* SOME UPDATES MADE MAY 2007 especially for data and TDMA>GSM transition and December 2007 especially for user interface. *


If you want basic phone connectivity, locally, only the BASICS part of the list is significant.

Note that the name of the U.S. service called "Cingular" is changing back to what it was: "AT&T". Within Canada the Rogers name continues (Rogers dropped the AT&T tag some years ago).
As well, analog is disappearing - it provided a more universal simple service in remote areas.
Rogers has abandoned its original TDMA service and its analog service in favour of the the new GSM which has widespread overseas roaming with the right phone (perhaps plural). (While GSM uses the basic TDMA technique it is not compatible with old TDMA phones.)
See the Coverage section for more information.)

** NEws **
We're accustomed to thinking that the twain won't meet between CDMA and GSM. However as technology advances to software radios and smaller circuitry, two things are becoming possible:
- dual-network phones
- dual-protocol networks (Bell and Telus are rumoured to be adding an overlay to accommodate the HSPA high-speed version of GSM while still serving CDMA phones).
Later the 4G standard called LTE may facilitate a more efficient approach.

- Signal Coverage
- Calling Cards Instead?
- Band/Mode Confusion
- Cost
- Customer Service
- Quality of Phone, and Support
- supported phones
- user interface
- Integrity of Supplier
- Contract, including Length of Committment
- Driving
- Miscellaneous (including Emergencies)

- long distance plans
- Messaging and E-Mail
- Computers and Web Browsing
- handle multiple system formats, including overseas
- Capability for Better Antenna
- Miscellaneous (incl headsets & cameras)
- Final Words
- SATCOM Addendum
- BUZZ-SPEAK Addendum


None at this time.


Signal Coverage

Where do you want to use the phone? (Consider the geographical area, and the buildings you want to use the phone in.)

Some areas and buildings will have poor signal.
Refer to sections on Antennas and on Contract for an idea of some of the factors affecting the signal. (Cellular coverage is by line of sight from antenna towers. Trees block the signal. Signals reflect off rocks, and are subject to inteference from those reflections and other sources. So your mother's house in that cute little valley among the rocks of Victoria may not be a good place to use your phone.)

Ask the service provider you are considering, and ask actual users. You may be surprised where it is and is not usable. (For example:
- Rogers had a strong TDMA signal in the tunnel under the Fraser River south of Vancouver - I'd guess they added antennas or equivalent to provide continuity of calls for people driving through the tunnel.
- Rogers claimed they did not have TDMA roaming coverage in Renton WA, but in fact connectivity was good in most of Renton. (No shortage of cellular towers near downtown/industry areas of Renton. I suspect the descrepancy results from sloppy entering of a partner's coverage area into Rogers' database, but it is up to Rogers to confirm what they have.) But Rogers did not have TDMA coverage in SE Renton, on the plateau - a large housing area (competitors did, and nearing the edge of the plateau there was useable TDMA signal from the valley below).)

Coverage/performance may be better or worse than advertised. Why? Because the provider may be adding capability but not yet wanting to promise it is there, roaming partners or regional divisions of the company may not be of the same quality thus not setting up their equipment as well (roaming data must be in their system), and the provider may move antenna sites for the benefit ofother customers.

In general though, less populated and more remote areas will have less coverage. (One rep told me that they put towers where the population is, thus the Yellowhead southern spur through Blue River B.C. has little coverage - good motivation for the many truckers on that route to use SATCOM instead. Marketing types aren't thinking broadly, aren't thinking of what a cellular phone is justified for.

Plans and alliances will change. However, I note a few with wider coverage:
- Rogers, Telus/Verizon and now Bell Mobility have plans that cover most of Canada and the US, no added charge for most locations, using the higher priced plan often called OneRate. Bell's plan appeared to be lower priced with less commitment than Rogers', when I checked. I do not know how Rogers' capability has proven out after the switch from TDMA to GSM. Beware of requirements for long term committment (what a way to get business - NOT!).
- SPRINT has a fairly broad truly seamless network in the US, but only in areas with significant population (they've added digital roaming partners and plans to their original costly analog roaming elsewhere, analog is of course fading out).
- Bell Mobility advertised good coverage in western Canada, but that seems more true of Alberta and NE BC not of highways throughout BC (when I checked, there was no coverage on the popular truck route to Edmonton from Kamloops through Blue River to Tete Jaune). Their US roaming was predominantly analogue, but with analogue fading away they'll have to make digital arrangements to have useful roaming.

Note that not all phones have the modes and frequencies for wide coverage. For Canada and the US you want analog, digital 800 and digital 1900 though analog is fading away. (And perhaps special data which is now complex.)
(Typically Europe and Asia outside Japan needs GSM capability, but not necessarily using the same frequencies nor specific protocols as in North America. To repeat, you cannot determine portability of the phone by only looking at the generic acronym for its multiple access method, such as GSM or CDMA. Ask, getting a written guarantee if important, covering the locations where you need coverage. Consider renting, or buying a cheap phone, for short use in the other area - or a separate plan and phone if spending much time there. Good news though is that some phones are designed to handle the frequencies and modes of other areas.)

