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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE MOBILE PHONE
MERRY-GO-ROUND


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

June 29, 2000 -- We pass this way just once, or so I have been advised, and I was really hoping that I could have done it without a mobile phone. But I now concede that you gotta have one.

The first time your car breaks down en route to the airport, you know you should have had one. There's something demeaning about having to rely on the kindness of strangers. And then when a stranger does pull over, he's not offering to let you use his cell phone, but handing you a pamphlet about Jesus. Trust me, fellow travelers, there's something surreal about getting lectured about Jesus in the breakdown lane of the Jersey Turnpike.

Anyway, I recently bought myself a mobile phone and still resent the fact that I now carry it around wherever I go, including the john. But there is a decided advantage to being a relative newbie in the mobile world. I have some state-of-the-art, avoid-the-bleeding-edge advice about your next mobile phone purchase.

To wit:

GO WITH THE NATIONWIDE PLANS
The folks who price long-distance mobile calls and roaming charges are obviously former airline pricing executives. Local calling plans larded with these rapaciously priced extras are simply too expensive for business travelers to consider. Most of us are now better served by the "one rate" nationwide plans that impose neither roaming nor long-distance charges.

Digital One Rate from AT&T was the first and is still the best known of the one-rate plans. Early customers were burned by AT&T's inability to deliver what it promised, but the company finally seems to have worked out its most severe capacity problems. Including voice-mail, caller ID and call-waiting, One Rate plans now range from $59.95 (300 minutes) to $149.95 (1400 minutes) a month. If you can't bring yourself to trust AT&T, there's Single Rate from Verizon. Plans begin at $25 (150 minutes) and reach $200 (for 2000 minutes). North American Neighborhood plans from Voicestream and offerings from Digital Edge USA are also competitive.

DON'T BUY A WEB PHONE YET
The Web is going wireless at a rapid, some might suggest reckless, pace. There will be bumps and 30-dot-com pile-ups en route, but a wireless Information Super Highway is inevitable. One day soon--a year, maybe two, from today--we will all be accessing the net via a wireless, hand-held device.

But the first generation of Web-enabled phones now on the market are nothing more than prototypes. I marvel at the technological wizardry, but I know gimmicky gadgetry when I test it. The screens are too small to be useful, even to scan E-mail. Tapping out a message on a telephone keypad--hitting the "9" key four times to generate the character "z," for instance--is little short of torture. Today's wireless Web applications aren't robust enough to matter and connecting to them at 14.4K baud reminds you of all the times your plane arrives early, but you sit on the tarmac for 20 minutes waiting for a gate. If you must have wireless Web technology right this minute, buy a personal-digital assistant or one of those super-deluxe pagers.

SMALLER MAY NOT BE BETTER
Even cheap handsets now offer a nice assortment of benefits: storage capacity for hundreds of phone numbers; built-in calculators and alarm clocks; and the ability to use those eerie headsets that make you look like you're talking to yourself when you're walking down the street. And battery life has ceased being a major concern. I recently left my phone in my car at an airport parking lot. When I returned a week later, the phone was still on and accepting voice-mail messages.

But we may have reached the point of diminishing returns on size. The newest mobile phones may be too small for your own good. The keys are minuscule, no small concern for users with pudgy fingers, and screens are difficult to read. But this is most definitely an area of personal choice. Test your tactile response to a phone before you buy. Punch some test phone numbers into the keypad. Check out the display. Buy what's most comfortable for you. There's no prize for having the smallest phone.

HOW TO RENT THE WORLD
Standard U.S. mobile phones do not work overseas due to conflicting standards, but so-called dual-mode handsets are slowly reaching the market. They provide one-world, one-phone, one-number convenience, albeit for a steep price. One major mobile-phone firm, Nextel, already sells them. And AT&T offers a hybrid called the International CellCard. In short, you pay AT&T another annual fee for the right to rent a high-priced overseas phone that forwards calls from your U.S. mobile phone number at an inflated price.

At least for the moment, and for most U.S. business travelers, renting a phone for overseas use remains a more cost-effective option. A dozen companies or more offer rentals, but I'd be surprised if you do better than Rent Express. For $69.95 a week, the company rents you a package that includes a phone, two batteries, a charger and lots of accessories. The kit, including your overseas phone number, is delivered before your international departure. Calling rates start at about 95 cents per minute.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.