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I have a dual-band Motorola StarTAC phone I got from Sprint PCS. I canceled my service with them because of NO service whatsoever. Is the phone dead now, or can it be reprogrammed to be used with another digital provider?

-- Jade, the net


What can you do with an old cell phone? Is it just one more piece of junk to add to my growing pile of junk?

-- Jimmy J, San Diego

Yeah, Jimmy, unfortunately, "old" cell phones are the newest layer of sediment in life's junk drawer. If it's not reprogrammable by your new service provider, or it was made more than two weeks ago and is therefore embarrassingly out of date, to you it's now just an expensive paperweight. You can't even turn it into a planter or give it to the kids to take apart to see how it works.

But I'll bet you're a civic-minded Alicelander, since you asked such a question in the first place, and your phone does have some value to others. Call the County of San Diego (800-600-8223) and find out where you can donate your old cell phone. The county gives them to victims of domestic violence so they are never without a quick way to call 911. Even if your phone isn't supported by a provider contract, by law it has to be capable of dialing emergency services. Other charities or service organizations might find them useful, so contact your favorite and ask before you dump the phone in the landfill (probably not legal anyway). A local dance troupe recently turned old technology into art for a theater piece; maybe if you use your creativity, you can come up with some phone art too. Any other good ideas for recycling digital dinosaurs? Let us know.

And hey, Jade, you too might own a digital dinosaur, depending on which new provider you select. Some support Motorola, some don't. That's your homework. Find a pay phone and give them a call. But it's a crummy way to pick a service provider. Yeah, I know, the phone was pricey, and you've probably paid a few large pieces of cash to dump the contract. But if you spend more time researching providers and less time worrying about hardware, you'll be better off. In cell-phone land, the hardware capabilities and the sheer numbers of subscribers have far outstripped providers' ability to support them reliably. Odds are your new provider will start looking a lot like the old one after a while. But they'll give you a trade-in on the Motorola when you sign the contract.

A handy website for teed-off cell-phone users and anybody else curious about the industry, especially related legislation, is the Wireless Consumers Alliance in Del Mar. Mouse your way over to www.wirelessconsumers.com. And check the cell-phone service and hardware analysis in this month's Consumer Reports. Personally, I think we were better off with two tin cans and a piece of string. Our expectations were very low, and they were met every time.

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