Note also that integral data coverage is not available with all basic modulation types - CDMA is the best common one, GSM may be OK with GPRS packet data or the kludge of using four voice channels to get 56k bps, TDMA does not support data except for short messaging and notification of voice mail. But don't assume that GSM is GSM - frequencies may differ (often 1800 vs 1900) and there may be variations within the term "GSM".

Note though that data can be provided as a separate service using the same phone or a modem card in the computer, such as GPRS - and is extra charge even when integral. There may be advantages to handling data separately, such as maintaining wider voice compatibility and supporting always-on Internet access.
Providers often charge extra for data, for example a small monthly fee to use a CDMA phone as a modem and high charges for more intensive data, perhaps by amount of data not calendar time.
And data has become a zoo of acronyms, with substantial changes in both CDMA-based and GSM-based services - see the glossary at the bottom of this page.
Beware as well that high-speed data can be very expensive over cellular, and that it may be difficult to determine when it is active (I don't know details, but recommend not to leave your computer<>phone connection open). (The cellular ISPs are making a business case for hotspots using a computer equipped for 2.4GHz "wi-fi", many being in that business too (I commend Bell for having many hotspots and Bell-Rogers-Telus for making the service through them available as part of their cellular billing.)

Coverage needs may rule out a local supplier with otherwise great service, or a quasi-national carrier like SPRINT which only covers sizeable cities (not even all major freeways).

(Note that roaming is usually available, but at high cost unless you have an added plan. That's good for emergency use but not everyday use. Roaming may require a more costly phone as more modes are needed. (There are different roaming options, including per-call, coverage plan, local log-in, and "caller pays long distance".)

Caution: Apparent signal problems can have several other causes, including a defective phone, phone software problems, differences in phone performance, network problems, and local conditions. You want a service provider, phone seller, and phone manufacturer who will help you diagnose sensibly. Motorola is unwilling to do so, Rogers' personnel vary in their willingness to be thorough, Telus is arrogant, and SPRINT has had wide accessibility of its customer service. (See my later notes about contract terms to help mitigate problems.)

Network changes to provide better and more digital service may reduce usability of your present phone. But I suggest caution in buying a new phone, as things may take time to settle out, especially for data.
AT&T and Rogers faced a bigger challenge than most of their wide-area competitors because TDMA does not handle data well, so they switched to the incompatible GSM multiple-access method. You had to buy a new phone, but of course you could have chosen to buy a CDMA phone (that is, change to Bell or Telus).
The push to e-911, mandatory in the US for new activations, makes many good phones obsolete.

A new concept called "femtocell" which uses a router connected to broadband Internet but cellular RF so normal cellular phones can use it. Just the thing for buildings in pockets of poor signal coverage.
(You can also get dual-service cordless phones that operate cellular+POTS, or WiFi+POTS (using VoIP).)

Calling Cards Instead?

Telephone calling cards are most useful as a backup to cellular. Cellular is on your body or in your vehicle, to use calling cards you have to be at a wired phone (phone booths are scarce). Check costs and service carefully. Surcharges are common, sometimes doubling - 75 cents per call plus an additional 74 cents per call if from a pay phone, for example - that is 1.49 overhead per call! (You might consider your use ofthe card in choosing: surcharged cards with low per minute rate seem more suitable for long calls home than for briefly checking your cellular voicemail - a card with higher rate but less surcharge is better for that use. You want to carry one of each type, except they may expire after several months.)
Check which cities have a local access number and if there is a surcharge for use of the toll-free access number. (For example,
- the card sold by London Drugs in the Victoria BC area did not have a toll-free access number for Victoria, whereas competing cards such as those sold by 7-11 do. So if you are spending much time in such a city you want a local access number - whereas wandering the country-side you won't have local access numbers anyway.
- the card sold by Staples in Canada could not be used from some pay phones, as it used one of the newer "800" numbers such as 866. And its provider had the most evasive and insolent customer service people I have ever encountered.
I recommend 7-11's cards sold in Canada as quite good, their cards sold in the US as adequate. Often segregated by country: Canada<>US, within US, to/from Mexico or India, etc. with call cost varying accordingly, availability may depend on local demographics (for example, I spent time in an area with many people having roots in Mexico - Mexico cards were definitely available, whereas they may not be in Victoria B.C. but India and eastern Asia cards will be).
(Let's not forget the local telco's own card if you are wandering in their area, as it may offer better coverage. Also, a card from the telco you have at home (billing tied to your land line), may provide call-home toll-free numbers to get into the phone network in your home country with much lower rates.)

