Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 15, 2001



It's taken 10 years for people
to give up land lines and
embrace portability

By Burl Burlingame

We bought a cell phone way back I-don't-know-when. The monthly rate was excessive, the phone was clunky, the battery pack was big enough to power a locomotive. It cut out if you tilted your head -- that is, if it worked at all. Oh yeah, that was the technological Dark Ages of the mid-'90s for you.

So we scrapped the thing. Deep-sixed that puppy.

We went back to good ol' "land line" telephones connected to our homes to keep in touch. It was occasionally inconvenient but worked pretty well, as it had for the last century or more. Let your fingers do the walking. Only doctors and pimps used cell phones.

But then the world changed. People no longer had the patience to be waiting at home for a phone call. More companies entered the field, and competition drove phone prices and service rates down, enabling more people to make the big leap and scrap their land lines altogether. Why pay for two service plans when it's your cell phone that offers more convenience?

Cell-phone design reached the point where they were tiny and comfortable. They fit in your pocket. Improved battery performance allows them to stay charged for days instead of hours. Cell phones are also paging devices, alarm clocks, phone books, game devices, calendars, address books and 911-emergency devices. Some cell phones have Palm Pilots built in -- or are they Palm Pilots with cell phones built in? And unlike land lines or pagers, if you want to be unreachable, you just turn them off, secure in the knowledge that they'll still take messages.

Cell phones are the organizing glue of a complex, mobile society in the Information Age. Perfectly good reasons to get one. But not the real, actual, true reason citizens are snapping them up.

Actually, there are two reasons:

Scully and Mulder.

It's a romance, pure and simple. Those two dedicated "X-Files" agents on the edge of the unknown did more to pump juice into cell-phone sales than any other factor. They were always on the cell phone, either in tandem while exploring some bizarre situation in the dark or just checking up on each other's progress. That's where the romance comes in: Even when Scully and Mulder were apart, they were always together, whispering sweet nothings or gruesome autopsy reports, thanks to their cells.

Communication on your own terms, with those you care about -- that's what a cell phone means. Listen to most people as they walk down the street, chatting away on their cell phones. Are they conducting an interview, making inside-trader deals, prescribing to a patient, coaching a frightened civilian about how to land a 747? No way. They're asking, "Eh, watchu doin' now?" just gabbing to their pals, gossiping, finding out where their kids are, God bless 'em, keeping this society oral and neighborly.

Scully and Mulder were the Lewis and Clark of the digital frontier.

There is another factor as well, but it's deep beneath the surface, like a riptide ocean current on a balmy day. The big communications giants like Verizon and Voicestream and the other baby Bells smell gold. What's involved in the cell business is the cell stations, the information-handling computers and the cell phones themselves. Oh, and their whopping executive salaries.

The big cost of running a phone company was maintaining and erecting lines and updating switching equipment. That cost disappears with cell phones. It's like the day when railroads realized that the interstate highway system could not only handle light freight and passengers more efficiently, the cost of doing so could be passed on to consumers.

So there's a reason that cell phones and rates have dropped tremendously, and there seem to be a million "packages" available, tailored to your every need -- they want your business and they want it now. There will come a day -- and it's here for many --- when the only "line" running into your home will be a single digital relay, handling cable TV, fast computer access and maybe a signal to a home cell station. And most cell-phone packages offer "free long distance." With no actual wires, distance doesn't matter.

But the pile of packages available also leads to cell-phobia. There are so many confusing deals out there that you become terrified of making a choice, in case it's the wrong one -- and when you become a cell-phone user, you're stuck in a contract for at least a year unless you scoff at financial penalties for pulling out. And the penalties can be quite high.

If you're interested in becoming a cell-phone user, first talk to people in your neighborhood about the servers they use and if the signal is strong and reliable. It varies around the island. If you travel a lot, see which companies offer nationwide service. Have other users demonstrate to you how the various functions work on different phone types. Make friends with techno-geek cell-phone junkies: Anyone who owns more than one or carries a cell phone in a quick-draw holster qualifies.

There are "family" plans that lump up to five phones on a single plan. If the whole family is getting celled, this can save a pile.

But which plan? Here, the Internet comes to the rescue. After poking around I used the site to compare. Click on the tab reading "Service Plans." You enter in your zip code -- the Star-Bulletin zip code gives us 82 possible plans -- and then click on buttons indicating your preferences for service, such as whether you anticipate frequent or infrequent monthly usage, the areas you call most. As your choices add up, the number of plans matching your preferences is reduced, and compares them for you side by side.

Make a choice after the site pares down the selections for you. Either buy the service through the site, or go to the nearest service provider. Make a print-out of your choice and take it with you -- the server I chose tried to charge me a slightly higher rate until I showed them the sheet.

Although there will be a learning curve to operating the phone, it's not rocket science. No matter which model phone you select, the function commands are the same within each server.

In no time at all, the cell phone will become an indispensable tool. The cell-phone companies are relying on that.

Within a day or so, I called someone only 50 feet away, to come and unlock the Star-Bulletin door so I could get in. Before, I would have just hammered on the door with my fists and screamed like I used to. It's a new world.

And let's not go into what Scully and Mulder did for flashlight sales. That's a whole other obsession.

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