|From: News and Views | City
Sunday, December 05, 1999
The Cell Phone Mess:
Bad Service, Big Bills
make for miffed consumers
By RUSS BAKER
Special to the News
Santa's going to put a cell phone in your stocking this year, you
might ask for a bottle of aspirin to go along with it. For the
nearly 3 million cell-phone users in the New York metro area,
wireless phone service may be a convenience and even a thrill, but
it's also often one giant headache. It's a technology that isn't all
that ready for prime time.
A Sunday News special report has uncovered broad problems with
cellular phone service in the New York area where customers
continue to sign up in droves and correspondingly widespread
In reporting this story, The News interviewed independent
technical specialists, telephone company executives and engineers,
government officials and ordinary consumers.
Considerably more consumers complained about AT&T Wireless
than about any other company, but troubles dogged the other major
area providers Sprint, Nextel and Omnipoint and, to a far lesser
extent, Bell Atlantic.
Problems encompass everything from fast busy signals to dropped
calls losing communication during a conversation from entire
Manhattan blocks with no service to signals that don't reach
indoors, from faulty voice mail to confusing and misleading billing
practices. What's more, consumers often encounter unsympathetic,
rude customer-service operations that seem to push the burden of bad
service back onto the customer.
Unhappiness with AT&T has become so acute that a small Upper
Saddle River, N.J., firm, Naevus International, is seeking
class-action status in a suit against AT&T for false advertising
failing to tell people that the service was not going to work the
way it was marketed.
New York-area wireless services come out poorly in national
comparisons. A customer survey conducted early last summer by J.D.
Power and Associates, a California-based marketing information firm,
rated the Pacific Bell Mobile system in San Diego at 120 for having
the best call quality in the country.
That compared with Bell Atlantic's New York metro rating of 97
and AT&T's New York rating of 82 the lowest in the nation.
AT&T acknowledges it has some problems, but says it is fixing
them. "We have made vast improvements in the New York network, and
we will make more," said Diane Saffioti, a spokeswoman for AT&T
Wireless. Although AT&T is most frequently criticized, the other
New York carriers also are plagued with problems. Bell Atlantic
users complain, for example, that swaths of Manhattan's East Side
are dead zones, where calls cannot be made or received.
"Are there weak spots? Sure," said Kevin Moore, a Bell Atlantic
spokesman. "We are testing and upgrading our networks daily. If a
customer finds a problem, we will respond immediately. But we are
not aware of any large area in Manhattan where, under normal
operating conditions, there is no service."
New Yorkers have plenty of gripes about their cell phones.
Ann Malone, 31, a title examiner from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn,
found she couldn't get an AT&T signal in the parking lot outside
a Jets game at Giants Stadium.
"It easily took half an hour to get a call through," she said.
Ethan Klemperer, 27, a management consultant who lives in
Manhattan, said he loses Sprint service in high-rise buildings, and
gets dropped calls fairly often, especially around rush hour.
"Friday nights are the worst, because everybody's out," he said.
Klemperer reports getting a busy signal when trying to check his
voice mail, especially during these high-traffic periods. And he
loses coverage driving along certain stretches of the Hutchinson
River Parkway between New York City and Stamford, Conn., and on
Amtrak trains bound for Washington for about 20-30 minutes in a dead
zone around New Brunswick.
Necha Treitel, 31, a sales representative who lives in Manhattan,
said that when she calls people with AT&T service, she often
gets either a busy signal or voice mail but rarely the person.
Darivsh Khosravi, 32, a contractor who lives in Manhattan, reports
that the Nextel network frequently drops his calls.
These problems, experts say, primarily are the result of a $37
billion industry that has aggressively marketed a flawed system by
exaggerating its reliability and range but understating costs, while
knowing that technological capacity is woefully inadequate for the
number of subscribers.
It's Always Mother's Day
"Consumers are getting screwed," said Bob Egan, a cellular expert
and research director of the Gartner Group, a technology consulting
firm based in Stamford, Conn. "What sometimes occurs on Mother's Day
within the [traditional telephone] system occurs every day in the
All of the providers are spending lavishly and working hard to
expand their capacity, but if demand continues to grow apace in
New York City, experts say, it has doubled in each of the past two
years the problems aren't going to disappear soon.
Service snags show up all over for wireless or cellular users in
the metro area, but most persistently in the heart of the city.
"The message to people who have problems in Manhattan is: You're
not hallucinating,'" said Marty Singer, whose Chicago-based company,
Safco, scientifically tests the performance of cellular networks.