Band/Mode Confusion

People may use terms like "tri-mode" or "tri-band" for what are actually combinations of frequency band and mode.
Normally there are three combinations, of which your phone may have one, two or three:
- low band analog
- low band digital
- high band digital
For best roaming you want all three, though analog is being dumped by most suppliers.
But digital comes in different "multiple-access methods" - the means by which more than one call is carried on the same frequency at the same time.
And providers of all methods are improving the speed of digital data capability, especially those using GSM and TDMA which have less capacity than CDMA. The potential for incompatibility is high. (Having good old analog, aka AMPS, on your phone may be helpful for compatibility though it is fading away and many new phones cannot handle it.)
The new phones with broad international capability may have their own terminology - I have not studied that.

Beware there are small differences in frequency, especially overseas. For example, 1800 vs 1900MHz band, and in North America the coming 700 band. Manufacturers will have to cope with that in accomodating roaming. Note also that there is at least one other cellular-like service, called iDen. It facilitates communication among several associated persons, integrated voice and data - as a type of "trunked" radio system. It comes in more than one flavour. Telus' "Mike" and Nextel "Direct Connect" may be such a system, using cellular frequencies and networks but only from special phones (which may be dual mode: iDen and normal voice).

Beware that the term "flip-phone" is used loosely. Many phones, such as the current KRZR, fold in half so can be said to flip open. But apparently "flip-phone" was the name of a specific older model, before the StarTAC.


Keep in mind that you may not use your allotted minutes each month, thus your actual per-minute rate will be higher, but on the other hand may be charged at a higher rate for minutes over the pre-paid total. I suggest that:
- you view the cost as a convenience cost, broader than just per-minute costs
- if the rate for minutes in excess of the plan is not much higher than the average per-minute cost of a smaller plan, choose the smaller plan and take the risk of going over.
- reset your phone's timer on the billing date each month, and check it to see where you stand during the next month (it is approximate, often reading high but affected by provider practice of rounding up to the nearest minute or not and perhaps other factors).
- push your provider to move unused minutes into the next billing period, as some providers in the US do (one moves half of the unused minutes, for example, which seems a sensible approach).

Billing from partners you used while roaming may be slow, thus minutes counted in a subsequent period. Some providers are giving partial credit for unused minutes, which would help even out fluctuations in use and billing.

Some providers offer terms that increase flexibility. Among them:
- people can call you long distance no-charge if you have a long-distance plan (you of course pay for the minutes in receiving the call)
- extra minutes in off-peak periods (evenings and weekends, since business use is heaviest and most business activity is in the day, but beware that some plans are "night" which perhaps means after 9pm).
- some plans offer unlimited calling between two people using the same provider, or better rates between a limited number of people.

Factors such as rounding up to the nearest minute and charging for retrieving your messages can add to your bill. Also note the availability of the cellular equivalent of 800

Pre-payment is an alternative to fixed plans which require credit approval or automatic billing to credit card. Pre-paid top-up cards may be sold in convenience stores. Beware that pre-paid minutes may expire depending on various factors - and that Telus' plan is so convoluted that their own dealers get it wrong.

And keep in mind that calls between cell phones usually cost air time at both ends (unlimited incoming call plans are available).

It bears repeating - watch out for roaming as it can be very costly. Often people get caught on the fringe - signal in part of their local calling area is weak so the phone uses a cellular tower outside of their area. Current Telus phones have an especially poorly designed user interface - it is not abundantly clear that the phone is in roaming mode. The old StarTAC provided by SPRINT was superior.

Customer Service

When you have a problem with the bill or service, you want to be able to contact the provider. You'd expect a company selling communication services to make it easy to communicate with them. Not so.

SPRINT improved significantly from the amazing drop in accessibility they managed in the summer of 2000. (Yes, I say "managed" because such things are the fault of management and such dramatic changes don't just happen.)

AT&T/Rogers improved from a low - reps became positive, knowledgeable, and willing to say if they aren't sure. Someone understood the need and did something about it. (Though not in the management choice of a cumbersome multi-level "press click to look for another provider" voice menu system.)

Telus is deteriorating, becoming arrogant and so bureaucratic it is very difficult to sign up for additional or new services. Duh?

Both AT&T/Rogers and SPRINT wanted you to use their web site services and FAQs, so they bury the "none of the above" option deep in their cursed voice menus. In almost every call I made to them I needed to talk to a live person.

One nice feature offered by some service providers is the ability to check your current usage and charges on the Internet. SPRINT provided that, though oddly they eliminated the call detail they once provided.

Quality of Phone, and Support

You want a reliable phone - and that could be a challenge with the push to small size and low price, and the rough handling a portable device may experience.

