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Pressure grows for wireless dead-spot data

The lack of information about dead spots could change under proposed federal legislation and some grassroots efforts that aim to pressure major carriers.

When Eric Weaver purchased a new mobile phone, he may have expected to run into service problems while driving through tunnels or in remote areas--anyplace but in his own home.

"I had no idea that there was a dead spot right in front of my house," said Weaver, a software programmer from Palo Alto, Calif. "A scoreboard on billing, customer service and coverage complaints would have been helpful."

Weaver is one of countless mobile phone buyers who have signed up for service--often for up to a year--only to find out that their wireless gadgets are practically useless from home, the office, or during their daily commute.

"Typically, you can't take a cell phone out for a test drive to see if you have coverage inside your house," said David Butler of the Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

The lack of information about these so-called dead spots could change as proposed federal legislation and grassroots efforts work to pressure major carriers such as Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless and Nextel Communications to disclose such data.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., introduced a bill last year, and reintroduced similar legislation this year, that would require the Federal Communications Commission to collect complaint statistics and index them by geographical area and carrier. This information would allow consumers to easily look up problems that haunt specific wireless providers in certain areas.

"It is first and foremost disclosure legislation," said Weiner, who experiences dead spots on his commute to his office in New York. "Consumers are powerless to compare service."

Weiner believes that if service quality levels become more widely known, carriers could compete on service in addition to price.

Carriers dislike the idea and believe the bill will be the first step toward government interference in an already hyper-competitive industry. Regardless, even Weiner and other insiders question whether his bill will get through Congress this year. Still, the legislation is further evidence of the mounting concern over wireless-service quality.

Travis Larsen, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, an industry trade group, believes a database of complaint statistics will not provide a solution, unlike adding more spectrum that would help solve service problems.

"Although the bill points out some of the issues in wireless service, it does not solve the points it tries to address," Larsen said. "CTIA does not have a problem with passing more information to the consumer; it does have a problem with creating (more regulation)."

Industry observers also point out that the FCC already collects complaint statistics, but the agency only recently started breaking them out by nature of the complaint and does not index them by carrier. Billing issues are by far the most common complaint, according to FCC spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball.

More important than ever
The concerns come at a time when the industry is growing rapidly, despite an overall slowing in the economy. Larsen notes that the industry spent $18 billion to upgrade equipment in 2000 to keep up with the growing number of people signing up for wireless service. CTIA reports that there are now 120 million wireless customers in the United States--40 percent of the population. Last year alone, the number of wireless subscribers grew from 86 million to 110 million.

Yet those consumers appear to quickly grow frustrated and frequently consider new service plans, according to statistics.

Market research group The Yankee Group reports that the industry churn rate, or percentage of customers who switch plans, ranges between 2 percent and 2.5 percent a month. This means about 25 percent of wireless customers switch plans in a year.

Some anecdotal evidence suggests that even more consumers would switch plans if they were not bound by long-term contracts to a specific carrier, which can require them to pay for the unused service months if they break the agreement early.

"There are people in my office literally counting the days left in their contract so they can churn," said one consumer, who requested anonymity because he works in the wireless industry.

Industry advocates say that because customers vote with their pocketbooks, the carriers have a powerful incentive to upgrade and keep customers happy.

Even though a high churn rate is not necessarily caused by dissatisfaction with service--sometimes consumers simply move or find a better offer--it does appear the industry has room for improvement.

A survey of wireless users by The Yankee Group revealed that the amount of respondents who "very often" experienced poor sound, dropped calls, no coverage and blocked calls increased in 2000 from the previous year. Consumers who "occasionally" experience these problems fell into the low 20 percent range.

The firm's survey also determined that poor service is at least one reason why people switch, but better service plans at other carriers was the most cited reason for changing.

Some consumer advocates believe the industry could take more steps to help the decision process consumers undergo as they try to sift through their options.

Carl Hilliard of the Wireless Consumers Alliance thinks carriers could disclose the location of the dead spots within their networks, but said they choose not to do so. "(Carriers) don't want the public to see where they don't have service," he said.

Dan Wilinsky, a spokesman for Sprint, said coverage dead spots would be hard to map since they can be affected by an assortment of factors such as the weather, time of day, the capacity of the network and the local land-line companies that complete calls.

"Everything in wireless is trade-offs...that's just the nature of the technology," said Agilent Technologies' John Catlin, a regional manager in its wireless network services division for the Eastern United States, which performs tests of wireless networks for carriers.

"The thing you have to understand when you look at a coverage map is that there is never really 100 percent coverage anywhere," Catlin said. Carriers typically expect to have roughly 90 percent coverage in an area of any significant size, he said.

New services could confuse further
Despite calls for improvement, it appears like more confusion could be on the way.

Some analysts also add that as carriers introduce so-called third-generation services and the number of different options and kinds of service plans increase, consumers will only become more befuddled.

"The situation will only get worse before it gets better," said Charles Golvin, a wireless analyst at Forrester Research. "The range of offerings with respect to wireless are proliferating, not getting simpler, so the challenge of selecting a phone, a service provider, a calling plan, and in addition, data services, will only get more complex."

For now, critics and advocates of the industry advise consumers to rely on word-of-mouth advice to get an idea of a carrier's quality of service even though it is time consuming and can be subjective.

A handful of Internet sites offer similar services, though it's likely that only a fraction of consumers make use of them. Buy.com, Point.com, GetConnected.com and others offer service plan comparisons. One site, WirelessAdvisor.com, offers discussion groups where wireless users can get advice from other users about carriers' service quality. In addition, a variety of Usenet newsgroups are devoted to information about wireless service levels.

Others also try to look on the bright side of slipping through the coverage cracks. Weaver says the dead zone in his neighborhood removes the chance of cell phone calls bothering him at home.

"The fact that it's dead at my house is annoying, but in certain ways it's very convenient," he said.