Choosing A Cell Phone Provider

By J.A. Hitchcock

As seen in the August 1999 issue of Women's Biz Resources

Are you considering getting a cell phone, but don't know which provider to choose?  Do you already have a cell phone but want to switch providers?

Digital vs. Analog

It used to be fairly easy when it came to buying a cell phone-- you went to your local provider, took advantage of their latest promotion (usually getting the phone for free with an annual contract), and that was it. Today, not only do you need to decide whether you want an analog or digital phone or one that does both, you also need to pick the provider that can provide analog and/or digital service.

What's the difference?

Analog has the widest coverage in the U.S., including rural areas, with adequate voice quality. But, it can't transmit graphics or text/numeric data very well and provides limited or no extra features such as caller ID and call waiting.

Digital can be used for both voice and data, has good to excellent quality, and provides myriad features--depending on which provider and plan you select. 

Digital is available almost everywhere, especially if you get a phone that handles both analog and digital; then you have the best of both worlds. Digital phones do cost more, but in the long run, that's where the cell phone market is headed and going digital is the most viable option.

If you want to go on the cheap, stick with analog for now, then upgrade to digital later or consider purchasing a used phone (many providers do sell them).

Shopping for the Right Provider

First, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I really need a cell phone?
  2. How often will I use it and at what time of the day?
  3. Will I use it more often locally, regionally or throughout the US?
  4. How much do I want to pay for the phone?
  5. Which extra features will I use?

    Call forwarding
    Caller ID
    3-way Conferencing
    Call waiting
    Directory assistance
    Operator assistance

  6. How much do I want to spend a month?
The Next Step

If you're going to be making/receiving a small number of local phone calls, you may be better off going with a local provider.  Not only will you get quick service if you need help or have questions, you may get some better deals. 

What to look for:
Promotions--just about every provider offers promotions that include extra features for the first year, extra minutes, a free phone (more often with analog plans than digital), free accessories and more.
Activation fees--most will waive it if you sign a one- or two-year contract and sometimes if you ask them to
Phones--Do they sell brand name phones or their own?  Some national providers offer their own phone included in the plan you choose.  But beware; if you end up switching providers, the new provider may tell you they cannot configure the phone you have.  I saw this happen one too many times with Sprint customers who had Sprint PCS phones and tried to switch to Cellular One. They ended up buying a new phone or returned to Sprint. So make sure you get a phone that you can use anywhere and with any provider.
Rates/plans--After that first one- or two-year promotion, what will your rates be?
Cancellation policy--What if, during your initial contract you decide you don't like them and want to switch? Is there a cancellation fee? Do you have to return the phone (if you didn't buy it outright and it was a "freebie")? 

An Example

As a writer, I travel throughout New England conducting interviews, meeting with editors, visiting friends and relatives, etc. So when it came time to get a cell phone, I cruised the various provider web sites, narrowed down my choices and selected Cellular One. Why? Their web site was a breeze to navigate, they had a location close to me and when I visited it, the sales rep patiently answered all of my questions. They were also having a good promotion at the time: $19.95 a month for one year with 60 "anytime" digital minutes (this means I can make a call in my area any day of the week, day or night) and free nights and weekends through January 1, 2000, caller ID, three-way conferencing, voicemail and detailed billing, plus the phone I selected has digital/analog capability (it switches automatically from one to the other) and was only $199 (regular price $399). I'm six months into the plan and find that I use those 60 minutes each month, plus more. When my contract is up, I plan on going with the next plan up.

Now It's Your Choice

Following are major providers of cell phone service (I used New England as an example in most cases, but your area should be about the same), followed by some regional ones.  I selected the Basic Plan and the next plan up, as well as regional/national plans if they were available. 

Remember to do your homework, find out what your local providers offer, then make your choice from there. If you're not quite ready for a cell phone, consider Prepaid Phone Cards as an alternative.

Sprint Digital PCS

New England coverage: Toll free calling to six states:  Massachusetts, Vermont, New  Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut  and Maine.

Basic plan $16.99/mo, 20 minutes (add'l minutes 37 cents each), long distance 15 cents/minute, includes caller ID, call forwarding, call waiting, three-way calling, detailed billing, directory assistance, operator services, 911

Standard Plan $29.99/mo, 180 minutes local/long distance, includes same as above plus voicemail, numeric paging to a PCS phone, first incoming minute free

Nationwide PCS Call from anywhere U.S., Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands Minimum Plan $29.99/mo, 120 minutes local/long Distance, includes same as above except call forwarding is 10 cents/minute)

Bonus: I do like the Add-A-Phone feature - for just $14.99 more a month, a second phone with its own number can be added to share your minutes, as long as you purchase a $69.99/mo or higher plan

Cellular One
(no toll-free number, you need to contact your regional office)

AnalogBasic - SafetyOne $19.99/mo, 15 anytime minutes, detailed billing

FreedomOne - $24.99/mo, 30 anytime minutes, basic voicemail and detailed billing

Digital Plans jump from a 20-minute one at $19.99/mo to 120 minutes at $34.99 includes basic voicemail, three-party conferencing, caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, detailed billing.

(Current promotion: DigitalEdge Plus 350 is $34.99/month for as long as you're a Cell One customer, plus a Nokia 5120 phone for $69 or Ericsson KF-788  phone for $99 after rebates in-store cost, two-year contract)

Digital Edge Northeast is $29.95/mo, 90 minutes anytime throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Upstate New York, south to Albany, NY.