You want a phone that is easy to use.
- An example: hanging up a call should be a simple matter. Yet on the AT&T/Rogers version of the popular compact Motorola StarTAC it takes several button pushes to hang up a call if you entered digits to do something like enter your password to retrieve you voice mail remotely. So you hope the automation on the other end of the call hangs up correctly, else your meter will keep ticking. But SPRINT's version hangs up immediately - why did AT&T specify different functionality?
- Recently many phones had gimmicky styling that interfered with useability. Keys and differentiating lines/gaps between them were of confusing shape (the Samsung a645 is an example of that bad design). Backgrounds on keys were reflective silver colour which severely reduced contrast with the legends (the dumb design of Motorola's otherwise good RAZR and its derivatives/siblings). There may be a trend away from that - some service providers actually have phones with white-on-black keys clearly arranged in rows and columns - what a concept! ;-) (I commend LG for their model 285, which also has adequate antenna performance - not the best but adequate.)
- Features other than basic calling may be difficult to access, buried in menus, taking many steps to access. The StarTACs were simpler - a key labelled MENU, a key labelled MSGS, etc.

You want the phone properly set up by the seller who usually represents the service provider. For example, on the AT&T/Rogers version of the Motorola StarTAC the voice mail retrieval number must be entered in Mail Options including with area code if you want to retrieve messages while roaming. That's good flexibility but another item to have wrong.

You want a phone manufacturer who supports the phone with repairs and fixes to problems. (Including convenient ways to get the phone repaired so you aren't without it for long.) Yet Motorola customer service will not provide information that their own web site tells customers to call for regarding a specific symptom.

Beware that it is difficult to transfer phones between service providers, for these reasons:
- Small differences in carrier software.
- Custom software. Telus for example brag that the phones are designed for them. That is mostly hype, but there are provider-specific things like roaming lists and some user features that need to be changed. If that cannot be done over-the-air you'll have to pay for loading new software from test equipment. (Which would also serve to update core software if the phone manufacturer has updated it.) Get over-the-air instructions from your service provider (in mid July 2009 the Telus code was *22803).
- That low price deal you got comes with a restriction, a committment to a term of service, backed up by an "SP Lock" that requires a secret code to clear. Once you have fulfilled your committment for term of service you should be able to get it cleared, but the essential question is how cooperative the service provider is. The Gecko Beach website claims that the North American providers who use GSM are quite accommodating, but they were not so for one individual in the Seattle WA area circa 2005.

Recently I've heard much talk that Telus should change from CDMA to GSM multiple access method. My opinion is that those who blather overlook that CDMA is a superior basic technology which is widely used in Japan and North America (think Bell and Verizon) and will be used more in future for high speed data, and that there is a trend to more flexibility in phones and cellular site capability. CDMA in its cdmaOne and CDMA2000 (3G including 1xEV-DO) forms has over 400 million subscribers worldwide.
Beware of the vagueness of terms and apples<>oranges use of them. CDMA is an underlying basic technique for putting many individual calls on one frequency - a powerful technique now being used as the basis for many new schemes to get high data speed (including one that GSM carriers may switch to as the underlying air-path protocol wile maintaining GSM features). GSM is a higher level application method that today uses the underlying basic technique called TDMA, not to be confused with the specific implementation of TDMA that GSM displaced in North America. (See Buzz-Speak at the end of this page to decode acronyms.) The subject is going to get very complex.

GSM phones often have a "SIM" card, a popular way in other countries of authorizing the phone to operate on a specific network. But GSM does not require SIM. I don't know why the technique is not used with CDMA phones, other than that there is less need for portability - note that you won't get a SIM card with basic GSM phones in North America. Note also that fancier phones today have small memory cards that might be able to provide the same function as a SIM card if the phone were designed to it - the cost of the card capability (in mechanism, circuitry, and software) is now partly included for music reasons.

Integrity of Supplier

Representatives of the same company can range from fantastic to slithery. Hey, these are regulated monopolies, thus bureaucratic - bureaucracies are like that.

However, the provider's behavior may change as they struggle to find profit from the huge investments they must make to provide coverage and capability before many people will purchase their service. Hence the need to pay attention to the contract.

In Victoria B.C. Victoria Mobile Radio are a Telus dealer, can provide external antennas, have a good selection of accessories like chargers and cases, and have a technical department - where I'd go for less common things like iDen as well as basic service. (Gwynn's cellular service disappeared.)
For cabling adapters for those external antennas, try Quayle electronics in Victoria.
If you really want to deal with Rogers Wireless, the dealer at the Zellers end of Hillside Mall is adequate - they try, whereas Pacific Cellular will give you inaccurate information (including telling you things can't be done just because the invidual has never heard of it - the customer is always wrong in some sellers' mindset).
For Telus, Mike Harris Cellular is variable, the outlet in Tillicum Mall is helpful but one near Broadmead confused.
Bell have dealers and outlets. The one in Canwest/WestShore Mall has a selection of phones, with engaging people who don't necessarily know as much as they think they do.
As well, London Drugs is a dealer for at least three providers (Telus, Rogers, Virgin) and while not as competent a company as they once were are there and working.

Beware that new names are popping up or still around, some of them just different brands of the same provider (Fido being Rogers, for example). They may provide plans more suitable for you, but may not provide serious data - even Virgin does not, for example.)

Under Signal Coverage I discuss useability in far away locations, an aspect that will see much change in the next few years.

