Phones You Can Use and Then Lose

Ultracheap, prepaid disposable cell phones hit the shelves this fall

Just how cheap and ubiquitous can cell phones get? If a trio of upstart companies has its way, cheap enough to throw away when you're done. Move over, Pampers: Here comes the disposable cell phone.

Throwaway phones have been talked about since New Jersey entrepreneur Randi Altschul, creator of Barbie's 30th Birthday Game, patented a device made mostly of paper in 1999. The idea is that disposables--rock-bottom-cheap phones with a certain number of minutes' worth of calling programmed in--will be an alternative to calling cards, prepaid wireless plans, and pay phones. And at $30 or less, they can be cheaper than a conventional mobile phone while more convenient than a calling card.

These phones have sold well in Japan. Now, three U.S. companies are about to offer them here. Hop-On Communications in Garden Grove, Calif., is first out this fall with a $29.95 phone with 60 minutes of talk time included. Altschul's Cliffside Park (N.J.)-based Dieceland Technologies expects to ship early next year, but exact dates and pricing are not certain. She says they'll cost $10 to $30, depending on how many minutes you get. Both companies plan to team with a variety of service providers. Hop-On's first partner is Cingular. San Francisco's Telespree Communications is testing a semi-disposable phone. You keep the phone but replace a battery attachment that also manages your minutes.

Phones You Can Use and Then Lose

CHARGES. Are disposable phones a good deal? There's no doubt the 50 cents-a-minute tab for Hop-On's phone is pricier than 60-minute calling cards, which vary widely in price. AT&T (T ), for instance, charges 16 cents to 22 cents a minute, and tacks on a surcharge if you use a pay phone. But a calling card itself can't connect you--you have to find a phone. Disposables are cheaper than many prepaid mobile-phone plans. Verizon Wireless Inc., for example, charges prepaid users up to 35 cents a minute, plus $125 for a phone and activation. So an infrequent user might go disposable.

Do the disposables work? From Dieceland's headquarters--a.k.a. Altschul's driveway--I called my editor in New York and my home in another part of New Jersey. People at the other end heard me clearly. At my end, there was a slight echo in the earbud/microphone that plugs into the phone. The push-button dialing worked without a hitch. Instead of a dialpad, Hop-On's phone (like Telespree's) uses voice recognition software that makes you say the number you want to call. This phone couldn't seem to find outgoing lines in the office-building canyon where I work. But I was able to make calls in New Jersey. Telespree wouldn't provide a prototype.

Dieceland's phone is a radical design, with metallic ink on the paper substituting for wires. Hop-On's phone is a plastic rectangle, about half an inch thick and a little longer than a credit card. The battery and software to manage your minutes are inside the case. In Dieceland's phone, they're in an attachment.

The technology works in optimum conditions. Now we'll see if consumers buy it.

By Timothy J. Mullaney in Cliffside Park, N.J.

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