Wireless Wonders

April 20, 2000
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Surveyors all need wireless communications equipment at some time. Determining your needs and the areas in which you'll be working are two things to consider when you are in the market for cellular products.

It's inevitable. Surveyors all need wireless communications equipment at some time. You may need to make a call to the office, communicate measurements to your partner while performing a construction boundary near loud traffic, or retrieve information from the client while working at a jobsite. Determining your needs and the areas in which you'll be working are two things to consider when you are in the market for cellular products. Think about how often you'll use your communications equipment, too. And don't forget about costs.

Wireless Options

If you travel a lot, or use your phone in more rural areas, you might consider getting a dual-mode or tri-mode phone that will allow you to make calls out of range of their PCS (personal communications systems) network antennas. Tri-mode phones get extensive wireless coverage throughout the United States, but cost more than single-mode PCS phones. For those who work strictly in city or metropolitan limits, digital PCS phones are probably best. They offer better quality of sound and more security.

Analog phones give users broad, nationwide coverage. But, nationwide airtime rates are becoming higher for analog users. Analog currently provides better coverage in rural areas, but voice quality can be prone to static and dropped calls. Analog also requires more power, and batteries do not last as long as with digital phones. With digital phones, coverage areas may be small, but you get additional wireless features, such as caller-ID, E-mail, voicemail, call-waiting and call-forwarding. Jeffrey Eastham, project manager at Alpha Surveying & Mapping in Chesapeake, Ohio, has been using AT&T transportable (bag) cell phones for about seven years. His main driver uses a mobile phone. Eastham says he is generally satisfied with his equipment. "But, sometimes you get around mountainous areas, and they don't work," he says.

As far as call plans go, you should look into flat-rate plans if you're a frequent traveler in the United States. Most monthly fees for flat-rate plans include all long-distance and roaming charges. Judy Craig, sales consultant for AT&T Wireless Services in Birmingham, Mich., says an average plan sells for $89.99 for 600 minutes with no roaming or long distance charges. Other plans range from $59.99 for 300 minutes to $149.99 for 1,400 minutes. Craig says that any of the Motorola, Nokia, Ericcson and Mitsubishi phones work well for surveyors.

Airtime rates are less expensive for digital phones, and talk time and standby times are longer. Some of the latest digital phones, such as Nokia's 6100 Series, offer up to eight hours of talk time and nearly two weeks of standby time. PCS or MCDs (multiple communications devices) are best for anyone wanting to send data from the Internet via phone.

Andrew Kent of Kent Surveyors in Reading, Pa., says his Bell Atlantic 330D (BAM 330D) digital cell phones are both life-savers and cost-savers. Kent supplies all of his crews with the fold-up, palm-sized devices. "We also have them in the office so we have field-office communications," Kent says.

When purchasing wireless phones, be aware that they use radio waves that can be bounced around or even blocked by buildings and other structures, terrain and bad weather. Voice quality varies somewhat from phone to phone and among wireless service providers. It is recommended to test a new phone and return it if the quality is not satisfactory.

New Wireless Wonders

If you're looking for the do-it-all device, consider the new multi-communications devices or MCDs. These units provide online services, wireless modem and digital phone capabilities, two-way radio and paging qualities-all in one unit. There's no need to carry more than one device, avoiding "Saggy Belt Syndrome." Built-in microbrowsers provide wireless access to White and Yellow Pages and maintain schedules, address books and personal call lists. A favorite among consumers is the built-in speakerphone, says David Kurt, public relations manager, Network Solutions Sector of Motorola.

Two popular models of Motorola phones for surveyors and construction workers are the i370 and the i700plus. Sam Warra, store owner of International Satellite and Communications, LLC, Livonia, Mich., said these more rugged models are good for distances of up to 150'. The phones are small and come with swing holsters, so they don't get in the way as you move around. Internet access and Nextel Direct Connect digital two-way radio capabilities are also available. The i370 and i700plus come with unlimited use and are often a fraction of the cost of a regular phone, Warra says. They cost between $99 and $149.

Sara Snyder, spokeswoman for Nextel Communications, also suggests the new i700plus for field and office solutions because of its industrial ruggedness. She says it saves consumers 25 to 30 percent with its broad coverage plan.

As far as calling plans, Warra says the selection depends on the amount of time the phone will be used and the areas called. "For someone calling within the company, I suggest the Nextel productivity-enhanced plan (less cellular minutes and more minutes for two-way radio use)," Warra says. "People who are going to be calling every which way will want to use the productivity plan, which has more cellular minutes with ample two-way radio minutes."

Phone Costs

Costs to consider when choosing a phone and plan include the cost of the unit itself and the costs of usage. Analog wireless phones are often given away by carriers because they are so heavily subsidized. Wireless phones are also sold for a nominal charge, often $50, to consumers who sign one-, two- or three-year service contracts. The same phones purchased without service typically cost $250 or more. Providers also subsidize PCS digital phones, but have a different pricing structure, ranging from $49 to $250. A few wireless phones retail for $500 or more. Insuring your phone is recommended as a precautionary measure in case of loss. Insurance ranges from $200 to $300 or more.

Making Your Decision

  • Compare the costs, coverage areas, services and benefits of service providers' plans. Most service provider websites offer worksheets to compare different plans.
  • Evaluate the phones that are compatible with the list of plans and that have the features and benefits important to you.
  • Evaluate the combination of the plan and phone from the list and select the one that best meets your needs and lifestyle.

    Service Costs

    The cost of wireless phone service varies greatly across the country. The average monthly wireless service is less than $44 and falling. Activation fees cost up to $50, although competitive providers often waive this fee. Contracts often include a flat monthly fee that includes a set number of calling minutes (called airtime) for outgoing and incoming calls, plus a per-minute charge for calls beyond the included minutes in the service plan. Long-distance and roaming calls (calls while traveling outside the home area) add charges above the local per-minute rate. Most carriers round off call times to the next highest full minute for billing purposes, while a few bill by the second. Some digital carriers also waive the first-minute charge on incoming calls. Most service plans include higher charges for peak-period use (daytime weekdays) and less for off-peak use (evenings, weekends and holidays). Many carriers use "anytime" minutes pricing rather than peak and off-peak pricing. There are also additional per-minute charges (usually about 3 to 5 cents) for using regular telephone company wires to complete wireless calls (called a termination charge).

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