Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

High Costs Make Americans Slow to Pick Up Cellular Phones

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

High Costs Make Americans Slow to Pick Up Cellular Phones

Article excerpt

The last time America revolutionized telecommunications, it freed long-distance calling from heavy regulation, and the rest of the world rushed to catch up. In today's revolutionary shift to wireless telephones, the United States is lagging behind.

Want to see how people are taking advantage of advanced cellular telephones? Go to London, not Los Angeles; Copenhagen, not Chicago. Here in the US, even many cellular-phone owners are ho-hum about anytime-anywhere communications.

"It's OK," says Marie, a Pittsburgh homemaker who uses her wireless phone once or twice a week. But "I only give my number out to people who need to reach me in an emergency." Down the street, Laurie Abbott doesn't even bother to turn on her cellular phone except when she's driving or shopping during school hours, when her two children might need to call. That's the problem with America's adoption of wireless technology: It's half-hearted. The industry is signing up record numbers of customers - one every 2.8 seconds - but those users aren't reaping many of the benefits of the technology. Competition may change all that. "Prices will drop in the US," says Mark Lowenstein, vice president for wireless research at the Yankee Group, a Boston consulting firm. "But they still have a long way to go." While the US cellular-phone industry has captured a larger share of the population than its counterparts in Britain, Germany, or France, it still plays second fiddle to Scandinavia. One in 7 Americans owns a cellular phone. In Sweden, Finland, and Norway, it's 1 in 4. And Americans use their cellular telephones less than almost anyone else in the developed world. For every 100 minutes a month of wireless chat in the US, western Europeans spend 140 minutes on their cellular phones; in Asia, it's 160 minutes. This is partly cultural, says Rebecca Diercks, program director for wireless research at Business Research Group, a Newton, Mass., consulting firm. In Scandinavia, "it's more widely accepted that people communicate that way." But mostly it's technological and economic. Europe has a single standard for digital cellular service. Most US systems still use older analog technology, and they can't agree on a single standard for digital service. Meanwhile, a new technology called personal communications services (PCS) is creating yet another system. The problem for the US cellular industry is not only what it charges, but also how it charges. It may be the only country in the world that bills cellular-phone users for incoming calls, analysts say - even if someone calls by mistake. Competition is beginning to change that practice. One cellular telephone carrier, AirTouch Cellular, based in Atlanta, has experimented for several years with an option where calls to cellular phones get charged to the caller, rather than the cell-phone user. …

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