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.

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 terriblethat 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."

Now here's a scary thought: Most cellular companies seem to give their customers headaches. In New York, Bell Atlantic seems to be better than AT&T, according to various people who have tried both, as well as a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. But if you want national, not regional service, says David Kerr, an industry analyst with the consulting firm Strategy Analytics, "there is really only Sprint and AT&T. And AT&T still has superior service and is still tops."

For those who want vengeance, the opportunity could come in the form of a possible whopper-merger between Europe's Vodafone, Bell Atlantic, AirTouch, and perhaps GTE. That behemoth would start out with 22 million subscribers—almost double what AT&T now has—and would be able to offer a bigger national network to boot.

But for now, a lot of cell-phone users feel like former $2700-a-year AT&T customer Rod Collen of Seattle, who isn't much happier with his new carrier, Sprint. "I have become so totally frustrated with cellular service that I am afraid to give out my number. All too often my typical cell calls go something like, 'Yeah, I . . . go . . . up . . . er . . . in the . . . uh.' And all I hear on the other end is, 'Hello, Rod? Can you hear me? What? You are cutting out . . . call me on a land line—click.' And so I do.

"Well, I have concluded the obvious: that the phone companies are dealing with yet another capacity problem. Yet they of course have no problem charging me regularly—that system is pretty much flawless."

Research intern: Elinore Longobardi

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