Running wireless
Cell phones are an indispensable accessory for truckers, but not all measure up to drivers’ needs

—by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Howard Hart is happy with his cell phone.

Since he signed up with Verizon, he’s had few problems. He can keep in touch while on the road, not only with his business contacts, but with the folks at home.

He has Internet access, doesn’t pay roaming or extra charges for long-distance calls and has a good, strong signal everywhere, except for the parched confines of the Nevada desert. And all for just under $90 a month.

Most popular plans
According to John Siebert, project manager of the OOIDA Foundation, the most popular cell phone service providers among OOIDA members are:

  • AT&T
  • Verizon
  • Sprint
  • Cingular
  • Cellular One

Source: OOIDA Member Survey, 2000-2001

For Keith Wood, using the cell phone is a different matter entirely. He refers to his cellular service provider, Nextel, as “Notel.”

He doesn’t pay extra for long-distance calls or roaming either. But the over-the-road trucker frequently loses calls in the middle of a conversation, and finds significant parts of the country where he can’t make calls. Fixing problems has been a hassle, taking precious time he can ill afford to spend.

Ask five truckers about cell phone service, and you’ll get five different stories. But whether they’re happy with their service or not, all truckers will tell you the cell phone has become a necessary accessory, the vital communication link between truckers in the field and the rest of the world.

Everyone’s got to have one …
According to John Siebert, project manager of the OOIDA Foundation, 91 percent of truckers responding to the 2001 OOIDA member survey said they used a cell phone in their daily truck operation. More than 81 percent said the cell phone was their main form of personal communication; pay phones, the standby of trucking past, came in at a distant 13 percent.

In that, at least, truckers are pretty similar to the general population.

When asked which of five modern inventions they could not live without, more than 3,100 people responding to a recent survey by CNN chose their cell phone. That’s 3,100 people who said the cell phone was more important than such apparently unnecessary novelties as the toothbrush and the car.

Truckers, like the public in general, are annoyed about problems like dropped calls and roaming charges. They think perks like free long distance are important. And buying a plan with enough minutes to serve their needs is also high on the list.

Land Line recently spoke with four OOIDA members with four different cell companies about their service, what they liked and didn’t like.

Our truckers were:

  • David Etter, Jonesboro, GA, who uses Sprint;
  • Howard Hart, Cheney, WA, who uses Verizon;
  • Keith Wood, Rochester, IN, who uses Nextel; and
  • Kenneth Becker, Isabella, OK, who uses AT&T.

What they had to say — the plans they chose, the problems they’ve encountered — will likely be helpful to other truckers who are looking to either change cell phone providers or to buy service for the first time.

Counting the minutes
Truckers who are on the road more than they’re home can be on the phone for hours every month. And with the high cost of extra minutes, getting the most time for your money is a must.

Among our truckers, Kenneth Becker typically carries 2,000 anytime minutes on his plan. David Etter and Howard Hart carry combinations of anytime and night and weekend minutes totaling roughly 2,500. Keith Wood only has 700 anytime minutes, but his plan affords him unlimited night and weekend calling — and free incoming calls.

Hart said truckers should tailor their minutes to their needs. Drivers with certain leasing companies need more, as do those who must call brokers to find a load.

Becker agreed: “If you’re looking for that load, you might be on that phone off and on for an hour or two talking to different shippers and different brokers.”

Wood said for business uses, anytime or daytime minutes are the most important. Even though many truckers run at night, daytime is “when the people I do business with are available on the phone.”

However, truckers can control how many minutes get used.

Virtually all plans, either on their Web sites or through an automated number, offer a way to track how many minutes you’ve used so you can manage more effectively. Our truckers said you can control usage by keeping calls brief, tracking your minutes, using features like caller ID to screen calls, or, as Etter said, by controlling yourself.

“It depends if you’re a jabbermouth or not,” he said. “I could call you from my cell phone right now, but I’m not.

“If I know it’s going to take several minutes, I  go to a landline,” he said. “If it’s an emergency or something like that, I pick it up right away.”

Long distance and roaming
“As far as I’m concerned,” Wood said, “there is no technological reason anyone should pay extra for a call outside their geographic area.”

Keith, cellular companies are listening. Most now include long-distance service at no extra charge in their plans.

“It is pretty vital in today’s environment,” Etter said. “It saves you a lot of time and money.”

For the most part, those calls can be made from virtually anywhere in the United States. But what you pay for that privilege varies. Many truckers still have to deal with roaming — charges you pay when you call from an area where your provider doesn’t have a tower. Your company has to rent that time on the other company’s tower, and you foot the bill.

