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Buying A Cell Phone

Back in the real world, choosing a cell phone can be a complicated decision. Beware of slick salespeople offering "free" phones, often with bundled accessories and other freebies, such as televisions or computers. They require you to sign a service contract that lasts at least a year and can be difficult to get out of after that. The companies make up more than the cost of the phone in monthly service charges, and most people end up paying hundreds of dollars.

This isn't to say that all the cheap or free phones are necessarily a bad thing; it's standard practice in many countries for the operators to subsidize the cost of phones, and sometimes the service contracts offered are good value. But it is important to shop around. "Prepay" deals with no contract attached may be better if you need a phone only for emergency use, whereas if you want Internet access, it may be worth turning down the free phone in favor of a more advanced model.

Each mobile operator typically offers many rate schedules and payment plans, seemingly designed to confuse. In general, paying a high monthly line rental leads to reduced per-minute charges. But even for the same monthly fee, there are usually choices, such as how much to pay for different kinds of calls and whether international roaming is allowed. Pick the wrong one and you could end up paying far too much, or you may even find that your phone doesn't work when you most need it.


Companies like Nokia freely admit that many of their phones are sold on appearance, not features. They target specific models at groups they call "posers" and "yuppies." A case in a fashionable color will often prove more popular than Internet access or long battery life, and visual appearance is expected to become more important as the diversity among users widens. The same applies to other mobile devices; the most sought-after Palm PDAs tend to be those with the most stylish case, not the most technically advanced.

The trend toward stylishness could continue as computers move from functional devices to consumer products, but phones won't become less functional. Most manufacturers plan to build some kind of wireless Internet capability into all of their mobile phones, along with basic computer functions. There is already a wide choice of phones and other devices based on WAP and similar standards, with better services that approach the quality of the wired Web on the way.

If you want the mobile Internet now, your choices depend mainly on where you live. In Europe and America, WAP is becoming ubiquitous. Most analysts agree that it is more of a gimmick than a true wireless Internet service, but it could still be worthwhile. WAP's main problem has been that users needed to dial in to a computer to use it, meaning they are charged for every second spent online and can't make phone calls at the same time. In Japan, the i-mode system overcomes both these problems and has become more successful than anyone predicted. New 2.5G and 3G technologies could enable WAP to do the same.

The most successful wireless data services don't mean accessing the Web at all. Short messaging, originally intended just to test the capability of GSM phones, is hugely popular in both Europe and Japan. Messages are still fairly primitive because they're limited to a few characters, rather like telegrams from many decades ago. Emerging standards will change this, adding multimedia and, more importantly, integration with Internet e-mail.


Movies like to show the hero using a cell phone aboard a jumbo jet or underneath the desert in Iraq. Both these scenarios will remain fiction for many years; it's still impossible to get a cell phone that will work everywhere in the continental United States, let alone the world. Only satellite systems achieve true global coverage, and they don't work indoors.

For world travelers, the best choice is probably GSM, but this is actually available in five different varieties. There are two versions of the American Digital AMPS        (D-AMPS) system and two of cdmaOne, the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) cellular technology first developed by Qualcomm. Many phones support more than one version of a system, or even different systems, but it's important to make sure that the one you choose will work where you want to take it. In particular, American GSM uses different frequencies than does European GSM, and phones supporting both are still quite rare. The companies assume (probably rightly) that most people who buy a cell phone in Europe will never take it to America, and vice-versa.

Despite early hopes of a global standard, the incompatibility is set to continue into 3G. This is due partly to the commercial interests of rival companies, partly to the political machinations of national governments, and partly to genuine practical difficulties in making a new system compatible with older networks. Because 3G networks are initially limited to a few small areas, people want phones that can also be used with existing 2G networks. This affects the design of the 3G networks themselves, as it's easier to make dual-mode phones for systems that have something in common.

There is officially a worldwide standard for 3G, but it's really just a name ("IMT-2000"). It contains so many options that no phone or network will support them all. Three countries built 3G networks in 2001—Japan, Korea, and the Isle of Mann—and all used different systems. Whereas all European countries are building the same system, America will be a microcosm of the world: U.S. cellular operators are planning at least three different types of 3G, which may splinter into even more.

There is greater hope for worldwide standards in shorter range wireless systems, which are already replacing wires as a means of connecting computers together and may form the basis of 4G mobile. Wireless LANs based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard 802.11 (Wi-Fi) system can be used nearly everywhere, as can the emerging Bluetooth technology. These really will enable a phone or a computer to communicate anywhere in the world.

Web Resources


The Personal Computing and Communication research group at Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology is trying to develop a 4G mobile system for the year 2010 onward. Its site has lots of interesting papers covering different possible directions that mobile communications could take in the future and a free 100-page report (in PDF format) called Telecom Scenarios 2010.


British Telecom publishes the quarterly BT Technology Journal, a combination of in-depth tutorials on 3G technology and futurology covering the wider applications of 4G.


The trade magazine Wireless Week publishes most of its daily news stories online and has a huge archive of information about the cellular industry.


The Wireless Developer Network is a news and analysis site that covers every aspect of the wireless industry from the perspective of programmers and Web designers.


The Feature is an online magazine about wireless technology and its applications. The site is run by Nokia, so its analysis is hardly objective, but it can still be interesting.


Unstrung is an online magazine featuring daily news and analysis of wireless technology, applications, and business.


Gralla, Preston. How Wireless Works. Que, 2001.

A picture book illustrating many aspects of wireless communications in full-page spreads and describing them in a very simple, nontechnical way.

Stetz, Penelope. The Cell Phone Handbook. Aegis, 1999.

A consumer-oriented guide to cell phones and service plans, teaching people how to avoid getting ripped off by slick salesmen and small print.

Webb, William. The Future of Wireless Communications. Artech House, 2001.

An exploration of how wireless communications might develop over the next 20 years, with a look at 4G and beyond. The author is much less optimistic (i.e., more likely to be right) than the companies touting virtual reality and direct brain links.

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