Hello? Hello?

Overloaded Networks Leave Cell-Phone Customers on Hold

We have, unfortunately, come to expect such "capacity problems"—the euphemism the industry uses to spin the trouble away from poor planning and onto the technology itself—with practically each new communications tool. Back in 1996 when AOL was just a fledgling Internet provider instead of the monster that ate Time Warner, customers across the country couldn't log on because the company's new $19.95 unlimited access deal drew in more than a million new customers in three months. Today for cell phones, New York is particularly tough—all those fast talkers jamming the system and all those skyscrapers to block the signal. Getting a line, even with Sprint or other carriers, can be harder than getting a cab at rush hour.

In Zimbabwe, my cellular network, EcoNet, also encountered capacity problems. But even though it was facing aggressive competition, it placed a moratorium on new subscribers until it had built up enough infrastructure. "That would never happen in the United States," says Andrew Seybold, an industry analyst who edits the trade newsletter Andrew Seybold's Outlook. With swarms of cellular providers fighting a cutthroat battle, he says all U.S. carriers are "doing everything to get customers, with the attitude of 'We'll fix it later.' "

No wonder a little New Jersey marketing firm, Naevus International, led a class-action lawsuit last year against AT&T Wireless, alleging fraud for "misleading" advertisements. Naevus execs wouldn't talk about the pending suit. But court documents tell a story that would be familiar to many AT&T customers: dropped calls, inability to make calls, sometimes for long periods, and all this "even in the calling area described in defendants' advertising and marketing material as within the AT&T network and within the subscribers' primary calling area."

In court documents, AT&T responded in part that they never promised "perfect" service. Please. The issue is not service that's a little off the mark. To quote Internet executive Christian Bandler, yet another New Yorker who dropped AT&T after months of headaches, the company's service "is so terrible that it became a running joke." And what about AT&T's customer care? "Almost surreally dishonest," he says.

Amazingly, the Federal Communications Commission does little to regulate cellular networks, relying mainly on competition to punish lousy companies. But AT&T and the other cellular providers have got their customers by the short hairs. First, they lock you into a year-long contract. Yes, you can leave during the first 30 days, but many people aren't using the phone enough at first to know how good or bad the service is. And if you want to switch after 30 days have passed, "you have to toss your cell phone in the garbage," says analyst Seybold, because each particular phone works with only one carrier.

FCC regulations do include a sentence requiring that companies "inform prospective subscribers of the area in which reliable service can be expected." And AT&T showed me what I thought was such a map when I signed up. The map included San Francisco, but when I was there a few weeks ago, editors and sources could not reach me despite many attempts over two days. They got the same busy signal that McClure and Kanabrocki say cost them thousands. "San Francisco is not a market that we control," says company spokesperson Saffioti, explaining that the Bay Area network of antennas that carry cellular calls is not owned and operated by AT&T. So what about that map? "It's a pricing map," she says, showing where a customer can avoid long-distance and roaming charges. Can't argue with that. After all, if your phone doesn't work, you'll certainly avoid long-distance charges.

Is there anything to say in AT&T's favor? In a few markets, including New York, AT&T did cut back on advertising for one quarter last year to slow the rate of new subscribers to its overloaded network. It also claims to have spent $2.5 billion on national infrastructure last year, adding, for example, a network the size of Seattle's on top of what already existed in New York City. I have noticed the signal is stronger at my Midtown gym, but then again, just the other night I lost contact riding in a taxi in the Flatiron district—hardly a remote area. Maybe they'll plug that gap this year, since the company says it is planning to spend at least $3.5 billion in 2000 building infrastructure. Currently, AT&T says less than 2 percent of calls placed from an AT&T cell phone fail to go through.

The company says that's also true for calls placed to AT&T cell phones, but with a wallopping caveat: It can't track calls to its customers when they are outside of territory covered by AT&T's own network. So if you're anywhere on the pricing map where AT&T subcontracts to another cellular network, then AT&T has no idea how many callers try to reach you only to get the dreaded "fast busy" signal. Maybe that's why industry reporter Luna says, "They still can't seem to fix the capacity problem. They keep saying it's fixed, but you keep hearing complaints."

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