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Wireless plans reducing free calling times

Millions of customers who want to tap free minutes to call friends and family must wait until later in the evening.

Wireless phone companies have decided that talk has been too cheap.

Three major wireless companies--Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS--are gradually reducing the window for customers to take advantage of free nightime calls.

For example, Cingular customers must wait until 9 p.m. to start using the thousands of free weeknight and weekend minutes attached to their plans. That is up to two hours later than what Cingular had been offering.

Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS also have made similar changes, pushing back the start of the so-called off-peak minutes by at least an hour.

Cingular Vice President Mike Dobbs said the company expects to have all of its plans changed to reflect the 9 p.m. off-peak start time by Jan. 1. According to the company's Web site, off-peak minutes end at 7 a.m. Cingular has been slowly introducing the new off-peak hours in different areas of the country since June.

The changes will only affect new customers; most of them, presumably, are new to the world of cell phones and won't know what they are missing. The real impact will be felt when the contracts of longtime customers expire in the next few months and they want new contracts, analysts say.

The changes could prove disruptive to numerous cell phone customers who have chosen to forgo a regular phone, instead relying heavily on the free nighttime minutes.

Richard Rogers, a University of California at Berkeley student, said the later off-peak start will be a headache. He generally uses the phone to call family members on the East Coast, where the recipients of his coast-to-coast calls are already three hours ahead of him.

With the change, he expects to be talking to a groggy set of parents.

"I don't think we'll be having very long conversations," he said.

"I'm not feeling too much love for them right now," San Francisco resident Helen Holst said of the wireless companies. Like many others, she uses her mobile phone exclusively and does not own a regular phone line.

They giveth, and they taketh away
Carriers had been offering the weekend and evening calling deals to attract new customers. For billing purposes, they divided the day into two periods: peak and off-peak. A typical carrier's plan offers a limited amount of minutes during peak hours, and either "free" weekend and night off-peak minutes, or an amount so high that it can be difficult to use up.

Cingular, for instance, has a service plan in San Francisco costing $39.99 a month, which allows people 400 "anytime" or peak-hour minutes, and unlimited free off-peak minutes and long-distance.

Generally, before the changes, off-peak hours started around 8 p.m. and ended by 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. the next day.

The plans are seen as having been successful: By the end of this year, there will be 129.34 million subscribers to some kind of wireless service, a 20 percent increase from last year's totals, said Paul Dittner, a wireless analyst with Gartner Dataquest.

"These big amounts of free minutes are clearly one of the things that consumers have looked toward, particularly the younger segments," Dittner said.

Roger Entner, a wireless analyst with The Yankee Group, said that the success is now affecting the free ride.

"These free-evening, free-weekend bundles are a way to get you hooked on the service," he said. "Now that the subscriber has gotten addicted, they are slowly but surely withdrawing the free fix."

Network issues to blame?
In October, Sprint PCS changed the starting time for what it considers off-peak, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Spokesman Dan Wilinsky said the company is trying to stay competitive and fight congestion on its phone networks. The hours of 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. are among the heaviest times for Sprint's wireless network, he said.

"Shifting calling patterns were creating network problems," Wilinsky said.

Verizon Wireless changed its off-peak hour times last January, saying it also needed to find ways to better manage times when networks were overflowing with calls, spokesman Jim Gerace said.

"Nobody's lost anything," Gerace said. "They are buying based on the value today."

Cingular will institute a nationwide off-peak time of 9 p.m. starting January. Currently, Cingular Wireless customers in different states have different off-peak hours, spokesman Clay Owens said. Customers in some states will lose off-peak hours, but others will actually gain free phone time, Owens said.

AT&T Wireless is not changing its off-peak hours, spokesman Ritch Blasi said. "We monitor for network congestion and we don't think we need to do it," he said.

Nextel is also staying put with its off-peak hours. VoiceStream Wireless has not structured its rate plans to include off-peak minutes. The company instead offers phone time that can be used anytime.