Hello? Hello?

Overloaded Networks Leave Cell-Phone Customers on Hold

For eight months, computer consultant Allen McClure says he had been massaging a high-strung, low-patience Manhattan garment-company owner, trying to land the contract to reconfigure the company’s computer systems. Last December, says McClure, the man finally decided to go with McClure, picked up the phone, and called. And that, according to McClure, is when he lost the $10,000 contract.

McClure had a cell phone on the AT&T Wireless network, and because his land line was occupied most of the day with his Internet connection, he never gave out that number, fearing customers would get a busy signal. AT&T Wireless has advertised its cellular service as a cost-effective replacement to cable phones, but McClure says AT&T was anything but. The prospective client "tried to reach me for hours for two days, but my cell phone was busy," he recalls. He wasn't on the phone, by the way. The call just wouldn't go through. The network-is-jammed busy signal supposedly beeps faster than the old you're-on-the-phone busy signal, but how many ordinary people know this? Evidently, not McClure's would-be client. "They had to make a decision," he says, "and I lost the contract." (McClure declines to name the company, saying he is trying for a second chance.)

Despite AT&T's upbeat advertisements and once-sterling corporate reputation, the company's cellular customers, especially in New York, complain about a host of problems, including static-filled service, receiving voice-mail messages hours or even days late, calls going dead in midsentence, and not being able to call out from their cell phone. Indeed, AT&T ranks 24th out of 25 on deja.com's survey of cellular providers, and its service was recently blasted by both The Daily News and The Wall Street Journal. In the Voice's own, totally unscientific survey, three AT&T customers reported satisfactory service, but 17 out of 20 reported major snafus.

And now, City Council member Noach Dear of Brooklyn has introduced a bill requiring consumer warnings on advertisements and in stores that cellular service "may not be available at all times and in all locations." Public hearings will be held March 31 at 1 p.m. in the council chambers.

What's the councilman's beef? "It's stealing from the consumer," insists Dear. "They're taking money and grabbing as many customers as they can. And then when they have to provide service, [they say] 'Oh, you're in a dead spot' or 'There are too many phones.' So why are you accepting customers? It's like going into a store, paying for a product, and he doesn't give it to you. It's highway robbery." He blames all the companies but adds, "AT&T is the worst." He should know. It was his ordeal with AT&T that spurred him to introduce his bill.

Dear isn't alone. "Having AT&T is like having no service at all," says Queens resident Kirill Poliakov. "I don't bother turning on my cell phone for incoming calls because all my friends tell me that my number is constantly busy." Poliakov is merely inconvenienced and irate, but, as McClure's story shows, this problem can cost money.

But, hey, McClure lost only 10 grand. Caroline Kanabrocki, a Brooklyn-based jewelry designer, estimates her "nightmare" AT&T network cost her $45,000 in lost business last year, again because potential clients couldn't reach her. "Customer service does not care," she says. "They tell you that the problem is being fixed and they are building new towers and are getting better frequency on their existing towers, but they have been telling me this for so long now." So she has something she'd like to say: "Customer care? Yeah, right, kiss my ass. On a recording they have, they say all AT&T customers are treated like VIPs. Were you ever treated like a VIP?"

Not until I called as a journalist. When I was just an ordinary bill-paying customer, I phoned from a taxi and waited on hold as my cab crawled through traffic and rain from 5th Street to almost 50th Street. When the rep finally answered, she asked for my cell number, even though I had punched it in earlier.

When I said I wanted to complain about my service, naturally I had to go on hold again to wait for a supervisor, who didn't pick up before it was time for my Midtown appointment. Do you think they ever called back, even though they had taken my phone number twice and knew the reason I called? Of course not.

But when I called with the power of a quarter million newspapers poised to hit the streets telling about being an AT&T customer, then I got attention. Company spokesperson Diane Saffioti offered to have someone work with me to iron out my problems. I declined the special treatment.

But I did tell Saffioti why I had called to complain in the first place: I was on assignment in Africa last year, and my cellular network in Zimbabwe—that's right, Zimbabwe—was better than AT&T.

"I'm sure," says Lynnette Luna, a reporter who covers the cellular business for RCR, a trade publication. Like many other industry gurus, she says the main reason for AT&T's spotty service is the dreaded "capacity problem," which in plain English means that AT&T signed up more customers than its network could handle.

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