emember when getting a new phone was easy? You picked a color, decided if you wanted to put it on the wall or on the counter, and that was that.

Hello wireless, goodbye simplicity. Today's consumers face a dizzying array of wireless choices and new technology. Every day, more than 30,000 new customers sign up for wireless phone service, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. It's a big decision, complicated by emerging technology, glitzy ad campaigns, coverage areas, and personal wireless needs.

Then there's the matter of cost: Sure, the phone may be "free" but air time adds up faster than you can say "digital."

Time out. Doing your research before selecting a cell phone and wireless service provider can save you hundreds of dollars down the road. Here are some frequently asked questions to help you sort it all out.

Can we talk?
The world seems to be shaking out into two factions: the cell-phone-enamored and the cell-phone-irked. Visit this site for suggestions about cell phone courtesy from Southwestern Bell Wireless and Peggy Post, the etiquette expert.

What are the different types of cell phones?
Wireless phones are either analog or digital. The granddaddies of wireless, analog phones work almost anywhere in the country. Those phones use a technology similar to FM radio to transmit conversations. Call quality is less clear than digital and "fast busy" signals in urban areas can be a problem. Analog phones cost less than their digital descendants.

Digital and digital personal communications services (PCS) dominate the wireless market today because of their large network capacity and advanced technology. When calls are transmitted, voices are converted to digital 0s and 1s, then changed back to voices at the receiving end. Unlike with analog phones, eavesdroppers can't overhear conversations on scanners. Digital PCS are the most expensive phones on the market, with prices from $75 to more than $200. Bells and whistles such as paging, e-mail, and three-way calling are some digital PCS features.

Newer cell phones are dual mode, which means they'll work on digital or older analog systems.

How do most people purchase cell phones?
Most consumers obtain their cell phones from wireless service providers and retailers, either free or at a discounted price when they sign a one-year or longer service contract.

Finding the best combination of cell phone and calling plan requires some work. "Don't get carried away with the phone's nifty features or how small it is or if it matches the color of your eyes," says Dr. John Fike, director of the Center for Telecommunications Technology Management at Texas A & M University in College Station. "Consumers need to find a phone and a service plan that best fits their personal calling patterns."

Major cell phone manufacturers include Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, and Qualcomm. Wireless service providers include AT&T, Airtouch, BellSouth, Cellular One, GTE, Nextel, and Sprint PCS, among many, many others.

What are some questions I should ask before signing up with a wireless carrier?
Ask for a complete rundown of fees, such as for activation, delivery, registration, or cancellation. If the contract includes a phone, you'll want to know about its features, and whether it has a warranty and what it covers.

Be vigilant when examining claims about a carrier's coverage area. If you travel, ask about roaming charges, which is a higher per-minute fee you pay to "roam" outside your coverage area. Roaming fees can take a huge bite out of your monthly bill.

Find out how early you have to contact the service provider to avoid automatic renewal. Ask if you can presubscribe to another long-distance carrier.
    The granddaddies
    of wireless,
    analog phones work
    almost anywhere
    in the country.

Every day,
more than 30,000
new customers
sign up for
wireless phone service.

Who pays for cell calls?
In the U.S., the person with the cell phone pays for incoming and outgoing calls. In Europe, the caller pays.

Unlike with home phones, leading wireless phone companies charge from the minute you hit send—not when you say "hello." One industry giant even charges for calls when there's no answer. Over time, these charges can inflate your bill, especially if you pay extra fees for peak-hour usage or long-distance roaming. Generally, wireless companies do not charge if there's no answer or a busy signal.

One U.S. wireless company is going the European route by introducing a plan whereby the calling party pays. The goal: Entice more consumers to use its cell phones.

Should I sign a contract?
On the plus side, you often can get a lower rate by signing a contract for one year to three years. The downside: cancellation fees as high as $300 or more. Also, some carriers require you to return the phone if you cancel the service early.

No one knows where wireless rates are headed, but in the past four years, rates have plunged 60%, according to the Yankee Group, a consulting firm in Boston. If you think rates will continue to drop, don't "lock in" higher rates by signing a three-year contract, especially if there's a high cancellation fee.
    Don't get
    carried away
    with a phone's
    nifty features.

How do I choose the right calling plan?
Find a plan that fits your calling needs. If you need a cell phone to stay in touch with the family while running kids to soccer and football practice, a low-minute plan may fit the bill. But if you're using the phone for business or travel, you'll need more air time and a flat rate on long-distance.

If you haven't had a cell phone before, it's hard to know how many minutes you need. Don't worry, though, because most carriers will let you change plans before the end of your contract. Understand that minutes included in your plan are cheaper than "extra" minutes. Most services won't carry over minutes into the next month.

What are digital transmission standards and why are they important?
These standards determine whether or how well your phone will work outside your home service area. Example: The global system for mobile communications (GSM) is the dominant standard in much of the world, except the U.S., Japan, and South America. If you travel to Europe, you need a phone that employs this technology.

Across North America, code division multiple access (CDMA) is rapidly becoming the leading technology.

    Be vigilant when
    examining claims
    about a carrier's
    coverage area.

What are the online resources for consumers?
Point.com features information about 4,000 wireless service plans and hundreds of phones. Search the nation's top-50 metro areas by zip code to identify wireless carriers serving your market. Check out the site's reference desk for useful information.

Cellmania.com asks visitors to "rant and rate" on their wireless phone service and allows you to compare plans. At Decide.com, you can get information or hear audio files of call sound quality in specific metro and urban markets.

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.