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For Some, Cell Phones Still a Hard Sell

Everyone has a cell phone these days. Or do they?

Hand-held cellular telephones are, in fact, owned by only about three-quarters of Americans aged 15 and over, according to statistics from CTIA The Wireless Association (search), an industry trade group.

That's a much smaller proportion than in the wealthier parts of Europe and Asia, where mobile-phone penetration approaches 100 percent.

"There are historical and cultural reasons" for that, explained Paul Dittner, a wireless-industry analyst with Gartner (search), an information-technology consulting firm. "The American land-line network was in place earlier and has always been more reliable. Europeans tend to socialize in public places rather than in private homes, and people are much more technology-conscious in South Korea and Japan."

Other reasons commonly cited for less-than-complete American market penetration include expensive monthly plans, weak coverage in some areas, incompatible technical standards and overly complicated handsets.

"The United States has much more rural land than Western Europe," said Dittner. "It's a lot easier to have effective wireless coverage over the populated areas of Sweden, for example, than it is to do a lot of the Midwest. And in Europe [where all phones use the same standard], technologically, everybody's on the same page."

But there's one unspoken fact that cellular carriers and handset vendors might not want to admit: Some people simply don't want a cell phone.

"I never found it to be anything but an invasion of my free time," said Kurtis Bell, a New York ad-sales executive who gave up his cell phone a few months ago. "I was paying $60 a month for something I wasn't using."

Alice Au, despite her position as a lawyer with a top-ranked Manhattan-based media and entertainment company, has never owned a cell phone.

"I don't see the benefits of having one," said Au. "I've done OK all these years without one."

Both CTIA and Dittner say the average American monthly cell-phone bill is slightly over $50, but surprisingly, these refuseniks don't cite the cost of going wireless as a major turn-off.

"It's not the expense that bothers me," explained Vinnie Argentina, a computer animator in Athens, Ga. "It's rather the general idea. I'm not interested in always being in communication."

Dittner's not so sure about that. He said the true number of Americans under 50 who reject cell phones for reasons other than pricing is "very small."

"The most important factor in keeping people from getting a cell phone is cost," he asserted. "The industry [in the U.S.] has always targeted the enterprise user, the business user who is willing to pay more. In Europe, the target is the average consumer. Monthly bills there are about $35."

Despite that, our three examples of wirelessness have plenty of reasons to justify their lack of mobile communicability.

None of them think cell phones would help them manage their lives better, at work or outside of it.

"There's no crimp in my social life," said Au. "I'm hardly ever on the phone, even at home."

Bell believes it's simply more convenient for people to locate him at his home or his office.

"People can wait an hour to talk to me," he said.

Then there's the behavior of some current cell-phone users, who hardly set a good example when they use the devices as licenses to be rude.

"I was at the bank," Argentina recalled. "People were talking on the phone while talking to the teller at the same time. If you're interacting with someone, you should at least give them the respect of your full attention."

Au said the lack of consideration extends to business matters.

"For some people, it's almost become a reason to be late for appointments," she pointed out. "What — if your voice gets there before you do, it's OK?"

For Bell, having a cell phone just increased, not reduced, his daily hassles.

"The only people who would call me were people who were drunk and wanted to me to come out," he said, laughing. "It never really turned out to be something you'd use for conversation. It's just a tool for booty calls."

All three cell-haters acknowledge they've chosen a hard road to follow, with the mobile majority having strong opinions about their misunderstood lifestyle.

"People have reacted in horror when I've mentioned that I don't have a cell phone," said Au. "But then again, some people say, 'Way to go!'"

As wireless virgins, both she and Argentina have become the targets of "concerned" friends who have generously offered to buy them phones.

"They really try to get you to join their side, because now that they have them, they can't live without them," lamented Argentina. "It's this little army. My girlfriend tried to give me her old phone — but I wouldn't let her."

Bell sidesteps the delicate issue when being introduced to strangers, lest he be branded a technophobe.

"It's embarrassing when people ask you for your cell-phone number, and you don't have one," he said. "I tell them I lent it to my mother."

Nevertheless, Au conceded that there could be circumstances in which she would consider joining the wireless world.

"Definitely, if I had a car and had to drive long distances, or had kids, or a significant other on the road," she said. "Or if it gets to the point where it's really dirt cheap."

Likewise, Argentina admits that a very inexpensive phone and plan — many carriers provide, but don't heavily advertise, pre-paid plans that cost as little as $15 a month — might entice him to the dark side. Maybe.

"I don't feel like I'm missing anything at all," he said.

But Dittner thinks that it might be a while before the wireless industry comes after these folks.

"There is still growth in the enterprise market," he said. "That's who the big carriers fight over. While cheaper pre-paid plans have gotten much better in the past couple of years, that is still a very small portion of the market."

Bell, who's gone eight months without his cell phone, is adamant that he's not going back.

"I'm convinced that I can live my life without it."