When Is Anywhere Not Anywhere? When it's part of your new wireless long-distance calling plan. Maybe.
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – We are about to embark on a mysterious journey. And while I can begin our tale pretty well, leading you down the first twists of the path into the darkest portion of the jungle, I am afraid I cannot tell you how it will end.

I will say that all names of the individuals we shall meet along our way have been changed, for their protection. They, like us, are merely pawns in the oven mitts of the gods.

Our chronicle begins one misty autumn evening not long ago, when the last gentle puff of summer stirred in the trees. We determined, my wife and I, to purchase a cellular phone for use around the plantation. Our salesman at the phone store, whom we'll call Ravi, suggested that VoiceStream would fit our needs, and indeed, the plan and free telephone seemed to be excellent. We purchased 600 Anytime minutes. Anytime, Ravi explained to us, did not carry over to weekends and was limited to the 11-state Northeast Neighborhood described in the brochure. Fortunately, a special offer entitled us to 500 national minutes on the weekends as well. Hearts full of hope and beans, we headed home to charge up our new implement.

"VoiceStream Wireless is a member of the GSM alliance," said the brochure we read on the way home. "This broad digital communications network ensures a clear signal wherever you call worldwide." The same document showed maps of 11 states, inexplicably labeled "Tri-State Coverage," and promised that we would pay "no digital roaming or long-distance charges" when calling anywhere in those states "from your home area." A little inset described our Northeast Neighborhood, and declared it "Toll Free Everyday."

This raised certain questions. The maps had blue areas to designate coverage but also some wiggly sections called "water coverage" areas, plus some in an aggravating yellow. What were these yellow areas? Could we call into them free of charge? Could we call into them at all? And what was our "home area"?

I went to get a drink. My wife got on the phone. I made the better choice.

The first VoiceStreamer we reached was Britney. When asked if we could call into a certain section of Massachusetts that looked as if it might be in a horrid yellow zone, she said, "Is it North, South, East, or West?" Of what? Boston? She could not say. She did, however, politely direct us to the Website for information on towns that were covered under our Anytime plan. I went to the site and found several attractive pictures of Jamie Lee Curtis but no map.

Britney had by then looked up our destination and informed us that the zip code we wanted to call was not in our calling area. "The little yellow pockets not in blue are long-distance calls," she said. We could call on weekends or pay an extra charge during the week. She also informed us that our 600 Anytime minutes were good all week long and carried over to weekends. She further told us that we were not signed up for any weekend minutes at all, let alone 500 of them.

This was news to us and also to Ravi, who called the company and found that the representative he had dealt with had deleted that part of our deal.

Now we had our 500 weekend minutes back. But could we call anywhere in Massachusetts? How about the other states in blue? And what did yellow mean?

Nancy was our next porter into VoiceStream Village. She informed us that contrary to what Britney had said, we could call anywhere in Massachusetts with no long-distance charges and that the areas not in blue were so designated because any calls we made from those locations would incur long-distance and roaming charges. "How can I confirm this?" my wife inquired. "I'll get back to you with an 800 number right away," Nancy said. We held on for 15 minutes. She never came back.

The next call went to Ed, who defined our "local calling area" quite strangely as "New York City, northern New Jersey, and Connecticut extended." We don't live in any of those places.

Ed said that all areas not within the reach of VoiceStream's global satellite system--those not in blue--were subject to roaming and long-distance charges. My wife then read the statement from the brochure about our plan's being good anywhere in the aforementioned Northeast Neighborhood. "So 'anywhere,' " said my wife, "means 'not anywhere'?"

"You have to look at the fine print," said Ed affably.

He then went away for a few minutes and returned, saying that he had spoken with a senior person "over there" who had, contrariwise, stated that there would be no additional charge in any of the states mentioned in the brochure. My wife then asked to speak with this person.

Velma then came on and, one hour after this little trek had begun, told my wife the following things: First, that we can call any phone number in the 11 states and pay no long-distance or roaming charge because those calls will come out of the "bucket" of 600 minutes. And second, that if we place a call to an area where VoiceStream doesn't have coverage and has forged no agreement with another network, our phone will simply not work at all. In short, all 11 states are at our disposal and in our bucket. We hung up and rejoiced.

But now...we wait...and wonder. Who was right? Was it Ravi, who thought he had given us the free weekend minutes, and didn't? Britney, who thought that the yellow territories were subject to roaming charges? Nancy, who put us on hold and went away...forever? Ed, who declared our home calling area was a place in which we did not live? Or Velma, who seemed to have it all together? Or did she? Time will unfold this truth, as all others. And the bill will come, as they all do.

By then, of course, well more than 30 days will have elapsed, and our deal will have kicked in. You know the one. It requires us to pay a penalty of $300 if we choose to disconnect.

Whatever we do, we shall remain calm, our eyes firmly fixed on the future in which men and women walk together, hand in hand, communicating at will through the ether and incurring no digital long-distance or roaming charges.

Well, we can dream, can't we?

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.