beyond what Alltel offers, but will they offer that expanded roaming coverage to T-Mobile and others? And in 4 years, will AT&T say, sorry no more roaming for you.

CDMA operators (like Verizon and Sprint) normally do not play nice with GSM operators (like AT&T and T-Mobile). But when Verizon agreed to sell their Alltel spin-offs to AT&T, we know it's all about the money and not any technology alliance. AT&T allows T-Mobile roamers in some areas, but will this hold true for the future? T-Mobile may not necessarily be limited to their AT&T brethren to maintain their service levels. Spectrum leasing has changed the coverage playing field. Let's hope the sandbox stays civil, but that the cell site builders stand at the ready to add more equipment should there be a roaming call to arms.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Alltel Goes to 1 Year Contracts

It's good news-bad news at Alltel. If you live in an Alltel Divested area and you didn't get the Alltel plan you wanted to hold for 2 years, it's almost too late. Wireless Week reports Alltel divested customers will now get plans with a 1-year contract. Alltel customers who are being acquired by Verizon Wireless (non-divested) most likely are already being offered only Verizon 2-year plans.

Whether it's good news or bad depends on your outlook of your Alltel service. There's a good chance Alltel plans as we know them won't exist 2 years from now. And if you're one that looked at a 2-year agreement as a bad thing, then it's all good now. Alltel claims everything else is business as usual. Let's hope that means handset prices won't increase as a result.

This change takes effect tomorrow, June 5th. Wanna lock in that cool plan, now?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Coverage Leader: TracFone!

In our latest project, one of our contributors switched to Prepaid, so he built up a web site dedicated to finding the best Pay-As-You-Go plans, The surprise he came up with is which company has the most extensive coverage for Pay-As-You-Go plans. TracFone, it turns out, has the most coverage without additional roaming charges. Verizon Wireless, even with the recent addition of Alltel properties, does not have as great Prepaid coverage.

The difficulty with TracFone's coverage is that it is handset-dependent. To get their best coverage you need to purchase one of their CDMA handsets, and you can only buy one if you live (or want a phone number in) certain CDMA markets. You need to do your homework, but TracFone does give you a list of phone models on their coverage page. Most of the phones offered by TracFone are GSM, often based on the AT&T network. AT&T is good, but GSM coverage isn't as extensive as CDMA coverage, especially in the rural west. Check before you buy from a retailer's shelf.

Remember, this is all for Prepaid. Verizon Wireless and AT&T both offer thorough coverage with their 'postpaid' plans, but most carriers limit Prepaid coverage to just their own network. That is greatest with Verizon's network, but there are still holes. TracFone serves those holes. We also give credit to T-Mobile's Prepaid for offering included coverage in a larger number of roaming areas than AT&T GoPhone, and Alltel U who offers included coverage in more areas than Verizon's Prepaid.

TracFone...go figure.