Catching the customer's ear

In the fight for subscribers, cellular-telephone companies are scrambling to find and eliminate `drops and blocks.'

Wireless Communications

April 17, 2005|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

TO HIS COLLEAGUES within Verizon Wireless, associate engineer Gregory Booze is sometimes referred to as Test Man because of the work he does for the cellular-telephone business of the nation's largest telephone company.

But you might want to call him the Can-You-Hear-Me-Now? guy.

Like the Verizon Wireless technician in a widely broadcast commercial, Booze, 53, is a member of the Verizon Wireless test team, a nationwide group of about 50 men and women who drive hundreds of miles and make thousands of cellular-telephone calls each working day to test the company's wireless network.

"It's one of the most important things we do," said Booze, who has tested how well cell phones work in the Washington Metro's tunnels and trains. "We want to be able to know how [we're doing] for the people who use us."

In the Baltimore-Washington area, Booze is the front line of Verizon Wireless' effort to eliminate "drops and blocks," areas of weak or nonexistent cellular signal coverage that can end a call early or stop a new one dead in its dial tone.

With more than 170 million Americans subscribing to wireless services -- some relying on them exclusively -- the issue of reliability is the focus of pitched battles among cellular companies.

Unlike conventional landline networks, which depend on hard-wired cables and copper wire, cellular networks depend on high-frequency radio transmissions from strategically placed cellular towers to provide coverage. Technical flaws can prove costly.

AT&T is a case in point. The company's wireless business lost 367,000 customers in last year's first quarter, partly because gaps in AT&T's coverage area in some parts of the country angered subscribers, experts say.

"Spotty coverage led to a lot of dropped calls," said Lewis Ward, a senior research analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. "The quality was lower [than expected]."

AT&T Wireless began an extensive improvement program, but the results will be difficult to isolate because AT&T merged with Cingular Wireless LLC in October to form the nation's largest wireless carrier, Ward said.

Cingular, a joint venture between SBC Communications and BellSouth, had 49.1 million customers at the end of last year. The company announced in March that it had reached 50 million subscribers.

Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC of the United Kingdom, is the second-largest, with nearly 44 million.

Wireless reliability has improved substantially, in part because of lessons learned from past problems and because of newer technologies, but consumer dissatisfaction continues. Last year, 29,478 complaints were filed against wireless carriers, 38 percent more than in the previous year, according to a Consumers Union study of Federal Communications Commission statistics that was released last month.

Billing issues topped the list, but performance and service problems weren't far behind, and they remain a challenge for the wireless carriers, a Consumers Union analyst said.

`Numbers don't lie'

"The numbers don't lie," said Janee Briesemeister of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "There continues to be a problem [in much of the wireless industry], and it's getting worse, not better."

Cingular-AT&T had the highest rate of complaints, 289 per million subscribers. That was about four times the rate at Verizon, which had one of the lowest complaint rates, Consumers Union reported.

"Verizon has made hay" over its competitors' problems, building its subscriber base, said Jeffrey Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst based in the Atlanta area.

Even so, service issues will remain a challenge, many analysts predict.

Growth industry

Not only does wireless usage continue to grow, forcing companies to keep adding capacity, but the carriers are introducing demanding services such as streaming video, mobile television and broadband Internet access.

Verizon Wireless has been using a two-pronged strategy to improve its competitive position: test and invest.

Since the joint venture was formed slightly more than five years ago, Verizon Wireless has invested at least $4 billion each year in testing and improving its wireless network, and it plans to spend $5 billion this year, the company said. It spent $260 million in the Baltimore-Washington region last year.

"We understand that we must do all that we can" to outpace the competition, said Tim Dykstra, director of network performance for Verizon Wireless' Baltimore-Washington region, one of the 20 geographic marketing regions into which the company is organized.

Cingular is projecting spending about $6 billion this year alone to upgrade its network. That the two top players are planning to spend a combined $11 billion in one year on upgrades underscores how competitive the wireless business has become, said Phillip Redman, a research vice president and wireless-sector expert for researcher Gartner Inc.

Big spenders

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