Take it from someone who just got off the boat from Europe, American mobile services is catching up and *fast* in terms of service and accessiblity. I'm amazed at how easy it is to get a cellphone here in the U.S. now - the same as how amazed I was back in 2000 how easily you could in Europe.
I've mainly been interested in the GSM providers here, but even the CDMA guys have made it pretty damn easy as well. First, the stores are all incredibly accessible here. In the past few days I've been to T-Mobile, Cingular, AT&T Wireless, RadioShack and MetroPCS stores. All have had some neat phones on display, lots of different plans to choose from and most importantly the first three had easy to buy pre-pay SIMs so I could just start talking without having to deal with a contract. That said, there are still some nits. Here's my thoughts on the past few days exploring the options for GSM here in the Bay Area:
First I went to T-Mobile and asked to get a pre-pay SIM. In Spain, they come in a package that they just hand to you and you're ready to go, but with all the shops I went to, it was a 10-15 minute process to activate the number, which - since I've seen how it can work - is unnecessary. But the T-Mobile store was bright, clean, friendly. The phones were all up to date: you could buy a 3650 or a SonyEricsson T610 (what else would you want? The 2 best phones on the market were there...) or a bunch of other styles including the super-popular-in-America flip phone. Though for some reason T-Mobile's SIM didn't work in my 3650, like I wrote the other day, the manager literally *gave* me a phone just for paying the tax, so it was cool. That may be because I was chatting non-stop about Spain and the phones and how cool it was to be in T-Mobile, etc. But hey, the idea is that there was *real* customer service there. Something that just doesn't happen in Europe.
Second, I stopped by a Cingular store - literally because I was having trouble finding an AT&T Wireless store. To me Cingular's sort of a unknown quantity. I've heard about them but not nearly as much as the other two GSM operators, so I was just curious. I ended up walking out with a SIM because it worked in my 3650 and with the airtime it was essentially free. (I'm ripping through air-time right now calling back to Spain to talk to Ana). Interesting note: T-Mobile and Cingular share the same cellular network here in the Bay Area.
With both T-Mobile and Cingular the pre-pay options start out just like in Spain: You get the SIM and then you buy recharge-cards which will bump up the money in your account and then you can use that money for calls until you run out. But that's where the similarities end. Problems: 1) Pre-pay is *insanely* expensive to use here. 2) Depending on the amount of the recharge, the money only lasts a short time, as little as 30 days!! 3) No GPRS Data allowed for pre-pay. The first makes sense because all the operators want you on a contract. But it's like that in Spain as well, but the costs are not nearly as insane. Remember, you pay for both incoming and outgoing calls in the U.S. so not only are the costs soooo much higher, but you pay double as well. It's nuts! The second part is also pretty assinine as well: If you're using T-Mobile and you buy a $10 recharge card, you have to use that money within 30 days. WOW. That's a complete rip-off. In Spain, the charge lasts for a year.
The final bit is the most wacky. Why don't these companies allow pre-pay customers to use GPRS? DUMB! How are they going to get the teens into MMS and downloading games, etc. like Vodafone Live in Europe if the pre-pay can't use GPRS? They should be making data services as accessible as possible to teens and others who are just putting their big-toe into the mobile waters here, not screwing pre-payers every which way they can.
So that brings us to AT&T Wireless. I walked into the store last night to get a pre-pay SIM and was told they don't do the recharge cards system. Ooooh, interesting. They have a service called "Go Phone" instead. You need to give them a debit or credit card which they will charge once a month at a minimum of $19 up to $53,98 for a bunch of minutes plus data. Very cool - I hate having to deal with the recharge cards. Right now my T-Mobile is dead (having used the last $3 in my account to check my voicemail(!!) an activity which is free in Spain). Now I have to hoof it to a T-Mobile store to recharge since I can just guess that there's no ATMs here that allow recharging of your mobile like in Europe. That's a pain in the ass.
So after trying all 3 GSM carriers and wandering through a couple CDMA stores to see what they offer (there's a small company here called MetroPCS which looks very neat from a CDMA perspective), I signed up for the Go Phone and am happy to once again have data on my cellphone, though I spent $30 on a phone call with Ana this morning so I'm going to have to hold off on those sorts of calls.
Here's the plan that I'm now using: $43.98 a month for up to 400 "Anytime Minutes" and unlimited Nights and Weekends and $0.01/kb for data. (That's if you use their WAP gateway... from what I understand they don't seem to be charging for direct internet access from say, Wireless IRC). I'm eager to play with mMode (AT&T's i-mode service), so I'll have to hit the site later and see how I can get my 3650 set up to use it. This seems pretty expensive at the outset, but I usually spent around 70 euros a month in Spain on my phone, so I'm *hoping* this will actually turn out to be cheaper - both than what I was paying in Spain and the amounts that T-Mobile/Cingular were charging.
Here's my final thoughts: I read just a little while ago that the reason GSM gets a bad rap in the U.S. is because of its inability to penetrate buildings, and it's true. The higher frequencies that American GSM uses (1900Mhz) is really not anywhere near as accessible as GSM in Europe. That's a big thing. In Spain, the antenna gage rarely goes off being fully pegged. But here, it's constantly bopping up and down. Outside it'll be fine, but then you'll enter a building and it'll disappear all together!!!! I've never seen that in all my time in Europe, so I'm finally grokking why people bitch and moan about GSM here. The quality of service definitely has some warts - and I think its inherent in the frequency, so it's not going to change until the move to 3GSM is complete.
Off to work... (funny, that used to be "off to sleep...")