By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 8/16/2005 2:30:46 PM ET 2005-08-16T18:30:46

A recent trip to Europe startled me in a number of ways. First, discounting the fact that the dollar isn’t worth all that much these days, there are a number of factors I encountered which prove that Americans should count their blessings -– and one glaring example where we are really far behind.

For instance, I rented a car while traveling. It would be considered a small car by Americans but a good-sized car for Europeans.  It was very roomy inside and it had a 4-cylinder diesel engine which averaged more than 30 miles per gallon at legal highway speeds up to 81 miles (130 km) per hour.  That’s a good thing because diesel fuel averaged a little more than $5 per gallon. I noticed that gasoline prices are 20 per cent higher than diesel. Coming home to skyrocketing U.S. gas prices are a little more tolerable after paying $60-$90 each time I filled up my compact rental car.

Plus, there were the highway tolls to factor in.  I traveled one stretch of super-highway for less than two hours. The toll was just over $30. We’re lucky. Driving a car over there is a very, very expensive proposition.

On the other hand, Europeans have it all over us when it comes to cell phones. They pay about the same price each month for their wireless services, but that’s where the similarities end. Their phones do more and Europeans do more with them -– more messaging, more use of online services and, of course, making and receiving more phone calls.

There’s a good reason for the difference -- their service is way better than ours.  Through all my travels -- in major cities, on highways, on country roads and even “the middle of nowhere” -- my cell phones (I brought a few to test) always worked. They constantly received near perfect signals. My boss had a similar experience recently. Traveling through Wales -- in cities, towns and even on rural, one-lane roads -– he and his wife were able to make phone calls without dropouts, static or any problems at all.

The phones seemed to work everywhere.  I was able to hold conversations inside buildings -– in basements of department stores, in the back of restaurants, in the subways.  I was even able to browse the Web and tend to my email while traveling on subway trains. This was not a hit-or-miss proposition. I was able to do this every time I tried. No way that’s going to happen here in the United States.

There are many reasons for this disparity.  Some argue that Europe is much smaller than the U.S. so it’s easier to wire the place for cellular service.  But the real reason is that there is one cell phone standard in Europe and most of the world.  GSM phones rule.  Some Far Eastern countries use other standards, but within each of those countries there is one preferred system.

In the United States, there are many cellular standards.  T-Mobile and Cingular are our GSM providers.  North American GSM phones operate on different frequencies than overseas GSM phones.  That’s why you’ll see the designation “quad band” or “world phone” on some handsets.  They have both U.S. and European circuit boards inside and work everywhere GSM works. 

Verizon, Sprint, Nextel and others use different cell phone standards (CDMA, TDMA, etc.)  Their phones don’t work overseas, although Nextel’s SIM cards work in GSM “world” phones allowing you to keep using your phone number overseas.

I believe that our system of allowing each cellular company to do what they please is holding us back when it comes to blanketing our country with usable signals, despite what the ads claim.  In other ways we have an edge.  Verizon and Sprint provide very fast data networks here in the U.S., much faster than their GSM data network counterparts. 

But, here in the U.S. we’re far behind in total cell phone data use.  Catching up will take awhile.  Most users here stay with their provider for years and years, accepting what they’re offered without taking the time to shop around for improved services -– not just price.  And consumers are not going to purchase voice services from one place, data services and overseas roaming from others.

There needs to be one standard here too.  If all cellular companies, worldwide, worked on improving one set of standards we’d see a lot better service -– with more features -– at better prices.  This is one area where narrowing the competition would be a good thing for the consumer.

But, I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen anytime soon.  I don’t expect our government to step in to help.  On the other hand, the FCC did choose a broadcast standard for digital radio in the United States. Though as you might expect, it’s not the same standard that the rest of the world is happy using. 

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