Contract, including Length of comittment

If you have other than an open plan, you pay a penalty to dump a bad service provider during the duration of the contract. Locked-in plans are commonly used to offer low prices on phones. (OTOH, SPRINT has sold plans that were completely open, and their price for a good phone was reasonable. And today in Canada, Telus offer open contracts - much higher price for the phone of course, but examine the price-duration combinations for sweet spots especially when a phone model is no longer the "latest hottest thing" (just make sure it is a good model).)

Watch out for contracts that extend themselves every time you make a change, such as add a feature. OTOH, reducing service below what you originally contracted for to get the low phone price should incur a penalty - so start with a minimum plan. That way you have more flexibility to change services, and aren't stuck with a high minimum if your needs change or you have to obtain other service to get coverage or performance.

Try to negotiate a contract that requires performance. The items you want are
- accurate billing
- accessible customer service
- accessible service for warranty repair, post-warranty repair, and software upgrade (sometimes needed to improve performance of the phone and network)
- adequate signal and network performance in a specified area at minimum
(excluding metal sided buildings but including buildings with normal stucco mesh
and steel studs)
(including inside automobiles whose windows don't have metalized coating provided antenna is held in view of windows).
- clear communication of problems by the service provider

We're all used to the Plain Old Telephone System, whose standardized connectivity lets you take a phone from BC to Iowa and just plug it in. But welcome to the leading edge - cellular phones are not interchangeable between service providers. Consider buying a basic phone, and upgrading later. (Digital phone systems do not support more than one phone active at the same time, thus you cannot use your old phone as backup unless you pay for a second phone number. You might give your old phone to a deserving person.)
The good news is that customer demand is pushing providers to offer interoperability, especially for GSM and the future protocols.

But today in Canada and the US you are stuck with digital incompatibility. A phone made for SPRINT's CDMA protocol can't work on AT&T's TDMA system, and may not be able to work with another CDMA service. There may be _hope_ of reprogramming the phone to the other CDMA service, but probably not to TDMA. And now I hear that some of these merged companies have both standards in use! Note also that some service levels require more band-mode combinations than others. (But let's credit AT&T for assembling a network across Canada and the US that let's you take your phone almost anywhere, with a OneRate plan. Yes, it must be a tri-band/mode phone of their own limited feature set, without data capability, and you will pay more, but it works - people can call your number and the phone will ring on the other side of the continent. That is great capability that deserves recognition. (Verizon are now putting together a comparable wide network, which when it is all in place will be very attractive as it should facilitate data in digital coverage areas. And some people are trying to develop more flexible phone and cellular site hardware-software combinations.)

Computers and EMail/Web Browsing

You may be able to browse on your phone, within the severe limits of its very small display, when in digital coverage areas.

You should be able to receive email, and perhaps send email, when in digital coverage areas.

To use a voice cellular phone with your computer or PDA, for dial-up ISP access, you need:
- an analog cellular service, a phone that can be kept in analog mode during the session, and a cellular modem usable with your computer
- a suitable digital cellular service, a phone that is data capable, and connecting cable with software.

Using the analog service is much like using the normal voice telephone line, which is analog, and a modem. However, the modem must be designed for the air path and cellular network switching aspects, which differ from the copper wire path to your building. You can expect 4,800 bps, perhaps 9,600. with good signal, which is slow for web browsing but adequate for simple dial-up email services.

With the digital service, the modem is in effect at the other end of the cellular air path where the voice signal is converted to analog in any case. The computer just feeds digital data to thephone. However, some software may be needed in the computer to optimize the link and manage the connection differently than for land phone lines. Data speed will vary with price - Telus' basic service is slow, definitely not 56k bps as SPRINT's was last I tested it (using dial-up networking in both cases, whereas there are high-speed data options for high prices).

Once the connection is made, you can use your normal software to handle email, browse the Internet or send faxes. But beware that time passes quickly while browsing so air time will be costly.

Data cables and software are available from phone service providers, phone makers such as Motorola, and companies like and Software may be specific to a phone or network of multiple-access-method, or be more versatile. Of course cables must mate with the phone (the computer end is usually plain serial or USB, PDAs are more unique to the model), though your newer phone and computer may be able to connect wirelessly using Bluetooth.

Let me repeat one aspect, as it is commonly misunderstood - your phone is not a modem. In digital celluar mode it just transmits digital data without the conversion needed to use an analog phone or telephone wire path. (An normal analog modem works by converting the digital data and commands into variations in the analog signal, such as tones with phase and amplititude changes, that can be decoded to recover the original digital data stream.

Also, effective data speed may be improved with compression software that is readily available, though not all files and ISPs support compression.)
However, many people report trouble with cellular data connectivity, depending on how they set up Windows' DUN, presence of compression software that is popular with cellular data, and network artifacts (cellular networks have characteristics that affect modem connectivity, such as dropouts not tolerated on land lines). Perhaps it is like the early days of fast POTS modems, or cheap ones - be prepared for a debugging curve. :-)

Info on wireless data and Ositech multi-purpose modems

A phone that has built-in web browsing capability should be suitable for the computer data connection.

