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AT&T plan ends limits for cell calls

AT&T Wireless is offering a new subscription plan that lets customers place unlimited domestic calls anytime they want for a flat rate.

AT&T Wireless began offering a new subscription plan Thursday that lets customers place unlimited domestic calls anytime they want for a flat rate.

The new service costs $99.99 a month, with no roaming charges, according to AT&T Wireless spokesman Mark Siegel. Before Thursday's announcement, the company offered unlimited calling inside the United States, but only during nights and weekends, which is similar to other carriers' plans.

Siegel believes the new plan, which will be offered for a limited time, is the first among major U.S. carriers to "lift all the distinctions. Days, nights, long distance, weekends...all those distinctions, go away," he said.

A smaller U.S. wireless carrier, Leap Wireless International, has sold similar plans for at least two years. It charges $32.99 to make an unlimited number of calls and offers free incoming calls, but customers can only dial people inside of certain calling areas. These areas average about 1,800 square miles, said Leap Wireless Chief Executive Harvey White. Another carrier, Alltel, has had a similar service since 2000.

"It's reasonable to see that other people want to copy that," White said. "But there's a huge difference between $32.99 and $99."

Bryan Prohm of Gartner Dataquest said AT&T Wireless' new plan could be popular if more people choose to make their cell phones their only phones. So far only about 2 percent of all U.S. residents have traded in their landline phone service for mobiles, but Prohm said that number is sure to increase.

"If you're targeting landline replacement, this could help them cut the cord," he said. "The $99 price is a pretty significant amount of money to spend a month on wireless."

The AT&T Wireless plan is about $40 higher than an average monthly cell phone bill and is designed "obviously for those who use their phone a lot," Siegel said. To get the service, customers must sign a one- or two-year contract and buy a new phone that uses the cell phone standard known as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). The GSM phones range from $150 to $200.

The carrier is using the offer to attract customers to its new GSM network, which supposedly triples the number of telephone calls that can be handled simultaneously compared with its older cell phone network. The GSM network can service customers in about 80 percent of the nation's major markets. By year's end, it will reach all of the country's top markets, Siegel said.

Siegel declined to reveal the number of AT&T Wireless GSM subscribers. But by most estimates, the company is way behind its competitors.

Prohm estimates that AT&T Wireless has about 100,000 GSM subscribers. In comparison, T-Mobile has 8 million GSM subscribers, and Cingular Wireless has about 4 million, according to Prohm.

Representatives of other carriers, including Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS, said they don't plan new services like AT&T's just yet.