Is it time for the cell phone industry to get over itself?

When it rolled out the technology in the 1980s, you have to admit it was pretty exotic. Suddenly, you could make phone calls without being tethered by wires. Why, you could even make a call from your car!

As with any bold new technology, early users paid through the nose. The phones were big, clunky and expensive, as were the calls. Subscribers paid a fee for monthly service, and then were charged a hefty per-minute rate when they made or received calls.

Most early users were businesses who were able to absorb the cost but the wireless providers wanted the cell phone to become ubiquitous, so they adopted various rate plans that included a set number of calling minutes.

If you didn't use your phone very much, you could opt for a plan with fewer minutes. If you had a teenage daughter, you went for the high-minute package.

But in exchange for the privilege of carrying a cell phone, consumers not only had to keep track of their minutes, they had to buy whatever type of phone their provider happened to be selling. They had to sign a one-year contract that carried a hefty early termination fee and was automatically extended another year if they replaced their phones or otherwise altered their service.

They had to pay additional charges for receiving or sending text messages charges that in some families with teenagers can mount up to hundreds of dollars each month. And until recently, they had to get a new phone number if they changed cell phone providers.

Since cell phones were introduced we have the Internet, iPods, DVDs, and GPS systems, not to mention Internet telephone service, including wireless WiFi, that's free or close to it.

So more and more consumers are asking, "what's so hot about cell phones and why is wireless being sold like long-distance service was in the 1950s?"

Lately, cracks have begun to appear in the mobile phone industry's unified front. Both Verizon and AT&T; have liberalized their contracts, making it easier to cancel. Last fall Verizon announced that it would open its wireless network for use by all devices beginning in 2008.

Unlimited calling

Now, Verizon Wireless has taken the first step toward placing wireless communications on a comparable footing with landline services, at least when it comes to pricing. The second-largest U.S. mobile-phone carrier has rolled out a flat-rate subscription for unlimited calls.

The plans give customers all their calls anytime to anyone in the U.S., including landline phones at a flat rate of $99.99 monthly access. The company said its BroadbandAccess Plans are also being enhanced so customers now have two choices for Internet browsing, e-mail access and downloading files. The new BroadbandAccess plans, available on March 2, will offer customers monthly data plan options of 50 Megabytes (MB) or 5 Gigabytes (GB) (5,120 MB).

"Verizon Wireless is changing the way customers think about wireless," said Mike Lanman, Verizon Wireless chief marketing officer.

Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that customers are changing the way wireless providers think about wireless.