Signal coverage is a consideration. If you need coverage in remote or sparsely populated areas you may have to use an analog modem.

The other way to browse the Internet is using the phone alone with its built-in mini-browser. That is awkward for two reasons:
- the small display and very slow keyboard entry (for example, since it does not have a full keyboard a kludge is needed to select one of the three letters on a key - however, I have not tried the arrow-control disc input on some phones).
- the high graphics content of web sites. You want sites that have a simplified version of the HTML page language for the phones mini-browser, small display, and low connection speed.

Another option for data is a separate service, such as Cellular Packet Data, which may use different equipment than your voice phone. (Many CPD services use a special modem with its own antenna, plugged into your computer's PCMCIA slot or your PDA, perhaps called an "air card". However, combination phones and services are becoming available (AT&T offers at least one phone with CPD, but I do not have information on its features or connectivity to a computer). CPD may be available from your voice service provider, or a separate company. Such services may be quite cost effective for people who need to be on line for long periods of time. (I've seen ads at less than $60./month for web browsing and email use at up to 19,200 bps plus effect of compression, with a few hundred dollars investment in the modem purchase. Packet method has bandwidth-utilization advantages over the continual connection used with voice - and in the radio world, maximizing bandwidth from available spectrum is everything.)

As well, special data services may be available for automated commercial use such as tracking vehicles and monitoring.

Cellular service providers are working on additional data capability. You'll hear acronyms and buzz-words thrown around until your head spins. The service transition paths are quite complex, and the distinctions not as clear as the present CDMA-GSM-TDMA-Analog. (For example, variations of CDMA show up in the transition paths from both CDMA and GSM, according to a flow chart in the October 2000 issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine. Clever work is being done, but it is difficult for customers to judge compatibility - see the Committment section of this web page for an alternative approach.)
The newer capability may not be on the same network, and so may require a new phone. Some providers may blend two services through one more capable device - voice cellular, and packet data for always-on Internet connectivity. E-Mail options vary - some cellular providers may offer a special email service (check forwarding ability), if you have Internet browser capability you can use webmail services or your ISP's webmail access, and if your computing device can use the phone as a modem you should be able to use your dial-up ISP.

A potentially confusing aspect is that cellular service providers are offering HotSpots. Those use the standard computer 2.4GHz or such wireless frequencies and protocols (usually IEEE802.11x), not cellular signals. A pre-pay account or subscription may be required. Probably quite attractive if the HotSpots are where you frequently hang out (Telus brags of many roaming partners) though I have not checked prices.

I expect that most people will need to approach choices from two perspectives I already recommend herein for existing cellular services: "what does it actually do for me?" (how and where will I use it? will I have to change my phone number?) and "what performance committment with contractual remedies is the provider offering?".

Beware that changing phones may incur a service charge to log the new phone's identity into the network and delete the old one. (You cannot have two phones at the same time using the same phone number on digital service, so must get the service provider to switch when one requires repair or is lost/stolen. You can get a separate number for the other phone, using plans envisionned as useful for two users sharing plan time and billing.)
Note as well that transfer of phone between providers may be difficult or impossible. In addition to fundamentals such as multiple-access method (such as TDMA vs CDMA), network- recognition software (and roaming list) is needed in the phone, wide-area coverage may need more modes, and the phone may be "sim locked" or locked to the original provider - such things may or may not be changeable and may cost to change even if feasible.

Capability for Better Antenna

In difficult signal conditions and fringe areas you may need to use an external antenna. Some phone models have means to connect an external antenna, usually using an adapter cable. (I don't mean antennas that just clamp onto the built-in antenna, I mean an electrical connection - which usually matches the typical coaxial cable from the antenna. For the StarTAC and derivatives that is Motorola p/n SYN7822A, whose connector is pin-mini-UHF, which also lets you continue to use your charger (some non-Motorola ones do not). For most versions of the Motorola RAZR, Wilson Electronics' p/n 352015 is available with connector pin-FME on the cable end. You can get connector adapters between the connector types or preferably have the connector on the end of your antenna cable changed (as each connection reduces signal strength). Beware that the "male/female" terminology is applied variably, Wilson use it for the center connector - thus in cases quoted above the adapter cable end is "male" - whereas in some fields the term applies to the connector shell, which for coax is the other conductor.)

Two common types of external antennas for vehicles are thru-hole mount and through-glass no-hole coupling. In general the through-glass type are difficult to site as windows are not on top of the vehicle (except for sun-roofs - and perhaps those excessively sloped windshields have a use ;-) and would not work with metallized windows (often detectable by an orange tint reflection when viewed in certain conditions). (Gee, I was looking for an excuse to buy a 56 Ford Crown Victoria or an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser wagon. Oh, perhaps those pre-date the metallic materials. :-)

Building walls can block signal (fine mesh in stucco - large mesh is better - or metal siding). You may be able to use an external antenna with its typically long cable to place the antenna near a window that is in view of a transmitter site. However, if the window has metalized coating you have a real challenge.

