Cell phones have come a long way since the 1940s, when engineers hoped to put a creative twist on the wireless phones of that era, used primarily in police cars. These telephony pioneers concluded that if they were able to combine multiple service areas, "cells", to transmit a message from one cell to another, it would make possible wireless communication beyond the range normally associated with what were essentially two-way radios. At least, it sounded good in theory.
But the theory was not converted into practice until decades later, when the requisite technology had been developed. Specifically, during the early 1970s, Motorola created the first portable handset, and a few years later Bell Laboratories created the first working prototype of a cellular system. But as often happens, the technological hurdles were not the worst of it. It wasn't until the FCC finally got out of the way, and expanded the usable bandwidth, that cellular systems really took off.
By the early 1990s, various standards were devised and accepted by the telecommunications industry. This allowed the many players in the field — ranging from established behemoths to nimble startups — to begin offering affordable plans, which have become increasingly competitive with landline rates. At the same time, electronics manufacturers developed a wide variety of cell phones, which continuously have become smaller, lighter, and more functional — now displacing PDAs, day planners, wristwatches, and even portable Web access devices.
Now that seemingly everyone in America — and his brother, and his brother's 10-year-old son — has a cell phone, it makes sense to survey the cell phone plans and products that are currently available, before choosing your first phone and plan, or a replacement for either. Now that people can even surf the Internet on their cellphones, it makes even more sense to take advantage of the many websites that discuss current cell phone offerings, usage, and ring tones.
Plans and Phones
As often happens in any industry, out of an ever-changing group of small and medium-size providers, there have emerged several elephants that dominate the field. The four most well-known nationwide carriers currently are Cingular, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon. If you choose to go with one of these biggies, then what are some promising ways to find out which ones provide coverage in your area, and under what terms?
Your first stop could be CompareWirelessRates, which offers a grid displaying the largest national cell phone carriers, and the costs for their standard calling plans. It shows the number of anytime minutes that you are allowed at each level of monthly cost. In addition, small colored boxes indicate whether the plan allows for unlimited minutes during evenings and/or weekends, whether you get a free phone, whether it is shipped to you for free, and whether they give you unlimited time for talking to another cell phone user.
CompareWirelessRates' grid also allows you to click on a monthly fee to compare all of the plans at that price level, click on an individual plan for more details, and supposedly click on any carrier's logo to compare all of their plans. However, my experience trying that last advertised capability was that all five carriers shown had "No Plans" offered. More helpful are the "Coverage" buttons, which display a map of the United States and possessions, showing the extent of cellular coverage.
While LetsTalk.com lacks a comparison grid, it more than makes up for it with a much greater amount of information, including product reviews, user reviews, and a rebate center. Perhaps most valuable of all is the "wizard" feature, which steps you through the process of choosing your plan type (individual, family, prepaid, phone-only, or additional line), your preferred carrier, the type of phone, and the particular wireless plan that matches all of the preceding criteria.
Point.com's site may lack the pizzazz of the two aforementioned choices, but it is well organized, with categories for cellular plans (nationwide and family) and cell phones (free, cash back deals, camera phones, Bluetooth, smart phones, music and multimedia phones, and special phone deals with freebies). In addition, each of six large carriers gets its own section, though these Web pages have far less detailed information for each carrier than would be preferred.
Just because a carrier claims to offer coverage in your area, the reception that you receive won't necessarily be worth the monetary cost or the aggravation of dropped calls and garbled transmission. Perhaps the best way to get a more accurate idea of what your personal experience would be, is to talk to people in your area, who have chosen that particular provider, and ask for their honest assessment. For any of them who complain of poor signal quality and frequent dropouts, confirm that they are using the latest software for their phone and provider, as that can make a tremendous difference in the results.
This is another area where Point.com really shines. Because an ounce of honest consumer feedback is worth more than a pound of corporate marketing, I tried out the reception search feature, for my particular ZIP code, for a particular carrier. The results were quite varied: "never dropped a call" and "great reception at home and work" versus "frequent disconnects, extremely unreliable service", "Can't hear me now?", and more colorful negative comments.
Encompassing input from even more actual users, Point.com's five-star rating system indicates the number of votes upon which the rating is based. Another excellent resource is their 16 articles, which explain how to choose a plan, buying your first phone, camera phones, overseas use, legal aspects, global roaming, and how to recycle your old cell phone.
Another resource for information on cell phone recycling, is Earth Tones, which is perhaps the most ecologically minded wireless provider in the United States. They have teamed up with Collective Good to reuse or recycle cell phones, many of which are given to poor people in the United States and in developing countries.
Tones for Phones
Once you have hooked yourself up with a snazzy new cell phone, and a sensible calling plan that doesn't require a second mortgage on your homestead, you can call your loved ones and enjoy conversations free of restrictive phone lines… and perhaps also free of intelligible reception, if you experience what far too many other wireless users have endured. But at least you will hear your phone ringing. However, you may find the default ring tones to be old hat after awhile.
Once again, the Internet has many sites that offer a wide variety of ring tones, free or otherwise, that you can use to replace the limited number that are typically provided with a new phone. Simply point a search engine to such keywords as "free cell phone ringtones" and you will see a list of millions of websites. Then narrow your search according to the type of tones that you would like, such as a favorite band or movie.
Now you can truly enjoy your new cell phone. Just be sure not to do it while driving a vehicle. The danger to you and others just isn't worth it.