East Rate is $39.95/mo, 200 minutes anytime, coverage includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey,  Maryland, Delaware, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida,  and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

DigitalEdge USA, $89.95/mo, 600 anytime, anywhere in the USA. (Doesn't include Hawaii or Alaska)

The above all have the same included features as the regular Digital Plans.


Basic plan, $44.95/mo, 150 minutes local, unlimited numeric pages (New England local area includes southern Maine coast (from Portland down), southeastern NH (from Concord/Nashua to the coast), eastern Mass (from Worcester to the coast), Cape Cod, 95% of Rhode Island)

National Basic Business Plan, $89.95/mo, 600 minutes, local/long distance unlimited, 3-way calling, call hold, call waiting, no roaming charges.

Annual contract required for both.

NOTE: Good coverage of USA major cities, plus Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, and Hawaii

AT&T Wireless

Limited areas - not totally nationwide!  Local call area includes Southeastern NH (from Peterborough to the coast), Eastern Mass (from Worcester to the coast) and Cape Cod, Rhode Island)

NOTE: Personal/Business plans are basically the same cost and require annual contract

Digital PCS Local Area Wireless plan (minimum) - 100 minutes $24.99

Digital One Rate - lowest $89.95/mo, 600 minutes includes local/long distance calls, no roaming charges, message waiting indicator, caller ID, voicemail/numeric messages, not much included compared to other provider plans

BONUS: Get email and send web pages from your phone with PocketNet, $29.99/month unlimited email use, five free faxes, personal info, calendar, intranet access

Try before you buy on their web site (you need Shockwave plug-in)

NOTE: The site is hard to negotiate, you have to dig to get rate info on extra services such as PocketNet - they really want you to call instead

US Cellular

Limited national coverage, no national plan: California | Florida | Georgia | Hawaii | Idaho | Illinois | Iowa | Indiana | Kansas | Maine | Maryland | Missouri | New Hampshire | North Carolina | Ohio | Oklahoma | Oregon | Pennsylvania | South Carolina | Tennessee | Texas | Washington | West Virginia | Wisconsin | Vermont | Virginia

Basic Plan - Safety Plus $24.95/mo, 60 local minutes, call waiting, call forwarding, three-way conferencing, detailed billing, annual contract

Keep In Touch Plan is $37.95/month, 100 minutes, includes same as above plus toll-free Northeast coverage (ME, NH, MA, RI, VT, CT and NY), free cigarette lighter adapter with purchase of most phones, free activation

AirTouch 800-8519815

Limited national coverage: Arizona, California (greater Sacramento, greater LA/San Diego), Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Northern Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming

(Sample calling plan if you live in the LA area) Digital or Analog Basic - Choice 20 $19.99/mo, 20 anytime minutes, 250 weekend minutes, activation fee $20,  $10 off first three months of service with two-year contract, caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, threeway conferencing, 411, voicemail and paging, text messaging, first incoming minute free (not all available on analog)

Choice 120, $34.99/mo, 120 minutes, 500 night/weekend minutes, $10 off first three months of service with two-year contract, up to $25 equipment credit for Internet customers plus same features as above plan, phones start at $59.00

National Plan Basic - National 250 $49.99/mo, 250 anytime minutes, no roaming or long-distance charges, same features as above

BONUS: Internet orders for any plan (new activation) receives free car adapter, free case, free shipping

MCI Wireless
NOTE: Called to get clarification and was on hold for over 10 minutes, operator not knowledgeable

Limited coverage - Mass, NY, Penn, MD, VA, NJ, DE, OH, MI, IL, Southern California currently. Yikes!  Too many plans to choose from.  Confusing.

Analog (Eastern Mass, Cape Cod, Rhode Island, southeastern NH, limited calling area) Basic - ChoiceSafety $14.95/mo, no minutes, pay 60 cents/minute on or off peak, long distance flat rate of 15 cents/minute, detailed billing and basic voice mail

Advantage 90, $29.99/mo, 35 peak minutes, 55 off-peak minutes, unlimited off-peak until 12/31/99, call forwarding, call waiting, conference call, no-answer transfer, and detailed billing

Digital Advantage 90, $29.99/month 90 minutes anytime, all features included plus caller ID, unlimited off-peak through 12/31/99

SolutionsAmerica Digital - Operator didn't know anything about this, at first told me MCI didn't offer it, then told me to call the Boston area customer service number (a toll call).  Not worth my time.

Bell Atlantic Mobile

Covers:Maine, NH, Mass, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Western Pennsylvania (greater Pittsburgh) and West Virginia (greater Wheeling),  Greater Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina

Basic - DigitalChoice 20 $19.99/mo, 20 minutes local airtime, includes free first minute of incoming call, call waiting, call forwarding, three-way calling, no answer transfer, caller ID, voicemail

DigitalChoice 90 and 200 are both $29.99/month - the 200 plan requires a two-year agreement, but you get 200 minutes (110 more than the 90 plan). Includes same features as above

Single-Rate East Basic (all of BAM territory) $39.99/mo, 200 minutes, two-year contract, includes same features as above

Single-Rate USA - $159.99/mo, 1600 minutes, includes same features as above

J.A. Hitchcock is a regular contributor to Compute Me. Visit her web site at

Return to the Compute Me Reviews main page.