Simple external antennas come in very short or longer types. The longer ones have higher gain in all directions except an upward cone. Some people suggest the short ones if you will be near thus under the transmitting antenna often, but I question whether significant gain is needed when that close (in normal terrain - if the cellular transmitting site is on top of a mountain above a highway in a narrow valley that may be different). The short antennas must have a good ground plane to work, as they are quarter-wave "reflected dipole" antennas.
More complex antennas are compact. Tests with a Max-Rad model that is a cylinder about 3 inches high and 1 inch diameter showed performance without an added ground plane that is equivalent to a Hirschman long-wire glass-mount antenna. (They typically give about 3 dB gain, whereas the short wire antennas are "unity gain" - though still useful to get the antenna in the open by remoting it from the phone. Compact antennas resist damage and are more convenient to carry into a building.)
Antenna amplifiers are available, as are "repeaters", but I don't have knowledge of how well they work. Motorola make a vehicle amplifier kit, usable with the StarTAC at least. Also look for National Cellular's "Signal Reach" brand of amplifiers, which run on automobile and truck power or a wall power adapter, and portable kits with bag, power cord, and accessories. A sample gain value is 8dB receive, according to catalogues, with transmit gain limited by the maximum power output allowed in the frequency band. Your need may depend on your phone - in general I'd expect a large phone or vehicle mounted phone design to already have high transmit power whereas a miniature phone won't.

While I recommend against driving while using the phone, your vehicle may provide a good platform for an antenna, especially a ground plane for the short antennas. With the comfort of sitting down while phoning. Just stay parked. :-)


While the accident rate from using a phone while driving is exaggerated and little different from some other distractions, the practice is not wise. The problem is your tendency to focus on the call when it becomes intense. You can't "multi-task" while thinking hard. Thus hands-free capability may actually increase the risk because it removes the impediment and reminder of holding the phone.

And the risk is not limited to driving. Hitting a stone while riding a bicycle and stepping off the curb the wrong way can be painful - distractions increase the risk. So stop girl watching. :-)

Here are two reports of pertinent studies:
As well, the June 14, 2003 issue of Canada Gazette Part I has a long discourse on driver distraction by things inside the vehicle (page 1820).


Cellular phones are useful for emergencies, in areas where there is a cellular signal. Some providers' network responds to 911 calls even if the phone is not registered as active.

An alternative for with-vehicle cases is the dispatched systems such as Onstar from General Motors, an option on their vehicles. It provides two-way speaker-phone type conversation, with ability to locate the vehicle (using a built-in GPS receiver, perhaps including differential correction via FM sub-carrier or WAAS for greater accuracy, transmission of vehicle diagnostic information, transmission of air-bag deployment information, and ability of the dispatcher to unlock the doors (dispatcher can be called from a phone outside the vehicle).
Some other car makers offer a similar option, perhaps with more non-emergency options such as navigation assistance.
Motorola were selling a comparable system that could be fitted after the vehicle was made. (Key functional elements are the GPS receiver, FM radio if greater GPS accuracy is desired (not needed if GPS receiver can use new WAAS signals), switches, microphones, speakers and antennas.)

The cellular provider's system and your phone may function differently than services you are accustomed to. For example, message delivery from Rogers' and Telus' networks is often delayed and/or the phone's alerting to the recipient undependable (I am not satisfied with operation of the Rogers' StarTAC and the Telus RAZR). Also note that message notification is probably digital thus not available in analog coverage areas - and that some providers delete the notification of a voice message, or the actual text message, after a few days if not acknowledged by the phone (even though they keep a voice message for weeks), thus if in an analog-only area for a few days you will never get the messages.

If you want a more radical view of the future of cellular-like communications, check the article in Forbes magazine of November 25, 2002.

The common headset jack on cellular phones takes a 2.5mm plug, whereas portable audio players usually take a 3.5mm plug. However some cellular phones require an adapter to use a headset, they do not have a jack built in.
Monaural of course, though new phones with much music capability may support stereo - don't walk across the street with stereo, you may not hear that car before it hits you.
Bluetooth is a great notion, as headset cables are never convenient. Bluetooth takes some effort to "pair" headset and phone. The headset must have a battery whereas wired headsets are powered by being plugged into the phone. Full-boom headsets with Bluetooth are not common - most hide on the ear so people think you are talking to yourself. ;-) Two I am aware of, but know little else about, are one to be introduced for Motor Trend magazine in January of 2008, and the VXi Road Warrior B150-TK available from (Its headband looks too simple for good adjustment and snugness.) But do not drive while using any headset.

