Here is a link to Consumer Reports they just did their own survey. FEATURE REPORT February 2002 Illustration by Bek Shakirov Service shortcomings Why you can't always count on a cell phone when you need it. How to get better service. Sept. 11 became a proving ground for emergency calling, especially from the cell phones on which 123 million Americans depend. On normal days cellular carries roughly 30 percent of 911 calls. Total cellular traffic nearly doubled in the hours following the terrorist attacks. That's when the thousands of people trying to make a call learned not only how vital cell phones have become, but how fickle cellular networks can be. "We had the highest calling volume we've ever had," said Danielle Perry, a spokeswoman for AT&T Wireless. Many people in New York City and Washington, D.C., heard only the fast busy signal that means the network can't handle another call. Rescue workers using cell phones were as stymied as anyone. CELLULAR BUSINESS, AS USUAL The past two years have seen cellular subscribers soar by more than 40 percent, to 123 million. And Americans' cell-phone use has risen sharply, from 89 billion minutes in 1998 to nearly 200 billion in just the first six months of last year. Many people buy a cell phone for on-the-road emergencies, but the cellular 911 system can't locate callers. Americans are clearly willing to forgive a lot for those minutes. Telephia, a San Francisco company that measures network performance, pegs the chances of getting disconnected at 2 percent in a 2-minute cell-phone call. William E. Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 1997 until last June, says that if a regular call on a landline phone cut out that often, outraged consumers would call the phone company. "But there is not the same expectation of quality for wireless," he says. There are no service standards for cellular--minimal benchmarks for disconnects, clarity, or blocked calls, for instance. But then, landline phones grew up as a tightly regulated monopoly, not in the openly competitive market that distinguishes cellular. "It's made wireless phones affordable for the majority of people," but not without problems, says Kennard. Indeed, Americans consistently rate their cellular-phone service as mediocre. A national survey of households with wireless service conducted in 2000 by the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm, found that only 41 percent of the 2,910 respondents said they are "very satisfied." A Consumer Reports survey of about 1,500 cell-phone users in 2000 found that half were very satisfied. The reasons for such low levels of satisfaction--and what we can do to help you find better service--include: Spotty coverage. The maps carriers provide often show service that blankets entire regions. But accurate national maps for some carriers actually eliminate entire states or sizable swaths (see Where providers are licensed). Accurate local maps are more like Swiss cheese, riddled with dead spots. Carriers map those spots regularly, but consumers never have a chance to see those maps. The maps consumers do see aren't independently audited by anyone, not even the FCC. Jim Schlichting, deputy chief of the commission's wireless bureau, echoes advice we've given: that a good way to find out about coverage is to ask neighbors and friends. How we can help. In addition to the maps in Where providers are licensed, we give an overall satisfaction score for cellular service in nine large metropolitan areas in Performance in major cities, based on data provided by Telephia. Surprisingly costly plans. The Wireless Consumers Alliance, a California-based nonprofit organization at www.wirelessconsumers.org, receives two to three complaints a day. Recent ones include these: A Gloucester Township, N.J., customer switched from prepaid cellular service to Sprint PCS, only to find that the new Sprint service wouldn't work at home; the area is a dead spot on Sprint's network. And the Sprint contract carries a $150 early-termination fee. A Sacramento, Calif., lawyer using AT&T Wireless is billed for long distance and roaming, but his plan includes both. "I always get credited, but they put me on hold for a long time," he says. How we can help. The table in A sample of calling plans breaks down charges from the five leading carriers for four kinds of typical cell-phone users. You can use the data to help determine the best value for your calling pattern. Billing problems. Last fall, the FCC issued its first report on cellular complaints. Billing problems topped the chart, accounting for 55 percent of the 3,076 problems logged in over a three-month period. The FCC won't name companies that are the subject of those complaints. And though the FCC sends the complaints on to carriers--in the first 10 months of last year, it forwarded more than 10,000--the agency has no system to follow up. The California Public Utilities Commission noted a 47 percent jump in cellular "complaints and inquiries" last year; billing disputes and service quality topped the list. The agency is now proposing a state consumer bill of rights for telecommunications, citing the "frustration many feel in dealing with carriers." How we can help. When a problem arises, you will have to deal with the cellular company first, but don't hesitate to call state regulators or the FCC (see What the FCC should require). If the problem is with the telephone itself, go to one of the cell-company's stores, not an independent agent; the staff is likely to be better equipped to provide a remedy. THE PATCHWORK NETWORK Cell-phone carriers have built networks that handle most calls most days, but capacity isn't infinite. Adding a new cellular tower can cost carriers as much as $300,000, a dubious investment if the additional capacity goes largely unused. Because a major emergency can overwhelm the system, the government is pushing carriers to quickly set up a priority access system. It would give precedence to the cell phones that rescuers may carry; their calls would shoot to the front of a site's queue when an emergency is declared. The industry expects to have 50,000 priority lines in place by the end of the year, says Kathryn Condello, a spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a