- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Cell-phone users love the feeling of liberation that comes with a whopping bucket of off-peak wireless minutes.
But there are only so many hours in the day, and despite the tremendous growth in the number of mobile-phone subscribers, usage trends suggest most people don't make the most of their wireless minutes.
The average wireless subscriber uses just 422 minutes per month even though the average calling plan comes with 750 minutes, according to the latest customer surveys by J.D. Powers and Associates.
"People only use a little over half. The rest are wasted," said Kirk Parsons, industry analyst for J.D. Powers.
Why the waste? Since cellular networks are swamped during business hours, most calling plans tend to be a feast-or-famine proposition: Not enough minutes when you need them most, and too many when you don't.
As a result, a growing number of people are using their mobile phones at home for long-distance calls. But even those consumers are hard pressed to talk away their off-peak minutes.
After all, there are 23,500 "off-peak" minutes in a month, half at hours when most people are asleep. That leaves about 200 waking hours to make free calls each month and how many people are going to spend that much time on the phone?
"I'm on a plan with 3,000 weekend minutes," said Charles Mahla, an industry analyst for the research firm Econ One. "I don't know if I'd use a third or a quarter of them on the phone."
Then again, for those who would rather use their phones more sparingly, the choices are limited.
Most of the national cell-phone companies offer a bare-bones $20 plan with as few as 20 minutes a month for low-volume users. The next option, however, rather than a gradual increase in price and minutes, is usually an alluring bounty of minutes costing $30 to $40 a month.
"More people could get by with entry-level plans than purchase them," but they worry about exceeding the maximum and paying hefty fees for additional minutes, said Rebecca Diercks, director of wireless research for Cahners In-Stat Group, whose firm calculates average cellular use at 290 minutes a month. "People want to know what they will be billed at the end of the month. They don't want any surprises."
Likewise, said Mr. Mahla, "the charges are steep when you go over your plan minutes. It's 25 to 30 cents a minute when you go over."
One alternative for lower-volume wireless users is to prepay for a fixed number of prime-time or off-peak minutes with no monthly expiration.
But aside from offering that option, wireless companies try to make it difficult for customers to resist a bigger commitment: Calling plans costing $30 and up per month generally come with 200 or more daytime minutes and thousands or even unlimited amounts of off-peak minutes.
So what's a person to do with all those excess minutes?
The most obvious answer: Use cell phones at home for long-distance calls, a trend that threatens to destroy the once-profitable businesses of AT&T;, MCI and Sprint.
One problem, however, is that cellular companies have pushed back the beginning of off-peak to 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. on weeknights. In contrast, the best rates for long distance on a regular phone are available at 7 p.m. or round-the-clock.
A more extreme solution for using free wireless minutes has been to ditch the wires altogether and use cellular for all calls, whether local or long distance. But less than 2 percent of Americans have ditched their regular phone and gone totally wireless, according to Ms. Diercks.
For many customers, even with the ongoing improvements in wireless technology and network coverage, cell phones simply don't measure up to traditional land-line handsets for reliability and sound, especially indoors. Others simply don't like to hold such a tiny handset at home, where they tend to make longer calls and are accustomed to gripping the hefty receiver of a regular phone.
One way to address such issues, at least partly, is to attach a cell phone to a docking station that connects with a regular telephone to mimic the experience of a normal call. Such devices also can come with a special antenna to improve wireless reception indoors.
"If they didn't have quality issues in the home environment, people would optimize their cell-phone minutes," said Mark Isaacson of WHP Wireless, a Melville, N.Y., company that makes one such device, the CellSocket.
Another base station named VoxLink is produced by Vox2 of Northborough, Mass. Both products, which sell for $100 and up, work with a limited but growing number of cell phone models.
One big obstacle to the all-wireless solution is that many people still rely on their land-line phones for dial-up Internet service.
Although cellular companies have begun offering speedier online access for computers, the connections are still slower than dial-up and such services aren't included in regular wireless-calling plans.


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