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Get hip--improve voice coverage, wireless execs told

Hip-hop kingpin and Motorola partner Russell Simmons has some advice for cell phone companies: Data-based features like downloadable music are cool, but improving voice coverage is cooler.

ATLANTA--Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons told wireless executives gathering here Tuesday that the industry should get back to basics by improving its chief product--voice calls--and only then focus on developing new data-centric features like downloadable music.

"The first thing is you have to make it work," said Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records and the man some credit with bringing hip-hop culture to the American mainstream. Simmons and Def Jam have worked with Motorola for the past two years developing phones for the 18- to 25-year-old market. "The purpose of a phone is a phone," he said. "Phones don't work that well."

As if realizing how taboo his topic was, Simmons quickly added, "I know I shouldn't say that."

Simmons' comments, made during a keynote address, run counter to the overall direction the cell phone industry is taking as it hunts for new revenue sources. Competition has driven down the price of phones and phone calls, and voice call quality, and to some extent coverage, has taken a back seat to the development of data-oriented features such as embedded MP3 players, stereo speakers for cell phones or wireless broadband services.

But Simmons' sentiment is shared by a majority of America's cell phone users. According to most major customer satisfaction surveys, coverage is the No. 1 problem customers have with their service providers. "The only success we've really ever had was listening to our customers," Simmons said.

The scheduling of speeches Tuesday inadvertently helped drive home Simmons' point. His comments were sandwiched between presentations from new Motorola Chief Executive Ed Zander and Juno Cho, president of electronics maker LG InfoComm USA. Neither so much as mentioned voice calling. Rather, both stressed how their companies are working to transform cell phones into a virtual remote control for the networked home.

To their credit, carriers have in the past two years improved the quality of their voice services, said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo, but not enough to appease consumers.

Simmons was touching on what is a divisive point for the wireless industry. Carriers make nearly all their money from voice calls, yet they've each spent billions of dollars to build new cell phone networks capable of high-speed Web access. To earn back their construction dollars, every major carrier is developing and selling downloadable applications, camera phones and wireless photo e-mails.

During his address, Zander introduced several new data-oriented developments, including an agreement with BMG for music content for phones, and a deal with Good Technology to sell more data-oriented services to businesses.

Zander went so far as to say that Motorola has banned the use of "cell phone" to describe its products.

"I like to call it the micro-TiVo-video-iPod," Zander said. "It's a device formerly known as (the) cell phone."