Return to:

From: News and Views | City Beat |
Sunday, December 05, 1999

The Cell Phone Mess:
Bad Service, Big Bills
Busy signals, dropped calls
make for miffed consumers

Special to the News

If 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 consumer dissatisfaction.

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 wireless system."

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 contracts.

"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 sense.

"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 fledgling industry.

"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 elsewhere."

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 message.

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 windows.

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,'" she said.

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 without penalty.

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 pricing plan.

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 OneRate.

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 Lucent equipment.

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 on that."

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 increase coverage.

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 skyrockets.

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 ends.

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 gotten worse.

With Rachel Tsutsumi and Kerry Smith


Return to: