So, you're driving down the road, talking on your cell phone, when the voice on the other end starts to crackle and fade and then it just disappears in the Dead Zone ...

Cellular phone firms wage war with dead zones, to keep from losing their users.

November 26, 2001|By Joel B. Obermayer | Joel B. Obermayer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On most days, Greg Booze earns his living by driving around in a car full of cell phones that speak gibberish.

He has eight of them in a rack in the back of his Ford Explorer. One of the phones beeps, then dials. The call goes through and a man's voice comes on the line:

"How do you tell the depth of a well?"

"The chicken leg is a rare dish."

"He carved a round head from a block of marble. ... "

The voice goes on for 2 1/2 minutes. Then it hangs up, beeps and starts over again. Eight phones, all day long.

If the nonsensical phrases come through loud and clear at the offices of Verizon Wireless in Annapolis Junction, the call is a good one. If the voice distorts or the call dies, Booze has found what he's looking for: a dead zone.

It's a serious matter for wireless providers. Dead zones are among the most frequent complaints among cell phone users. There are many places where network congestion causes calls to fade into the ether. Many consumers buy phones and discover the devices won't work in their homes, or offices, or at key points along their commutes.

One reason is that cell phone use has skyrocketed. Consumers are snapping up packages that include cheap nationwide long distance, free calls on nights and weekends and other goodies. But wireless companies haven't kept their infrastructure growing as quickly as demand has increased.

"There is a disparity between what is marketed and what is capable on the network," said Phil Marshall, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston.

In an annual survey that asks people who switched cellular companies why they changed, Yankee found the proportion who cited poor coverage increased by more than 40 percent from 1999 to 2000. General complaints about lack of coverage, poor call quality and dropped calls increased, too.

Consider, for example, Cecilia O'Briant, who lives in Parkville and bought a cell phone last fall, figuring she could use it when her kids tied up the family's land line using the Internet. After she signed a one-year contract, she found that the phone rarely works in her neighborhood.

"It's irritating," O'Briant said. "I expected, I assumed that a cell phone worked wherever you were. I thought I could use it for emergencies, or when I needed it at home. But that's not true."

Ginger Chiveral works regular business hours for a company that sells floor coverings in Owings Mills. Her husband's work often keeps him driving to various sites around Maryland late at night.

In June, they bought cell phones so they could keep in touch, but that doesn't happen as often as they'd like. It turns out that coverage is spotty in Carroll County, where they live. And their normal travel routes pass through too many dead zones. Now, Chiveral worries that she won't be able to contact her husband in an emergency.

"I feel like Scotty on Star Trek because you're always breaking up all the time," she said. "The cell phones are supposed to be great. But if you can't use them, what good are they?"

When cell phone companies try to do something about it, part of the job falls to people like Booze. The Verizon technician logs more than 2,000 miles a month in search of places where service needs improvement. His phones test every wireless carrier that operates in the Baltimore area, digital and analog services.

On a recent afternoon, Booze drove a reporter around North Laurel, the phones barking their bizarre, recorded messages to a computer at Verizon Wireless's local headquarters. The phrases were chosen to determine how specific words, consonants and vowel sounds come through.

"They do sound strange, but you get used to them," he said.

The technician kept a wary eye on a mounted laptop computer that recorded the results of each attempt. A red message indicates a dropped call. If it comes from a Verizon phone, Booze notes the exact location. He saves information on competitors' service for analysis back at the office.

When it comes to fixing dead spots or dropped call zones, a phone company's immediate options are limited. No one can build a cell phone tower in an afternoon (although Verizon says it can bring in a mobile base station in a pinch).

Often, dead zones occur in areas near a tower with a weak signal or overloaded transmitter. In that case, Verizon says it can increase the power or fix balky equipment. It also says it can relieve congestion by routing more calls through neighboring towers.

Booze's routes concentrate on the major highways most customers travel, usually during rush hours when phone traffic is heaviest. On this particular afternoon, Booze planned a circuit of the Baltimore Beltway.

"If I have extra time, I'll go a little farther," he says. "Maybe some of the major roads off the highway."

Even so, Booze is not a magician. The $200 million Verizon spends annually on wireless equipment in the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia corridor still leaves areas with spotty service.

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