Cellphone customers give up their land lines

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Shortly after moving into his new apartment, Eric McErlain realized he didn't need a phone line. For two weeks, the Reston, Va., resident had relied solely on his cellular phone to place and receive calls. Soon, he began looking at his old cordless phone as one might a push mower.

"After a while, I found that there wasn't any reason for me to have it at all," says Mr. McErlain.

One year later, he says his bills are less confusing, he doesn't get calls from telemarketers, and it's easier to stay in touch with friends and business contacts.

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McErlain is young, single, and travels a lot - a typical "early adopter" of high-tech gadgets. But evidence shows that the movement to leave the land line behind isn't limited to yuppies.

Average consumers, even parents, are streamlining all of their phone use into a handset the size of a candy bar.

"Why would you want to deal with a different number if you can do everything you want with a mobile device?" asks John Sherlock, head of the Personal Communication Industry Association in Alexandria, Va.

Wireless has already drawn a steady stream of converts. Of the 105 million cellular users in the nation, 5 percent have switched to all-wireless and 33 percent consider it a viable option, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, in Washington.

Competition is responsible. About 60 percent of wireless customers can now choose from five or more carriers. Popular services include AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless, and WorldCom Wireless. Each has lowered its prices incrementally to undercut the others. Cingular, for one, offers as many as 200 minutes and free long distance for $30 a month in certain states. For $20, Verizon gives customers in large cities as many as 150 minutes of regional calling.

The product of all these deals is low monthly bills - averaging about $45. Those with broader services pay about $70 per month. The price is reasonable enough to prompt a growing number of land-line subscribers - who pay an average of $55 in local and long-distance bills - to switch over, particularly if they use a cellphone anyway.

Others are enticed by amenities. Like standard phones, wireless services offer caller ID, call waiting, and voice mail. But mobile devices can also be used for instant messaging and limited access to the Internet. Moreover, carriers often entice prospective customers with a range of discounts, notably free long-distance service.

Don Tollefson disconnected his home phone more than two years ago. The Sacramento, Calif., native often travels for his job, so he opted for AT&T's Digital One Rate plan, which features 450 minutes of national coverage and free long distance for $60 a month.

Mr. Tollefson's chief appreciation is, as he sees it, the ability to have two phones in one. "Between work and running around with my kids, it's easier to be able to be reached on just one line," he says.

For Austin, Texas, resident Cheri Riesman, the benefit of going wireless was a new-found immunity from telemarketers. (There's no phone book yet for cellular numbers.) "The only people who called me at home were trying to sell me something," she says. Like most all-wireless consumers, Ms. Riesman connects to the Internet from her home via a cable line.

Despite such advantages, consumer advocates are quick to find fault with wireless plans. And many people, parents in particular, question whether cellphones alone can meet the needs of their family.

Wireless technology requires that each handset have a separate phone number. To reach a specific family member, a caller would need a different phone number on hand to contact each parent and child.

And unlike land-line phones, the wireless user is billed for incoming calls, too. Any call from one cell to another would count for twice the minutes - an unfriendly statistic for most households, given that the majority of wireless calls are to the immediate family.

Other users are repulsed by complex bills and seemingly below-the-belt fees. For example, wireless services start billing outgoing calls from the minute the send button is pressed, not when or if the call goes through. Also, most companies charge by the minute, so a call that lasts for 1 minute and 1 second counts as two minutes. Some services even levy a hefty fine, up to $200, on customers who switch plans before the end of their contract.

Consumers also ought to be wary of the quality of service. As new users sign up (which happens every two seconds), more calls clog the wireless airwaves. At times, signals collide, leading to dropped calls.

In all, one-third of all wireless users often experience dropped calls, according to the Boston-based Yankee Group. It's one reason customer satisfaction has fallen from 70 percent to 53 percent in the past five years. The data show that, while more consumers now use cellphones, they trust them less for important calls.

Not surprisingly, connection problems aren't trumpeted in cellphone ads. AT&T, Sprint, and others have come up short on promises for national coverage. AT&T's wireless network, for example, can only reach 96 percent of the US population.

Rich Blase, an AT&T spokesperson, says customers will have to anticipate a few dead zones while the wireless technology matures. "You have to realize that the wire line has been around for 100 years," he says. "We're building additional towers where we can, and adapting technology, but it's going to take time before you can have a similar kind of coverage."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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