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A mobile meltdown

It did not take long for our intrepid Outfitter to realize that one cell phone per family does not cut it anymore.

I commute about 50 miles each way every day, through a mixture of soybean fields, cornfields, and dairy farms. I prefer this bucolic scene to the interstate. Even though I need to weave my way around combines and other contraptions, the splendid scenery and slower pace ensure that my commute is the least stressful part of my day. Plus, it is shorter than the interstate by at least 10 miles each way, so I actually save time in my country commute.

I was riding along on a fine fall day explaining to the windshield about all the benefits of my chosen route when the temperature gauge suddenly hit the red. Clearly my car had blown a gasket or something and I needed to pull over immediately. As I opened the hood, I didn’t feel so good about my route after all. I was in the middle of nowhere and my engine compartment was covered with coolant. I reached for my cell phone and realized I had let my wife use it for her own travel emergencies on this of all days.

It didn’t take long to realize we couldn’t be a one-cell family anymore.

After knocking on every door in the nearby dairy farm and getting only barking dogs and dive bombing barn swallows for a response, I stuck my thumb out and began the five-mile trek to the nearest town. My feet had about a mile on them and my lungs had the exhaust from a hundred passing cars in them when a good Samaritan hippie in an old van pulled over to pick me up. I started to ask him if I could use the cell phone sitting on his dash board. “Don’t touch that!” he exhaled with a cloud of smoke. “See that mile marker?” he asked, pointing to the side of the road. “After that I’m roaming.” So we just drove to the nearest place with wrecker service, another few miles past town.

The long and short of it included a lost day of contract wages, many missed meetings (one of which almost cost me a valuable client), and $100 wrecker charge because the service did not take AAA. All of this could have been avoided if our family had a second cell phone. There’s nothing like the worst case scenario to motivate me into action. So I resolved that day to buck up for another cell service.

A second cell phone for me is not as easy as calling our current provider and adding another phone to the plan. My first phone started out as a review unit and I cannot add another phone to that plan for procedural reasons. So I need to find a new provider for my second phone.

Getting the best plan available in my area turned out to be bigger challenge than explaining why I missed those meetings. I knew it would be challenging, which is part of the reason I put off the decision so long. I would have to use this knowledge to get the best plan. So, let’s start with what I knew going into the process.

I knew that the choice of a cellular carrier is less important than it was in the days before number portability and one-year contracts. Now, if you don’t like a carrier’s coverage or signals, you can cancel within 15 to 30 days of signing up without penalty (depending on carrier). If you find out that you want to switch after that period, you can switch in a year and you won’t have to give up your published number when you do so (unless you foolishly sign a two-year deal). Still, one year of basic $40-per-month service is a pretty big decision, so I’m going to geek this one.

I knew that the cellular industry is the biggest hype machine this side of CES. They promise nationwide all-digital coverage and what you get is service along the major highways plus a lot of analog roaming anywhere off the beaten track. Google the keywords “cellular coverage maps US” and view exactly what they cover and what they don’t. You will see that most metro areas east of the Mississippi and the corridors between them are pretty well covered. You will also see huge areas of analog roaming or no signal at all. Carrier coverage areas vary by location, so check this out before you commit to one service.

I knew that, besides coverage, the other load of hype that carriers pile on us relates to how the plans are structured. They all sound good until you read the fine print. None of the ads speak openly about such things as activation fees, mobile-to-mobile double charging, inside-of-network versus outside-of-network roaming, or cancellation fees. They fail to mention that it can cost more to have family members with person-to-person calling. They all fail to mention that “anytime minutes” doesn’t mean “any use” minutes–they don’t count roaming or long distance. Moral: Read contracts carefully before you sign. As we shall see, I’m the typical Saturn customer. I favor the simplest thing to a base monthly fee that I can find so as to avoid hidden charges.

I knew that there are two main types of service: GSM–which is favored by AT&T/Cingular, Nextel, T-Mobile, and others; and CDMA–which is favored by Sprint and others. (The Sprint/Nextel merger means you can get dual-mode service and hedge your bets; though Sprint plans to migrate Nextel customers to CDMA down the road.) I will spare you the technical details, but GSM seems to be winning the standards war in the United States and versions of it are the de facto standard everywhere else in the world. Anecdotal evidence shows that the signals are stronger and clearer with GSM. Your mileage may vary, but I’m going with a GSM network.

I knew that there are some pretty good deals to be had in the phones you choose to buy along with your plan. Some phones are free, some carriers even pay you for your new phone. But I didn’t know the extent of the deals until I went to Cell Phone Finder >

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