For Sprint users, it’s a particular problem. Sprint has excellent coverage along interstate highways and in major cities. But get off the big roads, and you’re roaming pretty quickly, Etter said.

Some companies have found ways around this — Becker says AT&T has reciprocal agreements with enough companies across the country that he never roams. Hart says Verizon has towers and good signal almost everywhere he travels — a fact Consumer Reports noted in its recent review of cell phone service.

Nextel doesn’t charge roaming, but Wood says he travels in huge stretches of the United States — even along some interstates — where he can’t get any signal that will work on his phone.

The best defense against paying roaming is simple. Look at your company’s map of where it provides service. Most cell phone service providers have one handy where phones and service are sold.

But even with a map, truckers need to be wary: Some companies list areas on their maps where “service is also available,” a cue that roaming charges may be involved.

Clarity and lost calls
Lost calls are a major problem with many cell services, and not just because they’re irritating. Think of calling 9-1-1 and losing the signal just as you’re about to say where you are.

During a recent conversation, Wood nearly lost his connection a dozen times. Coverage and lost call problems have become frequent.

Learning your cell phone company’s territories can be the trucker’s best defense against lost calls, Becker says.

“If you travel the same areas all the time, you get to understand where these areas are, so you try to make sure you’re not on the phone in these areas and you don’t get kicked off,” he said.

Hart says he avoids lost call problems — and gets greater clarity during his calls — through the use of an external antenna.

“It’s one of the few pieces of electronic equipment that lives up to its name,” he said. “A call can go from one bar to three. But it’s no help in dead spots.”

Lost calls are becoming less of a problem, a trend that will continue over time. Cell phone companies are constantly expanding their territories, either building new towers themselves or making deals to use other companies’ towers. But many phone users don’t get the benefit of those expansions.

“What a lot of people don’t know,” Etter said, “is you have to update (your cell phone) every two to three months to get all the new towers on.”

With many companies, that means nothing more than calling their customer service line on the cell and waiting while they send a signal to your phone that updates its list of towers.

But even if you don’t get knocked off the line, understanding the person you’re talking to can be a chore. Clarity — the ability to understand that other person — is also improving with time and advances in technology. Even so, some of the best companies can have problems with it.

Becker, for example, says clarity can sometimes be a problem.

“Sometimes you’ll get an echo, like you’re talking inside a drum,” he said. “You have to hang up and call again to get a better connection.”

Etter, who uses Sprint, and Hart, who uses Verizon, both indicated clarity was rarely a problem, and during recent phone calls, both were easy to understand.

The all-important price
With the financial situation in trucking today, every penny counts. Cell phone companies offer a dizzying array of plans, with costs from next to nothing well into hundreds of dollars a month.

For the most part, our truckers were happy with their plans.

Hart finds he generally has all the time he needs at an affordable cost with his Verizon plan, which affords 600 anytime minutes and 2,000 night and weekend minutes at $89.95 a month.

Etter has the bargain of the group, paying $46 a month for his Sprint plan, which gives him 350 anytime and 2,150 night and weekend minutes. While he doesn’t have many daytime minutes, he is able to make the plan work well.

Wood has plenty of complaints about his Nextel service, but it does have plenty of value. For about $90 a month, he has 700 anytime minutes, but can spend all of them on outgoing calls. All his night and weekend minutes are free, and so are all incoming calls.

Becker’s plan, however, is the most flexible. AT&T’s digital one-rate offers him the ability to change his plan almost monthly. He checks his minutes toward the end of his billing cycle, and, if he has used few, he can change retroactively to the 600 minute or 1,000 minute plan at a lower cost. If he is using more minutes, he can switch to the 2,000 anytime minutes plan.

The changes can all be made on AT&T’s Web site. His cost varies from $70 a month to $170, depending on which plan he lands on.

“I’ve learned to manage my account,” he said. “If I have 2,000 minutes and I only use 1,000, that next one thousand is gone, it’s wasted.”

He also scans for deals as he changes plans each month, often picking up extra night and weekend minutes at little or no extra cost, a nice feature when he’s away from family for long periods.

The best advice
If all else fails, or if you are faced with so many choices your brain is swimming, do what we did here at Land Line: Talk to the real experts, your fellow truckers.

Ask them what kind of plan they signed up for, what phone they bought, how satisfied they are, what problems they’ve run into.