Camera Functions:
The technology is improving, but recognize these are not your average digital cameras in performance and convenience.
Resolution is now up to 3 megapixels, which isn't a bad image for general use.
However, image control may be lacking. Some have digital zoom, some can vary exposure. (But I find the RAZR V3c's camera does not do well in the dark ares of the image even when set to cloudy or night - perhaps the bright sides are over-riding the settings). (I don't know how it meters. From some photos and the context of other values of what it calls "lighting conditions" I suspect it is not adjusting brightness with the value but instead using a colour filter.)
Camera And its range of coping is low - detail on bright surfaces is washed out, and lacking in shadows.)
Control may be klunky - many are not point-shoot. You have to know which button to push to get into camera mode then which to use to take the picture. For example, the RAZR V3c has a camera/video button to go into the mode, but:
- you push the middle of the navigation arrow array to take a still picture, the camera mode key to take a moving picture. Got that memorized?
- you press up or down arrow to move among setting parameters such as zoom and exposure, the lateral keys to change the value of the parameter (Motorola didn't give you any clues on the display or keyboard).
And you may have to push another key combination to save the picture (just taking the picture, which then is frozen in the display for the moment like your digital camera, doesn't save it in the small memory!).

Final Words

"Wireless is not an end in itself. It's another communication channel."
..........Sara Aase, article Wireless Liftoff, Puget Sound Computer User, April 2001
(Yes, a very useful one in certain contexts, but with its own limitations and challenges which may make it less suitable than alternatives. - Keith


If you need coverage, consider communication services that use satellites. Connectivity anywhere you can see the sky is their potential benefit to you.

But expensive.

Most of the customer service considerations for cellular apply.
(Note that the term "SkyTel" is being used by a cellular service provider - that's misleading, IMO.)
Technical factors include:
- signal is blocked by buildings, trees and rocks (perhaps even more so than for cellular).
- for geo-stationary satellites (that orbit above the equator) signal is weaker at high latitudes. (Whereas Iridium satellites cover more of the earth.)
- fancier receivers, such as those built into a briefcase, may require the antenna to be pointed toward the satellite. That angle varies with latitude.
- while satellite coverage is inherently broad, it is not everywhere. (Maximum coverage requires a few more satellites than needed to just ensure coverage of densely populated land areas.)
- combined cellular-satellite telephones are available

While cellular service companies seem heavily oriented to population density, and can be more selective about investing in coverage since signal range is short, the higher cost of satelite services is justified only by a need for widespread connectivity. That might motivate a different customer service mindset, but I have no experience with it.

BUZZ-SPEAK decoded:

Decoding the buzz-speak:
Note we are talking how information is encoded on radio frequencies here, analog is continuous wave like AM and FM radio, whereas digital encodes information into a string of 1s and 0s.
- Multiple Access methods = multiplexing many users into one frequency slot (based on digital format - voice is digitized, data is already digital), thus the "MA" at the end of some acronyms.
- AMPS = original analog cellular service
- D-AMPS = an old name for the TDMA application that was commonly used in North America (D for Digital)
- CDMA = Code Division Multiple Access, an advanced method of sharing frequency slots among users, by including a complex code in each piece of a conversation so the pieces can be put back together at each end of the call, popular under specific applications called "CDMA" in North American and Japan and used as the underlying method for new high speed data functions.
- cdmaOne = unsure, perhaps original CDMA cellular application (check with the CDMA Development Group)
- CDMA 2000 = method underlying 1RXTT, 3x, and EV-DO high speed data schemes. Competitor to UMTS.
- EDGE = Enhanced Data Rate for GSM Evolution, typically 56kbps or higher, using GPRS
- EVDO, a 3G high speed data technology used in Verizon and Telus CDMA systems, and some sepcialized systems like AirCell and background functions
- GPRS = a type of Packet data, sent in discrete packets rather than continuous as voice is, commonly used by GSM service providers
- GSM = an improved version of TDMA popular in Europe and now in North America.
- HSDPA = High Speed Data Packet Access, used by UMTS systems
- PDC = a TDMA-based system used in Japan
- TDMA = Time Division Multiple Access, a basic method of sharing frequency slots among users by sequencing slices of conversations in time. Both the old "TDMA" application that was commonly used in North America and the European-origin GSM use the basic TDMA technique.
- UMTS = Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, sometimes called 3GSM but it uses W-CDMA air interface, a third generation, competitor to CDMA 2000, replacing GSM.
- W-CDMA = Wideband-CDMA, used in Japanese TOMA and in UMTS systems (while different, roaming between them may be feasible), may be better for video and dense populations
- xG = various Generations of cellular technology regarding data speed, 1G being analog, 2G being digital (TDMA/GSM and CDMA for example), 3G is high speed digital requiring a minimum data rate (those better than 2 but falling short of 3 are being referred to as 2.5 or even 2.75 - marketing inventions not standards, used loosely, some marketers use 3G for fast but not really fast services while others stick to 2.5/2.75) - spectrum = a span of frequencies. Since spectrum is limited and regulated, efficient use of spectrum is economically attractive, hence Multiple Access methods that multiplex many users into one frequency slot.

Intellectual Property of Keith Sketchley 2009.08.20

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