trade group. But there is one formidable problem in the way of priority access, which also helps explain why everyday cell-phone service can be maddening. In 1986, the FCC dropped its requirement that carriers use one common analog standard, although cellular carriers must still support analog. And in 1993, when the FCC opened up the digital PCS band, the agency didn't require those carriers to carry analog signals at all. As a result, different companies have erected their digital networks as technical fiefdoms; users can't easily cross from one to another. AT&T's TDMA system can't communicate with Verizon's CDMA system. Such incompatibilities mean that carriers can't pool resources, allowing, say, AT&T to tap some idle Verizon capacity. Kennard says that the carriers' diverse technical standards "made for a more balkanized industry" that has difficulty coordinating, especially in emergencies. ELUSIVE E911--WE COULD BE SAFER Cellular's biggest failing may well be its limited usefulness in an emergency. If you call 911 from a cell phone, rescuers cannot readily find you. To give just one example: A Consumer Reports staffer who wanted to alert authorities to an accident on New York City's West Side Highway was taken aback when the 911 operator asked what town he was in. His emergency cellular call had somehow been routed to Totowa, N.J., 18 miles west, and been answered by New Jersey State Troopers. They quickly transferred the call back to a New York City call center. Granted, it's hard to find a moving target, but the technology to do so has been around for years, most notably in the OnStar system built into many luxury cars, which relies on navigational satellites. Most cellular carriers plan to use the same system in what's known as Enhanced 911, or E911. But government and industry have been dragging their feet. In 1996, carriers agreed to provide E911 in two steps over five years. Phase I would convey a cell phone's number for callbacks and the location of the cell tower handling the call, a rough indication of whereabouts. Carriers complied with Phase I, although most emergency call centers must still upgrade their facilities to handle the extra information. There is no timetable or dollar figure for the upgrade. The cellular industry hasn't delivered on Phase II, which was supposed to take effect last October. By then, cell systems should have been capable of pinpointing callers to within a few hundred feet or better. But the industry apparently underestimated the technological challenge. For example, a Verizon spokeswoman says the company spent "a lot of money trying a network-based system that did not work well, especially in rural areas." So it adopted a handset solution. The big carriers asked the FCC for an extension and were given four years. "My own view is that the carriers don't see this as a money-making proposition, locating people in emergencies" says Kennard. Michael K. Powell, the current FCC chairman, has said he is "disappointed and unsatisfied" with progress on E911. Even when E911 finally arrives, the carriers' digital fiefdoms may well stymie its effectiveness if there is no legal requirement for them to accept a caller's location from other carriers. For example, an E911 call from a Verizon handset might not register your location if an AT&T cell site receives it (911 calls must travel over the first available circuit). Most E911 systems won't work on the older analog system, either. As of last fall, only St. Clair County, Ill., a suburb of St. Louis, Mo., had E911. The system now works only with phones that can access a Verizon tower. A CAPACITY FIX? Calls can be lost as you move from one cellular site--the radius covered by a transmission antenna--into another. In theory, more cell sites in an area may mean fewer disconnects and blocked calls. Carriers say they've invested billions to add sites, but that radio signals are inherently unreliable, affected by buildings, topography, weather, and even foliage. The industry convinced the Federal Communications Commission that it needs a bigger wedge of frequencies for emergencies and to improve service. Last November, the commission removed the "spectrum caps" limiting the number of airwaves each carrier could own in a particular market. Lifting the caps was unfortunate for two reasons: First, those caps have fostered competition. Today 90 percent of Americans can choose from among three or more wireless carriers, and 75 percent from five or more. Second, there's new technology that will also deliver relief without inhibiting competition. In coming years carriers plan to upgrade to 3G, or third generation, cellular. (1G was analog; 2G is today's system.) 3G technology can cram many more voice calls into airwaves and boost the speed at which wireless data travel. After the vote to lift caps, Kennard told us: "This was not about spectrum but about mergers and acquisition. If you only have two or three carriers, there will be less incentive to compete on price and service." Getting through in a pinch: Send text Cell phones aren't totally hopeless in the kind of emergency that clogs lines and blocks calls. Many newer phones provide a second track to get through, using a text message. Text messages stand a good chance of reaching their destination, even if voice circuits are overloaded. Text demands less from network resources. Voice calls must be transmitted right away, while text is broken into packets of data that squeeze through airwaves when there's a bit of room. The short-messaging service (SMS) that cell phones offer limits you to 160 characters, entered from the keypad. Some handsets also offer canned messages, such as "I'll be late." You enter the recipient's cell-phone number and push Send. In a few minutes his or her phone beeps and delivers your message. Until now, carriers haven't allowed messages to be sent outside their network. Now, carriers say they will open the system, perhaps sometime this year. Some also let anyone with a regular Internet connection send a note to a cell customer. SMS is different from full-fledged wireless e-mail, however. Pricing varies, but 10 cents a message is typical for senders; recipients might also pay a few cents.