Sometimes something less is good enough

It’s hard to believe that I have been using cell phones of one type or another for more than 25 years.  My first cell phone was a device that was the size of a good size book with a handle on it.  The pack had a telephone receiver that was held in place by a magnet.  On the back of the receiver was a keypad and an LCD display that showed only the battery charge level, signal strength and any numbers I punched into the keypad.  My first cellular phone carrier was a company called GTE Mobilnet, which ultimately became the Verizon Wireless of today.

In the early days of cellular phones, you sometimes had to be in just the right spot to make a telephone call.  I can remember visiting someone in a hospital in downtown Los Angeles and having to place my phone pack near a window to make a phone call because the signal didn’t reach into the building’s interior.  We sometimes have to do that with our cellular systems today.  But, for the most part, everyone takes for granted that when you pick up your cell phone, you’ll be able to make a call just about wherever you are.

Having been with Verizon since they started being a wireless phone carrier, I’ve seen how their service coverage has grown over the years.  There was an area in the east part of the county where I live that was no-man’s land for so many years.  Once you turned a certain corner going eastbound, you might as well put the phone in the glove box because you weren’t going to be making or receiving calls for a while.  Once Verizon expanded coverage to include the whole highway, I felt like I could get service anywhere.

There is a huge amount of infrastructure that is required to keep our cell phones connected.  The cellular system is based on many low powered cell sites.  As you travel, your phone is automatically switched to the nearest cell site.  Not all the companies that offer cellular service share these cell site installations.  There are many places on the landscape where I’ve seen multiple cell towers in the same general area.  I wonder if these companies, who operate all this equipment, will eventually find it impossible to maintain it all.

This occurred to me during the past year because I have noticed a change in the coverage of my Verizon service.  I use my cell phone as my primary means of communication.  My friends and family know that, if they want to talk to me, they need to call my cell phone.  There are many evenings when I am on-call for my work and when the answering service needs to get a hold of me, they call my cell phone.  I’ve noticed that it is increasingly common for my cell phone to miss calls when I’m home.  This usually happens if I have my phone in the holster on my belt.  My calls are sometimes dropped while I’m in the house.  It’s kind of like it was in the 1980’s when I had to stand by a window to make a call.  My temporary fix has been to use my Skype account to make calls through my home wireless network.  Some family members know that, if I don’t answer my cell phone, they should call my Skype number.

I’ve also noticed that, when I travel in the east part of the county, service is not continuous where it was a few years ago.  I now have to do what I did more than 10 years ago.  If I’m in the middle of a conversation, I have to inform the person I’m talking to that I’m going into a bad reception area.  I disconnect the call and call again when I’m through the new dead zone.  You would think that wireless companies would advance with their coverage instead of seeing them retreat.

Another problem I have with my current wireless phone service is the cost.  My wife and I each have a phone.  On our current plan with Verizon, we are allowed 550 minutes per month between the two of us.  That 550 minutes doesn’t count mobile to mobile calls, which Verizon throws in for free.  It also doesn’t include nights and weekend calls, which Verizon also throws in for free.  My wife gets unlimited texts and I get up to 500 texts per month.  Neither one of us use anywhere near that many.  As for data usage, since I’ve been with Verizon forever, we have unlimited data.  That’s not the unlimited data like some carriers, where they say unlimited, but they really mean they’ll limit you if you go over 5 GB per month.  Since our phones access our home wireless network when we are home, our monthly data usage between the two of us does not exceed 500 MB per month.  So, as much as I like having true unlimited data, I really don’t use it that much.  For all of this, we are paying $142 per month.  That’s a lot of money for phone service.

For so many years, I was paying between $80 and $90 per month to AT&T just for home phone service.  I ended up dumping them and I switched the house phone to Vonage.  Now I’m paying $15 per month for phone service that is just as reliable and has more capabilities than I had with AT&T.  It’s not so easy to give Verizon the boot.  They, like other wireless carriers, get you to sign 2-year contracts that cost you extra money if you try to leave before your term is up.  I’ve got 11 months to go on our current contract with Verizon.

The poor signal coverage from Verizon lately has me questioning the logic of spending over $140 per month for wireless phone service.  Surely there must be a better option.  I decided to look for a prepaid service that would give me the phone service I need at a lower cost.  One of my requirements is that my phone needs to be a smart phone.  My current phone with Verizon is a Samsung Galaxy Nexus.  In my opinion, it’s one of the best smart phones on the market.  It is also very expensive.  If you don’t get it from the carrier along with a term contract, the phone costs $500 to $700 new.  When I got this phone from Verizon, it cost me $200 and I had to agree to the 2-year contract.  With prepaid service, you can buy your own phone and then purchase phone service from the carrier.  Since I’m not willing to shell out over $500 for a new phone, I will have to settle for something less in a phone if I’m going to use prepaid service.

I’m currently trying 2 different prepaid services.  One is a company called PlatinumTel (PTel).  They offer 3 plans; pay as you go, $40 unlimited and $50 unlimited.  Their $40 unlimited plan provides unlimited talk, unlimited text and 250 MB of data per month.  I could live with that.  They have a very professional looking web site.  But, I’ve found a few problems with them that will probably send me elsewhere.

PTel’s service uses the network operated by T-Mobile.  At my house, T-Mobile’s coverage isn’t much better than Verizon.  When I received my sim card from PTel, I tried to activate it through their web site.  Their system wouldn’t accept the information on the new card, so I had to call their customer support 800 number.  The representative got the sim card activated.  Then, when I tried to register for online access to my account, PTel’s system would not send me a verification code on my phone.  I contacted their customer support again by email and was told they were experiencing technical problems, so they’ll have to set up my access manually.  Alright, this is not making me feel very confident about this company.

Another prepaid service I will be testing is StraightTalk.  Their service plan is $45 per month for unlimited talk, text and data.  I don’t imagine their unlimited data is really unlimited.  I read some articles about StraightTalk that said users have had their accounts suspended for excessive data usage.  Why do these companies say unlimited when they don’t really mean unlimited?  One advantage that StraightTalk has for me is they use the network operated by AT&T.  As much as I don’t like AT&T, their network has a strong signal at my house.  I have another phone that I use in Europe and it runs on the AT&T network when I’m in the US.  That phone shows 4 bars where the others show little or no signal.

I never thought I would be going backward with technology.  I guess these are the times in which we live.

UPDATE 01/10/2013: After having tested  PTel and Straight Talk, here are some preliminary results.  With PTel, in my house, I was having to hold the phone up in the air, very much like what I’ve had to do with Verizon.  However, the minute I activated the Straight Talk SIM card, I had 4 to 5 bars.  As for data service, PTel was either EDGE or GPRS, which I guess is comparable to 3G and 2G on Verizon.  I rarely saw the data connection go to HSPA with PTel.  On Straight Talk, from the beginning, the data connection has indicated HSPA on the phone.  So it looks like Straight Talk may be the winner.

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