A recent study concluded that someone talking on a cellular phone while driving has a greater chance of having an accident than a person driving under the influence of alcohol. With rates for cellular telephones that are highly competitive, this may become more of an issue because increasing numbers of people have been sold on the convenience of combining driving and talking on the phone.
“Everyone from soccer moms to business executives are using wireless phones right now,” says Jana Ray, marketing and advertising for Cellular South. “It has just become more mainstream over the past two to three years. It is such a time saver. I think people always knew that. They just didn’t want to pay the price. Now you can have the convenience at a value.”
Ray acknowledges that driving while talking on a cell phone, particularly if discussing an upsetting issue, can be hazardous.
“Cellular South has done $250,000 in television advertising alone to educate Mississippians about making safety their most important call when they are driving,” Ray said. “If cellular phones are used wisely, they can be an asset to individuals while on our highways. We definitely encourage people to use the phone responsibly. It is very helpful to have a speaker phone in the car that allows you to keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on road.
“We also encourage people to refrain from making emotional and stressful calls while on the road. Don’t place calls when in heavy traffic. And never look up anything or write notes while driving and using a cellular phone.”
Ray also points out that a far greater number of lives are saved by cellular phones than are lost. About 98,000, 911 calls are made daily from cell phones in the U.S., calls that can summon an ambulance or stop a crime.
“It is important to remember that cell phones are an important safety tool if used correctly,” Ray said. “We just have to be responsible and make safe driving a priority. You can see by the funding for our educational campaign that we recognize that educating our customers and all wireless users is a priority.”
Shanon Brumfield, marketing manager for BellSouth Mobility for Mississippi, agreed that people should be sensible about using a cell phone while driving. But she says the flip side of that is that it would be unsafe not to have a cell phone in some circumstances.
“They have certainly saved many, many lives in instances of emergency,” Brumfield said.
Advertising by wireless providers has boomed in recent years along with increasingly competitive rates. All wireless companies contacted by the Mississippi Business Journal for this article reported a dramatic increase in the number of customers in recent years, although none would give exact figures because that is considered proprietary information. BellSouth Mobility and Cellular South both claim to be the largest wireless provider in Mississippi.
“The market has grown quite a bit,” Brumfield said. “We’ve enjoyed phenomenal growth in the past few years. When I started with BellSouth Mobility nine years ago, we were targeting niche markets. Not everyone had a cellular phone. It was unusual to see someone talking on one. Now it is more unusual to know someone who doesn’t already have a cell phone. Just drive up to a red light and count the number of people who are talking on the phone.”
Cell phones are particularly common now for business people.
“I know there are many businesses that couldn’t function without this critical business tool,” Brumfield said. “The cellular expense certainly pays for itself over and over again with the productivity that is allowed by being mobile in the field. It increases productivity by making better use of time.”
BellSouth Mobility, which just celebrated its 13th anniversary, was the first cellular phone provider in the state and now provides service throughout the state. In May, BellSouth Mobility began providing service in new markets on the Gulf Coast and in Hattiesburg, McComb, Brookhaven, Natchez, Greenwood, Greenville, Starkville and Columbus.
The company recently launched a whole new pricing structure.
“It is extremely competitive,” Brumfield said. “It has been very well received by our customers. You can now can get set up for cellular for less that what it would cost to buy a small pizza. We have rates as low as $10 per month.
“One thing we’ve learned in our 13 years of experience is that customers come in all shapes and sizes. We have rates to meet everyone’s needs. We have anything from a security rate for someone who just wants the phone for emergency purposes to a business person who travels the nation and wants a nationwide rate.”
BellSouth Mobility has close to 100 retail outlets in the state and offers special BellSouth Solutions rates for customers who want to get Internet, cellular, paging and local phone service all on one bill.
Cellular South started on the Coast 11 years ago and also provides service statewide.
“We feel that we’re primarily responsible for the cellular penetration in Mississippi because, in most of the markets in the state, we were the first provider there,” Ray said. “Since new competition has come in, we have made certain that our rates are extremely competitive. Our angle is to not only have value in our rate plan, but to also develop innovative rate plans the suit the way Mississippians use their phone.”
Ray said a good example of that is the Digital Mississippi product they rolled out earlier this year. She said Cellular South was the first wireless provider in the state to offer a rate plan that eliminated roaming and long distance in the state.
“That was what we realized people needed,” Ray said. “The majority of the long-distance calls that were made in Mississippi were made to and from other places in the state. We have implemented a rate plan that would suit those needs. We had such success with that product we have built on that family of rate plans by expanding to a regional rate with no roaming/no long distance to all areas within six states. Some of our competitors have a calling plan they say is regional, but you can only use it in certain areas of those state.”
The company also offers nationwide free long distance. For a monthly rate of $25.95, the customers get 100 free minutes for all phone calls originating in Mississippi to anywhere in the U.S.
Craig Davis, vice president of the Mississippi/Tennessee division of CenturyTel, said that most wireless providers have similar networks and pricing plans.
“Aggressive pricing has provided a vehicle for significant growth in the number of people who use wireless products in Mississippi,” Davis said. “At some point, pricing will bottom out. Then service and product line will drive customer penetration.”
Davis said that as a customer-focused company, they know that as competition grows, all the companies grow in quality, services and capabilities.
“Competition is a good thing,” Davis said. “This means a higher quality of service, capabilities and choices to the consumer. The more providers that enter the market, the better as far as CenturyTel is concerned.”
Davis believes the industry will continue to grow rapidly because people are busy and find cell phones very convenient. He added that the wireless service market has entered a new stage in its life cycle where consumers view the cellular phone as a staple rather than a luxury or a status symbol.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.