The company recently placed 14,000 phone calls in the city over
seven different cellular systems 2,000 each on AT&T and Bell
Atlantic's older analog and newer digital systems, and on the
digital systems of Nextel, Omnipoint and Sprint.
"The kind of performance we got in Manhattan was unusual in that
we found a high number of blocked calls, a high number of dropped
calls" on all systems but Bell Atlantic Digital, Singer said. The
cause? Although consumers have not yet caught on, industry insiders
know very well what the problem is.
"AT&T and other carriers were caught having inadequate
networks, which meant that as demand increased, net capacity
couldn't keep up," said Herschel Shosteck, president and CEO of
Herschel Shosteck Associates Ltd., an international wireless
consultant based near Washington.
Fully aware of these deficiencies, the phone companies
nevertheless continue to advertise heavily, critics say, and to lure
consumers with ever fancier cellular toys, such as Internet
connections for Web surfing and E-mail, fancy, lightweight, stylish
flip phones, and plans that link wireless service to conventional
home long distance.
The ads make little mention of network quality, but instead
promote handset features the ability to get E-mail, stock quotes,
weather reports and surf the Web. AT&T even offers phones
decorated with Disney characters as part of a package that includes
unlimited local calling between family members.
Another ad, directed at businesses, shows a futuristic handset
"designed for conversation, but just as likely to be the topic of
it" screams: "Never put me down."
Some ads even suggest that consumers can do away with their
regular phone altogether.
"They're marketing like crazy, giving away phones, reducing the
costs to make phone calls, implementing family plans, encouraging
people to use their wireless services more and more," said David
Steinman, an angry consumer.
"The whole industry talks about replacing land lines with
wireless, but they have a long way to go," said Lynette Luna, who
covers the cellular market for RCR, a telecommunications trade
publication based in Denver.
"Customers are not putting up with static, dropped calls and fast
busies on their primary phone."
Yet many consumers, responding to the blizzard of advertising,
find themselves locked into a service contract before they are aware
of all that can go wrong. Often these are people who can least
afford it a growing percentage of moderate-income people and
students find themselves stuck in unsatisfactory cell phone
"The strategy of the wireless provider is to put the
responsibility on you as opposed to on them," said Herb Hauser,
the president and chief executive of Barnes Wentworth, a New
York-based technology engineering company.
"So they don't have to extend their quality of service; they
don't have to defend their customer service; they've basically got
you by the short hairs for the term of your contract."
These policies may be arrogant but they make business
"Even if they were the worst telephone company on the planet
Earth and gave you the most horrible service, they would still
retain 35% of the people," Hauser said. He has a name for it: the
"inertial market" the percentage of the population that will put
up with just about anything.
Like land-based telephone systems since the breakup of AT&T
which created a proliferation of competing telephone companies the
wireless industry has been virtually unregulated. As a result,
governmental agencies and offices, from the Federal Communication
Commission to Congress, have not taken a role in monitoring the
"There are no specific requirements on network quality," an FCC
spokesman said. "The presumption is, carriers want to make customers
happy. If there's a contract dispute, the customer can go to the
state attorney general or to the Federal Trade Commission if they
think the advertising is deceptive."
Congress takes a similarly hands-off position.
"We're certainly aware of some of the problems with some of the
companies' systems," said a spokesman for the House
telecommunications subcommittee. "But it really is a free-market
competition issue. If a network doesn't work, consumers can go
That's true with regular phone service, Hauser noted, but not
always with cellular. "That was the intention [of deregulation]," he
said. "But the regular phone company doesn't keep you locked up for
a year at a time."
Wide Range of Problems
The News found a range of less-than-ideal conditions that affect
outgoing calls, including poor line quality, which includes static
or a pronounced echo; weak reception, where calls break up; no
signal; "no service," a fast busy signal, indicating the network is
overloaded; and dropped calls.
Incoming calls to cellular phones sometimes went directly to
voice mail, even when the recipient's line was not in use. On
occasion, callers got absolutely no connection no sound or
Such problems generally are caused by two factors. The first is
inadequate carrying capacity in the network. The second is too few
transmitters too far from cell phone users. Dropped calls, a common
complaint, usually occur when a caller is moving, and the call must
be switched from one cell site to another that is too busy to
accommodate it or that is blocked by an object that cannot be
penetrated by the signal.
Calls can also get lost when a caller is standing still,
especially with CDMA technology, which is used by Sprint and Bell
Atlantic, in which the radio signal automatically expands in
strength and coverage as more and more subscribers lock on. When a
caller locks on from the edge of a coverage area and the number of
callers suddenly expands, the call may cut off.
In general, indoor reception is never as good as outdoor.
