Cell Phone Sales Increase on Senior Circuit

Seniors use cell phones less than other demographic groups do, but sales are slowly increasing. Some enjoy the security mobile phones offer, but are wary of long-term contracts and the technology they don't need.

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On Mondays the Business Report focuses on technology.

Senior citizens have been slower than some other people to embrace one kind of technology, cell phones. Just under half of Americans over age 65 and over have a cell phone. The vast majority of younger Americans do.

The expense and the complexity of the phones hold back some seniors, even though they want the phones. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

When you ask seniors, like those at the Kirkland, Washington Senior Center, why they want a cell phone, they'll tell you they want it primarily for security and personal safety.

Ms. SIMONE CALUNA(ph) (Washington Senior Citizen): I have a cell phone just for emergency.

KAUFMAN: Simone Caluna was inspired to get a phone after her car broke down in traffic.

Ms. CALUNA: There was a lady behind me, which I knew from the bank, and she stopped. She had a phone and she called for help. After that I said I better get a phone for myself. I don't use it for conversations, strictly for necessity.

KAUFMAN: Having a phone while driving was a concern expressed by many at the Senior Center. 73-year-old Jane Wurnette(ph), for example, often makes the three-hour drive between Seattle and Portland to visit family.

Ms. JANE WURNETTE (Washington Senior Citizen): Our teacher here teaches the driving things for our insurance reduction. First thing he told us was we should have a cell phone in our cars.

KAUFMAN: Wurnette goes one step further. She wears her phone around her neck.

Another senior, Ann Sabine(ph), would like a cell phone, but doesn't have one.

Ms. ANN SABINE (Washington Senior Citizen): It's too expensive. I'm waiting for it when it's $9.95.

KAUFMAN: Consumers over 65 who responded to a Forrester research survey last year reported their average monthly bill was $38.00, significantly less than the average bill, but still too pricey for many.

Chris Baker, a telecommunications expert with AARP, the senior advocacy group, adds that obtaining the right cellular service isn't always easy. He notes the fine print and the long-term contracts.

Mr. CHRIS BAKER (AAPR): Cell phone service is really the Wild West, in terms of what's out there, the different packages, and it's very confusing. And if you make a mistake, you're locked into the contract that requires a huge early termination fee.

KAUFMAN: One company that promotes its basic cellular service as simpler and less expensive is Oregon-based Consumer Cellular. One of its plans costs $10.00 a month, $0.25 cents a minute, with no contract required. The firm, a virtual network, buys minutes from a major carrier and then resells them to the public.

Mr. JOHN MARICK (President and CEO, Consumer Cellular): When we started the company it was -- we were trying to fill a need.

KAUFMAN: John Marick is the firm's CEO.

Mr. MARICK: We felt that the cellular companies were trying to target and specifically build their plans for people that were going to be the heavy users of cellular service. And there seemed to be a lot of people who just wanted the safety and convenience and benefits that cellular provided, but really weren't planning on using the phone extensively, the way the cellular carriers wanted them to.

KAUFMAN: Publicly traded cell phone companies want to maximize profits. And that means getting customers to use their phones frequently, especially for downloading and transmitting data, photos and entertainment content. The profit potential is higher there than in making phone calls.

But Seniors such as Sheila Bathhurst say if they want to take pictures they'll use a camera, and if they want to send email, they'll use a computer, not a cell phone.

Ms. SHEILA BATHHURST (Washington Senior Citizen): It's all tiny little, little buttons that you push and move things around, and it's hard for me to see all those things and what they're for. So it's too complicated for my generation, I think.

KAUFMAN: Some senior advocates have suggested the wireless industry in the U.S. isn't offering enough senior-friendly service. But John Walls, a spokesman for the wireless industry's trade association, says companies offer things like pre-paid plans, family plans, and simpler phones, like the Migo.

Mr. JOHN WALLS (Vice President, Cellular Industry Trade Association): Four basic keys, numbers that you programmed in, and you can just select one of those four numbers to call, if that's as much as you want. There's another model called the Oasis, which is a very simple phone. It has raised buttons, they're very well separated on the handset itself, almost looks like a television remote.

KAUFMAN: But there's nothing quite like what's being offered overseas by European giant Vodafone. The plan and the phone are called Simply. The phone itself has features like a red light that goes on when you have a message. If you need to recharge the battery, it tells you so.

U.S. industry spokesman John Walls says Americans can expect to see many more senior-friendly products and services in the future. After all, he notes, the baby boomers are getting older.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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