Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Cellphones Let Parents Set Limits

Everybody wants to be your cellphone company. It’s not just the traditional carriers, like Cingular or Verizon Wireless, that aim to provide wireless phone service. New brands, like ESPN and Helio, are entering the cellphone market. These new entrants don’t have to invest billions in building nationwide networks. They simply rent large chunks of capacity on existing networks, mainly Sprint’s, and then resell voice minutes and other features to consumers under their own brands, complete with their own phones, their own billing and their own customer service. They are called Mobile Virtual Network Operators, or MVNOs.

Disney Mobile offers a $59.99 Pantech cellphone (far left) and a $109.99 LG Electronics cellphone (middle) for use with its Family Center programs, which help parents keep tabs on their children’s cellphone usage. The Family Locator feature (above) uses GPS to locate children.

The latest MVNO is Walt Disney Co., which believes it can leverage its famous brand, and carve out a niche, with a “family friendly” cellphone company called Disney Mobile. The idea is to sell phones and services that make it easy for families to stay in touch while giving parents easy control over their kids’ cellphone activities.

These Disney cellphones allow parents to limit how many minutes their kids can use, with whom they are talking and when they use their cellphones. A parent can even learn where his or her child is using a GPS locator. Yet they do meet another need: giving kids a way to stay in touch with a phone that looks normal, even a little cool.

We’ve been testing Disney Mobile and, overall, we think it’s a smart idea. The phones were easy to operate without reading any directions, and restrictions can be set using the parent’s phone itself or the Web site. We think it’s a good thing for parents to be able to set limits on kids’ cellphone privileges, and these phones offer a no-nonsense way of doing so.

But there are three big downsides to keep in mind. First, Disney Mobile is a cellphone company, not just a phone or a feature, so you have to switch your family from its current carrier and phones, or at least add one or more new contract and phone. Second, the company is new and small and offers just two phone models, not the dozens its rivals sell. Third, it runs on the Sprint network, so, if your Sprint coverage is poor, Disney Mobile won’t be a good choice.

This isn’t the first effort to make a restricted cellphone for kids. Over a year ago, we tested Firefly Mobile Inc.’s kid cellphones — tiny, glowing gadgets with only five buttons that were ideal for young kids who aren’t ready for cellphones with numeric keypads. The Disney Mobile phones are aimed at the next age group of “tweens” on up to teenagers, who would rather die than be caught using the odd-looking Firefly unit.

These phones are offered in two brands and prices: the $60 Pantech DM-P100 cellphone with a digital camera and the $110 LG Electronics DM-L200 phone with a digital camera and camcorder. (These prices require a two-year contract.) Both are flip phones with color screens and full numeric keypads, and they look and operate like regular cellphones. Disney-related themes like those from the movies “Cars” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” illustrate the navigational menus in each phone.

Voice and data plans can be purchased for individuals or families; family plans include two lines and additional lines can be added for $10 each. Plans range in monthly price from $40 to $250, but all include five free GPS “locates” per month. Neither phone can use Sprint’s latest, high-speed network for Web surfing and email. They are based on older technology.

Using the phones was easy. When you buy them — either from the Disney Mobile Web site, by calling 1-866-DISNEY2 or at kiosks in malls around the country — the phone’s owner is designated. A phone can be configured either as a parent’s phone or a child’s phone, even though they are physically identical. The parent’s cellphone has privileges and features that the child’s cellphone lacks.

A special Family Center menu within the phone offers four parental features: Family Locator, Family Monitor, Family Alert and Call Control. Another option within this menu called Shop Family will eventually offer various applications that compliment the Family Center programs; as of now these aren’t yet available.

We selected Family Locator on our parent phone (child phones can’t access this section), chose the name of the child whose phone we wanted to find and were asked for our four-digit PIN. In one test, after waiting for about 20 seconds while the screen read “Locating,” we received a message and map accurately finding our child-designated phone. It said the child’s phone was “Near [1707-1773] K St. NW, Washington, DC,” and said that was within 40 yards of the actual location.

But during other tests, Disney experienced problems with Sprint changing its network configuration, and we weren’t able to receive GPS information about our “child’s” cellphone. Disney fixed this after almost a whole day, but we wondered about parents who might have used the Family Locator during this outage, panicked to find their kids.

The Family Monitor section lets parents set allowances or view usage for each child’s voice, text, pictures and downloads. Parents can set allowances, see how much allowance a child has left in each section, and how much has already been used up. We noticed that the data for each updated whenever we closed and reopened the Family Monitor section.

The Family Alert section is filled with canned text messages that a parent or kid — each phone is set up accordingly — might send to one another. The parent’s quick alerts include “Can U get a ride?” and “Call me when U can,” while the child’s include “Can I hang out?” and the ever popular “What time is dinner?”

We easily sent these messages from one phone to the other by selecting them and hitting Send. The receiving phone got the incoming message, labeled as a “Family Alert!” so as to distinguish it from other messages. Unlimited intrafamily messaging is included in each plan.

All three of these sections can also be accessed on a computer at the Web site, where you can see more details about each after entering log-in credentials and a PIN.

Call Control, the fourth section within Family Center, must be set up on the Web site. After you choose a phone, you can go through a simple chart to designate when your child can use his or her phone according to times and days of the week. Below this chart, a section lets you enter Always On numbers that the child can always call regardless of Call Control restrictions, such as 911 and numbers of relatives. Likewise, a section of Prohibited Numbers blocks all communication with certain numbers, including receiving or making calls and text messaging.

We restricted the child’s phone during certain times of the day, and when we tried to make a call from that cellphone during those times, it didn’t go through.

Disney Mobile is good news for parents who have had a hard time cracking the whip on cellphone usage and bad news for kids who sneak calls at all hours of the night or who run up their phone bills with text messaging. If you’re looking for a way to keep better tabs on your family’s cellphone usage, this system works well.

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