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Sunday, August 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Getting Started / Linda Knapp

Test-driving offerings of the wireless world

Special to The Seattle Times

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More than 40 percent of Americans have wireless phones. If you're not one of the haves by now, you may still wonder why people want to live with phones on their ears.

Hmmm, I got my first wireless a few years ago. I was afraid of having car trouble with my young child on board and wanted to be able to call for help.

A year later, my husband got one, too, which made it a lot easier to coordinate transportation for our teenagers. We also use the phones to consult about purchases while shopping and to check in at home when we're both out. We haven't used the phones much, and we've spent little for a shared service plan.

On the other hand, my two older children (now in their 20s), have an entirely different lifestyle that includes constant contact with friends — anytime, anywhere. Personal wireless phones are perfect for people like them.

This summer I decided to get my kids and myself fully mobile so I could more clearly see the possibilities of wireless communication. Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless have kindly lent phones and service for this purpose.

The Sprint PCS arrives first, and my daughter loads it with her friends' phone numbers, checks her America Online e-mail and picks "Take me out to the ball game" for the ringer sound, all before I get to Page 20 in the user's manual.

Oh well, she's the primary talker, so I take notes on what she uses it for and why.

For example, she uses it on her way to the beach or the movies to invite friends along. She calls classmates in other states because there's often no extra charge for long-distance on wireless services. She calls home to find out when I need the car, and again when she's going to be late.

My son takes over the AT&T phone on its arrival and immediately finds it invaluable for selling his car. Potential buyers now can reach him when he's not home, which is most of the time.

He takes the wireless to work and returns voice messages during breaks. Later, he calls to find out what's for dinner.

My favorite AT&T feature is the dial #121 information service that tells me today's news, sports scores and more while I'm walking.

My favorite Sprint feature is the audio capability that enables me to place calls with my voice.

An intriguing feature offered by both carriers is text messaging, which permits the user to communicate with written words in those situations when talking is impolite.

Extras aside, all carriers are still struggling to provide dependable service with fewer fades and disconnects. Voice deterioration occurs as I walk down my street, for example, and calling from the local supermarket isn't possible. Still, most calls are clear, and uncertainty is "just the way it is," my kids say.

OK, my family has used these phones for more than a month and now it's time to evaluate.

Are personal wireless phones essential?

Well, no, but they sure are convenient. It's extremely helpful to be able to reach family members almost any time, and my kids are now better at keeping in touch.

The twentysomethings have become attached to their wireless phones and want to take them back to college. In fact, with free long-distance on many service plans, it may make sense for them to have wireless as their only phones.

Individual needs for phone service are different. And every provider offers a range of plans that attempt to fit the differences. If you're ready to go wireless, here are some things to think about while choosing a carrier.

First, determine whether you need a local, regional, or national calling plan. If you mainly call from around home, choose local (it's the cheapest). If you travel to nearby states, choose a regional plan. (Carriers have maps of their regions; be sure the places you call from are included.) If you call from different regions, pick a national plan. It's the most expensive but doesn't incur roaming charges.

Roaming occurs when you call from outside your calling plan's area, and those calls cost around 60 cents per minute extra.

Next, estimate how much you'll use the wireless during weekdays and weekends. Pick a plan with enough minutes per month at a price you can afford. Make sure it includes free long-distance from your calling-plan area.

Some carriers provide wireless Internet access and e-mail. If that's of interest, find out about the extra costs and capabilities. Next week, we'll take a close look at the Internet on a wireless.

Providers each offer their own unique features. Ask about them and decide if they're important enough to influence your choice.

Finally, pick a major carrier that's moving toward 3G (third generation) wireless technology, which promises wider coverage, higher access speeds, fewer disconnects and longer battery life.

For more information on wireless technology and selecting a service, go to www.point.com or wirelessadvisor.com.

Linda Knapp can be reached by e-mail at ptech@seattletimes.com. Please include your e-mail address in the message.

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