Mobile phones in the USA - A little overview


I considered once to buy a mobile phone in the USA for using it while I'm there for buisness. I surfed a bit on the web sites of USA telecommunication providers and discarded soon my idea to buy there a phone. After I've been in Switzerland and read there about the mobile communication system, I head the idea to write down this little overview of the mobile phone system in the USA. And this is now the result of one day surfing. There are probably still errors on this page, but it should give a nice overview. It you have found an error, please let me know.

Network standards

I've found following used network standards in the USA:

Many providers use at least three of these network standards, which means, that you should have a trimode mobile to get the most from the available network.

The area where you can use you mobile phone is also a lot less then what I'm used to here in Germany. Figure 1 shows the area coverage of Qwest in the northwest as an example.

[ Qwest area coverage in the north west of the USA ]

Figure 1: Qwest area coverage in the north west of the USA. The home coverage areas are dark orange. The roaming areas are light orange.

Despite the fact, that 5 of the 6 network standards are digital, most of the networks in the USA are still analog. Therefor, you can still get singlemode mobile for AMPS, e.g. Nokia 252, which is sold e.g. in a package with prepaid cards.

Apparently these analog networks are not capable of providing international and mobile-to-mobile calls. Figure 2 and 3 show the network area, where international and mobile-to-mobile calls are possible.

[ Map ]

Figure 2: AT&T international calling area. (This shows also the spots, where no wireless communication is available in the USA.)

[ Map ]

Figure 3: AT&T mobile-to-mobile calling area.

When specifying New York as your home zone, it is apparently not possible with Verizon Wireless to do mobile-to-mobile calls. (Figure 4)

[ Local Mobile to Mobile calling is not yet available in your area.
Please check back. ]

Figure 4: Verizon Wireless' mobile-to-mobile non-coverage in New York.

Another drawback of the analog network is the bad security. According to Ryan Jones in 1997 there is a daily loss of US$ 2 million each day due to fraud! It is possible to intercept ESNs (electronic serial number) or MINs (mobile identification number) with radio frequency scanners and UHF receivers in the analog network. This ESN/MIN can then be programmed by the thieves into other cell phones, which can then be used to make free calls on the bill of the phone owner. It is also possible to use for a short time random ESNs/MINs. And therefor Mr. Jones gives the tip for users to check the monthyl bill thoroughly and to lock access to international destination by the provider. He also tells to never discuss financial or secret matters or say the credit card number over the analog cellular network.

Contracts (price plan) with monthly fees

The monthly base fees start depending on provider between US$ 20 and US$ 30 and can go up US$ 300. (All US$ prices are here without tax. So when you want to compare these with e.g. German prices you have to add about 8 %.) They differ from:

The "air minutes" are the basic unit used, when ever you use the phone. This means, that unlike in Germany, you always have to pay, even when someone calls you on your mobile phone. If you have still unused air minutes, the are not refunded, but lost.

Depending on your contract you have to pay additionally long distance fees, when you call somebody outside your local zone, or roaming fees, when youself are outside of your local zone. This seams relative similar to the European charging system, when you consider how big the USA is.


Prepaid cards are also available. It is not clear to me, but it seams, that you have to give them your name and address, when you buy a prepaid card. Or you have to do this at least with some providers. It might be a bit less rigorous than in Germany, where you have to show your personal ID. On the other side, this is not neccessary in Switzerland and probably also other countries.

Prepaid packages together with a mobile phone do cost about US$ 100 - 130 including a bit credit. Refill is available between US$ 10 and 100. What is very different is the validity period of the money on your prepaid account. The validity period is about 15 - 60 days. Within this period you have to add new money, otherwise your old money is lost and even your phone account may be deleted. This is much shorter than in Europe. In Germany and Austria this is mostly a year and in Switzerland the validity period is unlimited.

The short validity period makes prepaid expensive for people who don't use their mobile much. For AT&T Wireless Free2Go you have to pay at least US$ 6.67 per month. Voicestream prepaid is at least US$ 20 per per month. (In US$ 10 refills twice a month.)

Text messages

Text messages are distinguished in 1-way and 2-way text messages. The 1-way messages are used like in pagers. The 2-way messages are what is called in GSM SMS (Short Message Service). Voicestream does them call Ping Pong text message. (Figure 5.)

[ pingpong ]

Figure 5: Voicestream's name for text messages: Ping Pong.

Like with mobile voice communication, you often have not only to pay for sending text messages, but also to receive text messages. E.g. Verizon Wireless does charge 10c per message sent and 2c per message received.

It is also possible to buy monthly packages of serveral hundred text messages, which are cheaper. Messages unused at the end of the month are lost. E.g. a 600 message pack at Verizon Wireless does cost US$ 7.99, which makes it 1.3c per message (sent and recived). This is a lot cheaper than in Germany, when you get not lot more messages then you sent.

There are also provider, which do not charge for receiving messages. One of these is Voicestream. Unfortunatelly I did not find any information about prices.

IP and other data services

This is a dark chapter of American cellular providers. Verizon Wireless writes "Communicate, Anytime, Anywhere" (Figure 6) on their website in the mobile IP section, but when you look at the area coverage (Figure 7) you have to look for the covered areas with a microscope. Mobile IP is according to Verizon only for web browsers. Maybe this is onyl some proxy access and not real internet. It costs US$ 25 to activate and can then be used in most parts of the home area. There is also in some areas an "Express Network" available, which costs US$30 per month plus normal air minutes or is charged by data volume. ($25 per month for 10 MB up to $150 per month for 150 MB.) This "Express Network" might be something like GPRS or HSCSD. The maximum speed is 144 kbps.

[ Communicate, Anytime, Anywhere ]

Figure 6: Verizon Wireless' marketing slogan regarding mobile IP.

[ Map ]

Figure 7: Verizon Wireless mobile IP area coverage.

AT&T Wireless says, that it offers data services via GSM/GPRS, like it is used in Europe. This mobile standard is not supported by any of the phones used for voice calls in the AT&T network. These provide only TDMA (800 and 1900 MHz) and analog at 800 MHz. So you have to buy specially for this data service another GSM phone or PCCard. It tried to get any prices, but did get none. You have first to find an area, where you can use this data service and I found none.

Voicestream does supports data services on the total coverage area. (Figure 8) It is billed by data volume. Monthly packages are available for 1, 5 and 10 MB (US$ 2.99, 19.99, 39.99). The 1 MB packages is strangely only for phones?!

[ Map ]

Figure 8: Voicestream's coverage area (orange) also usable for data communication. (Note the strange definition of "Wherever".)

There are also other providers, which do not not offer any data services, e.g. US Cellular.

General thoughts

There is no way to get mobile communication for few money, even if you want only call 1 minute per month. On the other side, if you want to use your mobile phone extensively, it is probably cheap in the USA, but I do not have any exeriance in the pricing for extensive users here in Europe.

What is disturbing for me is the network system and coverage chaos and the little information on their web sites. I don't feel capable of calculating the exact cost of calls. I probably can calculate some lower bounds for the actual cost.


Copyright 2002 by Matthias Brüstle (
Last changes: 2002-04-28.

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