Cell Phones of the 90s

Learn about late 1990s wireless phones, including models and tips on how users can get more for their money when buying a new phone.

| August/September 1999

  • Cell2
     Qualcomm's CDMA pdQ smartphone combines durability with the latest digital technology.
  • cell1
    As of 1999, 70 million people in the United States carried a cell phone.
  • handsized
    Ham radio-sized handsets are history.
  • startak
    The micro Sprint Startak remains a favorite cell phone model.
  • motorola
    Nextel's walkie-talkie attracts outdoor workers.

  • Cell2
  • cell1
  • handsized
  • startak
  • motorola

Cell phones suffer from a well-earned image problem. What in essence is a practical and relatively inexpensive way to free yourself from the phone grid has been tainted by countless brokers, lawyers and self-proclaimed Brahmins shouting into their handsets, while the rest of us shake our heads, plug our ears and wonder. Cell phones have long been an annoying joke to those of us who could actually manage to take a drive or a walk without closing a deal at the same time. The trouble is that 15 years of cellular market expansion is rapidly making a minority out of we purists.

Cell Phones in 1999

Today, nearly 70 million people in the United States carry a cell phone—one third of all the adults in the nation! And if we can keep ourselves from trumpeting into them in a crowded diner, there are some very practical reasons why having a portable phone makes sense. Car emergencies, extended road trips, fishing weekends and dozens of other occasions that keep us away from home might be made easier by a pocket-sized way to stay in touch. And given the choice between a $10,000 outlay for a half-mile extension of line to a remote residence (followed by an eternity of monthly bills) or a $150 cellular phone and an unchanging monthly bill, mobile phones suddenly start to look a whole lot more reasonable.

But how does one phone model differ from another? Which Monthly billing plans offer the most bang for the buck? And how can you be sure that your phone will work in Jordan, Montana?

Cellular technology has come a long way since June 1983, when the first analog wireless phones hit the market. Back then the average monthly bill was around $95 a mouth, the phones themselves were the size of small ham radios and about as heavy, and frequency signals were inconsistent and fuzzy thanks to an incomplete network of radio towers around the country. But the market being the market, it was only a matter of time before enough towers were built in and around every mid-sized community in the nation and the technology grew smarter and became more efficient.

The industry now boasts annual revenues of almost $30 billion and an average monthly rate of just under $40. Along with this boom has come expanded coverage, making wireless services more readily available to those of us outside of urban areas. But the quality of that cell service can vary a lot, depending on where you live.

Analog vs. Digital

Obviously, the most important factor you need to consider when buying a cell phone is reception. Unfortunately most cell phone companies have targeted major urban centers and their surrounding areas for the lion's share of cellular subscriptions, making it harder to get excellent reception if you're too far off the normally traveled routes between cities. In the remotest area, you may be completely out of luck unless you go for the Iridium phone, a satellite handset that, very expensively, allows phone calls from literally anywhere on the planet (for more information, see Iridium Satellite Phones). Even so, knowing the difference between analog and digital services is important, especially if you plan on using a phone away from the city.

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