Nevertheless, signals do penetrate windows and walls, so you should
be able to get a signal, as long as a carrier has enough cell sites
in the area and there aren't too many obstacles between the
transmitters and your cell phone.
In one apartment where The News tested cell phones, AT&T,
Nextel and Omnipoint did not pick up any signal, though Sprint and
Bell Atlantic worked fine, apparently because their antennas were
closer. Hauser says he gets Nextel reception inside his office, but
inside elevators, only Bell Atlantic works, which may be the result
of it having transmitters in or near the building.
Lines of Sight
Experts agree that the New York metro area tests the limits of a
system where one cell the territory covered by a radio signal
transmitter hands off calls to another cell.
A typical commuter might travel by car from an outlying river
valley, over flat, open land, through bridges and tunnels, and into
urban canyons and move though more than a half-dozen transmitter
areas, or cells.
Wireless systems are built on "lines of sight," in which the
antenna needs to be able to "see" the handset carried by the
subscriber although, in reality, the radio frequencies can bounce
off buildings. Signals may also go through buildings with plenty of
The thicker the obstacle, the more difficult it is for the cell
phone user. Even when a transmitter is just a quarter of a mile
away, intervening buildings can block reception.
But a clear landscape does not guarantee a better signal. On
elevated bridges, with clear lines of sight, if the network is
configured in a certain way, the calls may be handed off to the
wrong cell site. For example, driving across the Brooklyn Bridge,
the signal may jump to a cell in New Jersey, which is too far away
to provide good reception.
There is an alphabet soup of different cellular technologies, and
each carrier likes to tout the advantages of the one it uses. Sprint
and Bell Atlantic use CDMA, ATT uses TDMA, Nextel uses iDEN, and
Omnipoint uses GSM. Each has its pros and cons, as does the
frequency on which a carrier transmits.
Nextel, AT&T and Bell Atlantic operate on the older standard,
an 800-megahertz signal, while Sprint PCS and Omnipoint operate on
1,900 MHz, a frequency in which the signal often is clearer but
cannot travel as far, requiring the placement of many more towers.
In the end, what matters most is whether there are enough
transmitters, whether they are in the right places and whether the
switches can handle enough calls.
"The entire issue is one of network quality. It doesn't have much
to do with the technology," said Shosteck.
In suburban and rural areas, the cell phone antennas are actual
towers. In Manhattan and other dense areas, they are usually
antennas, often no larger than a pizza box, mounted on buildings.
Longtime customer irked
Longtime Customer Irked
David Steinman, 36, who works in Manhattan and drives in each day
from New Jersey, is furious at AT&T. Steinman said he has had
problems with AT&T Mobile since he first signed up for its
analog system three years ago. He tried digital for awhile, then
finally canceled his service.
The nature of his problems has varied, but they have been
constant. These have ranged from being unable to get even a weak
radio signal to interference to losing calls in mid-conversation
whether in Manhattan or his front yard in Madison, N.J., where he
has been unable to make calls at all.
Cellular analysts agree that of the carriers serving the New York
area, AT&T generates the most complaints.
"AT&T Wireless is terrible," said an analyst familiar with
cell phone systems in New York. "Their numbers are extraordinarily
bad for a cellular carrier."
Carolyn Strug, 31, an editor who lives in Astoria, Queens, has
had AT&T service for two years. She says she has problems making
and receiving calls at night during the week.
"Customer service said, 'It just means the system is busy. That's
when everyone has free minutes, so people are using their phones,'"
Other customers also report that AT&T customer service
personnel often are unhelpful, ascribing reception problems to the
handsets and declining to let customers out of their contracts
Bob Egan, of the Boston-based Gartner Group, said he leaves his
AT&T phone behind when he travels to New York, preferring to
take a Sprint or OmniPoint phone.
"AT&T has done a terrible job forecasting subscriber growth,"
Egan said. He thinks the company miscalculated how many new
subscribers it would have and how frequently they would actually use
their cell phones.
That basic miscalculation, Egan thinks, combined with a lack of
equipment and a failure to spend enough money on infrastructure,
created disastrous conditions.
But AT&T, one of the earliest cell providers, began
experiencing widespread problems when it took a big leap ahead of
the competition in spring 1998 by introducing its One Rate flat
Suddenly, cell phone users, plagued with high long distance fees
and roaming rates, levied when a subscriber leaves his or her home
area, could buy plans for total national coverage for as little as
10 cents a minute. Huge numbers signed up, usage soared and
AT&T's system clogged. Many calls couldn't even get onto the
network. In Manhattan, AT&T relies on many small transmitters
microcells each of which should offer better coverage in its
immediate vicinity, but which also have less capacity.
