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Cingular Wireless, the No. 2 carrier in the Buffalo area, will gain network capacity -- meaning stronger signals and fewer dropped calls for customers -- through its merger with AT&T Wireless, a company representative said.

"Because they use the same (transmission) standard, our technology is compatible in Buffalo and around the country," Cingular spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman said.

Cingular and AT&T announced the completion of their $41 billion merger last week, creating the nation's largest wireless company with 46 million customers and over 40,000 cell transmitter sites.

Subscribers with GSM-type phones will immediately get the added resources of AT&T's network, she said.

But others see static ahead for consumers, as the two nationwide networks combine their networks and billing systems over the coming months.

"Now the question is will their network get better . . . or will consolidation be overreaching for the company and its customers," said John O'Malley, spokesman for competitor Verizon Wireless.

AT&T uses other transmission platforms besides GSM, which Cingular isn't expected to support on its network, analysts said.

In the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area, Cingular has 23 percent of subscribers, behind Verizon Wireless with 36 percent, according to market data from Scarborough Research in New York.

The addition of AT&T, with less than 2 percent of the market, will do little to boost Cingular's share of the local market, the data indicate.

AT&T stores, including the one at 5110 Main St. in Williamsville, will switch to the Cingular brand about the middle of this month, Kaufman said. About the same time, AT&T customers can begin to switch to Cingular calling plans, she said, although it's not required.

"The real upside is, they don't have to do anything at this point," she said. "They don't have to change their equipment; they can stay on their calling plan."

By reducing the number of nationwide cellular carriers to five, the merger will take some of the heat out of wireless competition, analysts said.

"It's not going to be as nuts as it is now . . . it's really a race to the bottom," said Roger Entner, wireless analyst at Yankee Group in Boston. Carriers have been trying to outdo each other by lowering per-minute prices, he said, to consumers' benefit.

The average wireless customer pays $49.49 a month, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

Perhaps the most immediate benefit will be felt by subscribers at AT&T Wireless, which frequently ranked near last place among the majors in call quality, said Samuel A. Simon, chairman of the consumer organization TRAC in Washington, D.C.

"The AT&T people were very unhappy," he said.

With five nationwide carriers plus regional companies, competition should continue to keep prices in check, Simon said. "It's the next merger I worry about."

In any case, industry competition has failed so far to change consumers' major gripe -- exclusive contracts and locked-in handsets that make it difficult to change carriers. State regulators and consumer organizations like AARP are focusing on improving consumer choice, he said.


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