What Cellphone






A long weekend in Dorset provides a chance for Rick Maybury to try out his new GSM phone, and say goodbye to an old friend...



ĎHello Mr Mayburyí said the chirpy voice, ĎIím calling from Martin Dawes Communications, to find out how you are getting on with your new mobile telephone, and to see if you have any comments about our serviceí. Funny you should ask...


If Martin Dawes Customer Care hadnít called I would probably have put my experiences with the new phone down to, well, experience, but following four entirely trouble-free years with an analogue cellphone, this looked like a good excuse to compare differences between phones, service providers and coverage.


My personal cellphone is a Nokia Technophone 305, it has performed brilliantly, good clear reception, a 100% reliability record and many useful features, but it has long since been discontinued. Accessories are now (and always have been... ) few and far between, spares like batteries are becoming difficult to obtain, moreover itís no use outside the UK; it was time for a change.



One sunny Sunday morning in March I signed up for a GSM phone. Iíd done my homework, shopped around and ended up with what looked like a pretty good deal from Makro. The Motorola 7500 cost a nominal eighteen quid, there was no connection fee to Cellnet and I was promised a £2 reduction on the monthly line rental for the first two years. I chose a GSM phone because of the international coverage. Iím not too concerned about air time charges, most of my calls are incoming, so I opted for a low-user tariff. The 7500 has everything I need and the quality is okay. I go way back with Motorola Flips and TACs, car kits are readily available, accessories are both plentiful and reasonably cheap.


The formalities took around three quarters of an hour, lots of signatures, two credit checks, including one for my trustworthiness to make international calls. Apart from the added bureaucracy for the overseas connection it took no longer to complete than my analogue airtime contract with Astec, made through the Carphone Warehouse four years earlier. The big difference, however, was the Technophone cost me £250, there was a £35 connection fee and calls cost a small fortune. That was a good deal back then! The score so far: digital one, analogue nil.


Everything checked out and inside an hour the phone was mine. The sales assistant assured me all I had to do was wait another hour or so to get connected. He was wrong. The phone was actually working by the time I got back to the car park. I vividly recall signing the Technophone deal on a Friday afternoon, and being extremely annoyed at having to wait until the following Monday morning, for it to be operational. Digital two, analogue nil.



I resisted the temptation to try the 7500 out until I got home. Being a responsible citizen the first thing I did was to change the security codes on the SIM card and the phone from the factory defaults. I found the section in the instruction book, read it carefully (really!), entered the new code then switched the phone off and back on again to confirm my PIN number. I entered the new code, but the phone reported an incorrect entry. I tried again, with the same result.


It was downhill all the way from that point onwards. Martin Dawes customer helpline doesnít operate on a Sunday, so I had to wait until the next day to sort it out. Finally, after lots of engaged tones and successfully navigating their multiple-choice telephone exchange I got to talk to a real human being. And very helpful she was too, supplying me with the phoneís unlock code. Unfortunately after several attempts, with help from their technical department it still didnít work; it turned out the SIM card had become permanently blocked.  


After some fairly heated discussions with Martin Dawes, who wanted to charge me £25 for a replacement SIM card, one eventually turned up, six days later. The first bill that arrived was incorrect, I had been put on the wrong tariff, with no line rental discount, and Iím still waiting to find out if Iím going to get a refund for the first week, when the phone was unusable. No points for digital. From the moment I brought the Technophone, to the end of its active life I never had a momentís problem with it, or the service contract. Thatís got to be worth at least a couple of points. The score now stands at: digital two, analogue two.


To be fair most of the people I dealt with at Martin Dawes were quite helpful and in the scheme of things these were fairly minor teething troubles. Apart from the refund, all of the problems have now been sorted out, but now we move on to the most crucial part of the story, coverage and quality.



My main reason for choosing Cellnet was the assurance from various sales persons and publicity blurb that suggested their GSM digital coverage was pretty much the same as their analogue network. Time to put those claims to the test. Iíve used both Cellnet and Vodaphone analogue phones all over the UK and I know all the local dead-spots. Around many large towns and on motorways Iíve found thereís not a lot to choose between the two networks, but Iíve usually found Cellnet to be a little better in remote or hilly areas, like Wales and the West Country.


The first serious test came on a long weekend trip to Dorset, where I was able to make some broad side-by-side comparisons of network coverage with the Technophone, an analogue Micro TAC Classic connected to Vodaphone and the Motorola 7500 GSM.


Along the motorway corridors there was hardly anything to choose between the three phones. The signal strength meters -- admittedly a fairly rudimentary guide -- showed three quarters to full almost all the time. On A and B roads the differences did begin to show. The GSM phone was almost always the first to show a reduction in signal strength, the first to loose contact, and the last to regain signal lock. There wasnít a great deal to choose between analogue Cellnet and Vodaphone signal strength readings; sometimes Cellnet disappeared first, other times it was Vodaphone.


The quality of contact on medium signal strength readings -- i.e. meters showing two or three bars -- were definitely better with GSM, but below that, analogue was usually clearer and it was often possible to obtain a useable line with just one or two bars showing. Of the three my trusty old Technophone was the most consistent in the locality, sometimes able to obtain a useable line when the other two were showing no service. The aerial is very directional though, and it sometimes involved holding the phone in some rather uncomfortable positions, including on one occasion standing on a chair with my head hanging out of an upstairs window of the holiday cottage...



Contact on and around the coast was markedly better with the analogue networks and according to several knowledgeable locals I spoke with, GSM coverage off-shore is still very patchy. Anyone setting out to sea in that area would do well to take an analogue phone with them, if reliability of contact is important. The two analogue networks were both superior in the surrounding hilly areas. As far as sound quality was concerned stable GSM digital contacts were normally a lot clearer, with less background noise, but on the move contact could be lost quite suddenly, whereas analogue tended to get hissy, giving at least some warning that the signal was liable to drop out.


Admittedly this kind of test isnít terribly scientific, and there are all kinds of variables, including the performance of the individual phones, but it is possible to draw some simple conclusions from this trip, and subsequent journeys Iíve made with the phones to other parts of the country. Cellnetís GSM coverage still has a way to go before it matches the analogue networks, but where signal strength is good the quality of contact is usually better. Analogue tends to be better than GSM on the move, when away from the motorway corridors and if you use your cellphone in remote areas, or on a boat youíd be well advised to stick with the analogue networks, especially if you depend on it for safety. The final score, digital three, analogue four. Upcoming fixtures include Cellnet GSM versus Vodaphone GSM, and the international results.



R. Maybury 1996 2803



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