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CellphoneTechnoFILE's Cellphone Service Buyer's Guide

Cellular telephones were once strictly for people with expensive hangups, but that’s no longer the case. They don’t give these handy little gadgets away in cereal boxes yet, but over the past decade or so they’ve dropped in price from multiple-thousands of dollars to about $150Cdn. And, as with most other things electronic, their list of features and capabilities has grown.

Coverage is also much more universal, though it still isn’t everywhere, and competition from various service providers is heating up. All of this is good news for consumers, who can now get into a cellphone for little more per month than a regular land line.

Of course, it’s also a jungle out there, with various claims and mucho hype, so it doesn’t hurt to do a little homework before plunking down that debit card.

Here’s some timely TechnoFILE advice for cellphone shoppers:

First, figure out your "calling pattern." This will help you get the best airtime plan for your lifestyle (or "business-style"). If you only want the phone for emergencies, your needs will obviously be a lot different than if you’ll be using it as your primary business communications tool.

According to a U.S. study, the average cellphone user uses about 80 minutes of airtime a month, 60 per cent of which is used in the evenings or on weekends. This makes the "free" evenings and weekends packages attractive.

Then again, Canadian industry officials claim new users rarely use their cellphones for more than one hour a month, with about the same weekday/evening/weekend breakdown. We would tend to think this may not be true, however, as whenever we have a new toy we tend to use the hell out of it until the novelty wears off (or the first bill comes in!).

The most popular cellphone offers right now include "free" (read "included in the price") talk time in the evening or on the weekends, and many include from 50 to 400 minutes "free" (see above regarding "free") use any time.

Until you really know how much you’ll use the phone, you’re probably best served starting with a cheaper plan that offers some free talk time. Then, keep an eye on your bills and get ready to upgrade your plan if you find you’re consistently using up all your "free" time.

One of TechnoFILE’s staffers has 100 minutes a month in his plan, and rarely (if ever) exceeds that. Then again, he isn’t a real gossiper, either!

Some cellphone companies will actually track your calling patterns for you and recommend another plan once you've outgrown the first one. Remember to check their recommendations, however, to ensure it’s what’s best for you, and not for them.

If you want a cellphone just for emergencies, most service providers offer special packages -- such as prepaid plans -- that help keep costs down for occasional users.

One feature that’s really handy for the cost conscious (or convenience conscious) is voice-mail.

Why? Batteries don't last forever – and you don't want to risk decapitation at the hands of a fellow arts patron if your phone rings during the latest Broadway musical. Besides, by leaving the phone shut off when you don’t specifically need it you can save airtime charges by checking for messages periodically instead of jumping every time the cellphone rings.

Some cellphone companies bundle features like voice-mail and caller ID, into the monthly fee. Some don’t, so you should check this out.

It’s also a good idea to get a "dual-mode" phone, which combines analogue and digital coverage into a single unit. Why? The older, analogue phones often suffer from poor sound quality, crowded frequencies, limited battery life and a lack of security. Digital phones offer a cleaner, more secure signal with better battery life – but have limited range because most digital networks are still confined to major metropolitan areas.

The dual-mode phone switches seamlessly to analogue mode when it leaves the digital coverage area, which gives you the best of both technologies.

Whatever airtime plan you choose, be sure to watch out for hidden charges. Many cellphone companies are offering some apparently unbelievable deals, which in itself should set off alarm bells. So don't believe what they say until you find out about any other that may not be mentioned in the blurbs.

For instance, there can be activation fees, licence fees, "roaming" fees (extra charges inflicted when you’re outside your home area), smart card fees, daily usage fees, charges for incoming calls etc. etc. etc. Adding call-forwarding, paging, or any number of other neat services can also add to your bill.

If you do a lot of travelling, you’ll be especially concerned about roaming charges and even telephone compatibility in other countries. The more established cellphone companies should have long-standing agreements with foreign carriers, so their cellphones should offer better service abroad – but this isn’t necessarily the case. Check it out.

Then, once your handy dandy new cellphone is up and running, you can phone yourself silly.

Just remember, the cellphone is a tool to serve you – not the other way around. Don’t be afraid to turn it off – and be careful where you use it: driving one-handed while jawing on the phone is a recipe for disaster.


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January 31, 2006