Last year, the Gartner Group put AT&T on "problem watch"
notifying its corporate clients of concerns about its wireless
service. But well before taking that step, Gartner's analysts had
noticed the first rumbling of complaints.
AT&T, Egan said, did not buy the equipment it would have
needed to fill microholes to expand coverage before it introduced
AT&T's problems seem to have eased slightly in the past year.
The worst problem now appears to be a fast busy signal, indicating
that the entire system is overloaded that too many people are
trying to make phone calls at the same time.
Shosteck, whose company surveys cell phone users, found AT&T
reasonably well ranked by retailers outside New York city,
suggesting that not all suburban areas are experiencing problems,
but he said he's nonetheless seen a "degrading of quality."
AT&T has focused some of the blame on the manufacturers of
its handsets and its switches, which initially were made by
Motorola, but were in many cases replaced with Ericsson, then by
But industry sources put the blame squarely on AT&T itself.
"They screwed up royally and they're trying to dig their way out,"
Shosteck said. "If you're going to double traffic on your network,
you've got to plan a year in advance."
For AT&T, that means identifying sites for additional
antennas, negotiating with landlords, running electricity in,
conforming to zoning regulations and ensuring structural soundness.
Also, its advanced TDMA digital technology has not increased
capacity nearly as much as the company promised. Now, AT&T is
playing catchup by building like crazy without exactly leveling
with the public.
David Mangini, AT&T's vice president in charge of system
buildout, asserted that the company is "a lightning rod" for
criticism because it is the largest and best-known telephone service
provider. He insisted that the problem was limited to situations in
which users should not expect excellent reception.
"They'll go inside a building, jump into an elevator, and that's
where they'll lose a call," Mangini said. "Or they've gone below
ground into a parking garage. We get a lot of concern from customers
He conceded that customers may have trouble in Central Park,
where the company is not permitted by the city to build transmission
sites. The other area where customers have had problems has been on
the FDR Drive, where he said the company has been working to
Nationally, Mangini said, AT&T has spent $2.5 billion in the
past year to build infrastructure, double the previous year's
figure. In New York City, too, he said, the company has doubled its
digital capacity since January an increase as large as the
company's entire capacity in Seattle.
"We have improved performance in New York City and added enough
capacity to handle the traffic," he said, noting that all wireless
service is primarily intended for use outside at street level
which may be unpleasant news for subscribers who bought cell phones
for use at home or in the office.
Costs Can Jump
Besides the technical limitations of wireless service in New
York, the methods the companies use to calculate calls and service
customers also are confusing.
Most consumers sign up for calling plans based on a set number of
minutes per month. But it is very hard to keep track of your minutes
and easy to go over the limit, where the cost per minute
The method carriers use for calculating how long you talk is one
problem. With regular land lines, the provider starts charging the
moment the phone is answered. But wireless providers bill from "Send
to End." The clock starts the moment you hit the "Send" button. That
can add many seconds to each call especially if your network is
slow to connect.
Except for Nextel, all of the carriers round each call up to the
next full minute, as do many standard long distance companies. That
means that a six-second call costs the same as a 55-second call. And
if you go just one second over a minute, you pay for two minutes.
A wide range of plans is available, but the plans are not all as
good as they sound. A monthly wireless plan with a large number of
minutes included can seem cheap almost comparable to plummeting
long distance land line prices but it's not.
A regular long distance plan is the same price per minute,
regardless of how few or how many minutes you use. With the wireless
plans, if you use too few or too many minutes, your per-minute fees
can climb steeply.
In addition, most wireless carriers charge you for incoming
calls, although some plans make the first minute free. This can add
a bundle to a customer's costs.
Customers also are penalized for the carrier's quality problems.
If, for example, you lose a connection and have to redial, you're
charged for two calls except with AT&T, which credits a second
call to the same number made within 30 seconds, which both benefits
customers and saves the company customer service costs. Other
companies leave it to customers to challenge such calls.
Frequent dropped calls can eat up an awful lot of minutes and
prove costly. Of course, because most wireless plans require a
contract, you're stuck with your provider until the contract
Rankled cell phone customers, like New Jersey's Steinman, who is
a customer service manager himself, are dumbfounded by the carriers'
lack of responsiveness to consumers.
"If you ask them what are their plans to increase capacity and
increase service, they tell you they have made a corporate decision
not to tell the public what their plans are, so as not to tip off
competition, though they have a commitment to improve service by the
end of 1999," Steinman said.
But Steinman says he has experienced just the opposite effect.
Like many others, he says his cell phone problems have actually
With Rachel Tsutsumi and Kerry