Chances are if their service is giving them what they need, it’ll do the same for you. LL

Shopping for minutes
Consumer Reports recently compared a number of cell phone service plans. Your needs may vary, but among plans with national coverage and enough minutes to satisfy truckers’ needs, here’s some of what they found:

Peak Minutes
Off-Peak Minutes
Cost per Month
$ 110
Sprint PCS
Source: Consumer Reports

Talking Up Cell Phones … 
Cell phones are a little like snowflakes — no two models are alike, and there’s a million variations to choose from.

Here at Land Line, we’ve polled some of the top publications, rating services and Web sites for their choices. Despite some disagreements among the experts, these ratings should give folks on the road a good idea of what some of the best cell phones out there are.

Samsung SPH-A500
CNET, a Web site that reviews and rates electronics and software, gives its nod — plus a rating of 8 on a scale of 10 and its Editor’s Choice mark — to the Samsung SPH-A500.
“While we can’t say that this is the perfect mobile, it’s pretty darn close,” says David Carnoy in his review on the site.

The “flip phone” — Think of Kirk flipping one open as he says “Beam me up, Scotty” — is easy to carry and lacks little in features when compared with its larger cousins. The phone picked up a rare 9 out of 10 score for its design, 8 for features and 7 for performance.

Its voice features — including voice recognition and voice dialing — may be of most interest to truckers who need to keep their hands on the wheel. The phone also can be converted — with a kit — into a wireless Web modem, and can be much easier to use for e-mail with its optional attachable keyboard.

LG TM510
Consumer Reports gives high marks to this tri-mode phone, common to Verizon and Alltel services. It can work as an analog phone and in digital cellular and PCS frequencies.

The magazine gave the phone its highest rating, excellent, for its “sensitivity,” the ability to provide good voice quality with a weak signal. It received “very good” ratings, the second highest, for its voice quality in a crowded room and for its ease of use, but only a fair rating for its battery life. Many of its controls, such as its ringer volume and vibrate alert, are rated as easy to use.

An upgradable wireless Web browser is also available, and the phone can be used as a modem for your PC.

Motorola V60t
ZDNet.com, another Web site that rates and reviews electronics products, pointed to the Motorola V60T. The site gave the phone an overall rating of 7.6 on a scale of 10, while readers of the site gave it a slightly higher 8.5.

High on ZDNet’s list of positives were the phone’s sound quality, compact size and analog roaming capabilities — particularly important for reaching 9-1-1 operators and driving in areas off the main interstates. The phone is recommended for “road warriors” — people who travel and need good service wherever they go.

The voice-recognition system on the V60T not only allows voice recording and voice-based calling — it also enables the phone user to create vocal shortcuts to some of the features, freeing up hands and eyes that should be focused on driving. The phone can also link to Motorola’s data kit to become a wireless modem for a PC.

Can’t get no satisfaction?
Actually, when it comes to cell phones, truckers are pretty satisfied. John Siebert of the OOIDA Foundation says that in the most recent member survey, truckers rated their cell phones’ “performance price value.” More than 60 percent said it was good or very good.

Percentage of Truckers
Very Good
Source: OOIDA Member Survey, 2000-2001

Sometimes, a cell phone is the difference between life and death
If you ever had any doubt that a cell phone is a must-have, talk to David Etter.

The Jonesboro, GA, trucker and OOIDA member remembers a day in September last year when his became a lifesaver — literally.

Etter’s mother — a 74-year-old dynamo who lives on her own in Smyrna, GA, across the Atlanta area from his home — called him one afternoon that month. It was the phone call every son dreads.

“She called me and thought she was having a stroke,” he said. “While I had her on my landline, I could tell she was having problems with her speech. She was slurred, wasn’t making any sense.”

While talking with his mother over the landline to keep her calm, Etter picked up his cell with his other hand and called 9-1-1.

“My mother’s not one to call 9-1-1 herself,” he said. “She knew she could call me and was hoping I could run out there.”

But that was unlikely. Her call came at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, right as rush hour was pounding into its roughest hour.

“You’re not going to get from one side of Atlanta to the other then, the traffic’s so bad,” he said.

But Etter’s local 9-1-1 operator was able to put him in touch with the 9-1-1 operator near his mother’s home. An ambulance crew headed over, stabilized his mother’s condition and rushed her to a nearby hospital.

Etter knew it was up to him to get help when his mother called.

“She’s been living by herself so long; she’s very independent,” he said. “That’s one of the main reasons I’ve had cell phone service for about 10 years now.

“My mother would not have called an ambulance, she would not have called 9-1-1, and she would not be here today,” he said. She is still with her family today, Etter said, because of a simple, dependable cell phone.

“I thank God for that.” LL —by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor