They're supposed to make our lives easier, keep us connected. But pick the wrong service and your cell phone could just add more hassle to your life.
1. "Our coverage area has more dead zones than a cemetery."
If you find yourself bored one day this summer at the beach or ballpark, try this time-killer: In a 60-second span, count how many people are using their cell phones nearby. The number will stagger you -- and it's sure to keep rising. Consider that since 2000 the number of cell phone users in the U.S. has grown 29 percent, to more than 140 million.
But quantity doesn't mean quality. Busy signals. Sloppy service. Static. Problems that have long plagued cell phones persist even with higher penetration. Take New York City, for example, the largest cell phone market in the country. In the vicinity of the city, there are nearly 200 "dead zones" -- areas of heavy interference, frequent dropped calls and failed connections -- according to the office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). The major reason: Service providers have oversubscribed usage and overwhelmed their networks with call volume. Schumer has proposed legislation that, if passed, will require the disclosure of dead zones.
New Yorkers aren't the only cell phone users contending with inadequate service. The Utility Consumers Action Network has filed a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission charging Cingular Wireless with misrepresenting to as many as 16 customers its coverage area and failing to improve service where promised. Cingular spokeswoman Jennifer Bowcock insists that "to say we would intentionally sign up customers for service in areas we know we don't have coverage is preposterous."
2. "Don't even bother bringing your phone abroad."
Service issues don't stop at our borders. Since 2000, when domestic carriers AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile and Cingular began switching over to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network, the same type of network used in Europe, cell phone users have been able to bring their cell phone -- and their number -- with them overseas. In theory, that is. Dharm Guruswamy knows the reality. This past February, Guruswamy confirmed with AT&T Wireless that he would be able to use his phone while traveling in Amsterdam. "They explained how much it would cost -- about a dollar per minute -- and told me it was set up," says Guruswamy. But when he arrived in Amsterdam, the phone didn't work. "This was unfortunate," says AT&T Wireless spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman, but "the problem could have been caused by any number of things."
Perhaps, but Guruswamy isn't alone when it comes to foreign service troubles. "Using your phone abroad is not consumer-convenient," says Rudy Baca, wireless analyst at the Precursor Group, an investment research firm. One issue is the activation of your phone with local providers in Europe. For service to work, carriers here have to register your phone with the carriers abroad; this process is not as "transparent as the providers make it out to be," says Baca.
3. "911 is a joke."
In 2001 Karla Gutierrez was trapped in her car after it barreled into a Miami canal. She dialed 911 on her cell phone, but emergency services could not locate her before she died. Sadly, not much has changed in two years. The list of tragedies occurring because the 911 system can't locate cell phone callers keeps growing. And the possibilities for more calamities persist.
Currently, carriers are required only to connect calls to 911 within 17 seconds. But last year 4 percent of the emergency calls made on cellular phones did not go through. In addition, carriers, working with local emergency agencies, are not mandated to have location technology in place to help find emergency callers until 2005. It's unlikely the providers will push to get the system running earlier. "Carriers aren't looking forward to spending money to get this going," says Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman Lauren Kravetz-Patrich. The National Emergency Number Association has put together an interactive map that shows local areas' wireless 911 readiness. Find it at http://188.8.131.52.
4. "Our bills will annoy you -- but you still gotta pay 'em."
Complaints to the FCC regarding billing and rate problems jumped an astounding 96 percent between 2001 and 2002. Chip Gracey knows why. Last October the Rockland, Calif., resident thought he had signed up with a wireless service for a $99 service plan giving him 900 minutes a month during the day and unlimited usage at night and on weekends. But when he opened his next bill, he was shocked to find that he owed $653. Turns out the provider gave Gracey 900 minutes a month total. Then, when Gracey called customer ser-vice for an explanation, he was told "there's nothing we can do."
It's not just billing miscues you should look out for. Nextel and Sprint, for instance, have begun adding a "Federal Programs Cost Recovery" fee and "USA Regulatory Obligations & Fees" to bills. The companies say the charges will go toward the 911 emergency system even though it won't be running nationwide for at least two years. A lawsuit filed by the Missouri attorney general's office in St. Louis Circuit Court contends that these fees are a way for carriers to tack on extra expenses to your bill. A Sprint spokeswoman would not comment on the lawsuit, while a Nextel spokeswoman says the suit "is baseless."
5. "Need help? Don't call us."
At least chip gracey managed to reach a customer-service rep. Cell phone users know that's no easy feat. To see how difficult it can be, we made six separate customer-service calls to each major carrier -- AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., providers picked up within an average of five minutes. But after 5 p.m., the services tested our patience. For instance, three times we waited more than 18 minutes for a Sprint PCS rep. Sprint spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh says, "That sounds like a real aberration. We've been working hard to reduce our average hold time." The best performer? Nextel, with an average two-minute wait.
If you figured that contacting customer service via e-mail would be a surer bet, figure again. For starters, Cingular doesn't even offer an e-mail option. The other five carriers responded within 24 hours, but only Verizon actually gave us the information we requested (it faxed us a copy of a service contract). T-Mobile and Sprint PCS sent us a link to the area on their Web site where we could find the contract, Nextel told us to head to a store to get help, and AT&T suggested we call a rep.
6. "The wireless Web will leave you disconnected."
Send photos. Get e-mail. Surf the Web. The advertisements promoting these cell phone services -- and more -- can be enticing. Adam Zeckel was so tantalized that he signed up in January for Sprint's PCS Vision plan. Like most users of Web-enabled cell phones (about 18 percent of current cell phone users), Zeckel upgraded so he could check his e-mail. Turned out, however, that the Indianapolis resident couldn't get access to his Hotmail account via his Sprint phone. The reason: Web sites have to be translated specifically for viewing on cellular phones; Hotmail and Sprint had not yet made an agreement to have a wireless version of the program built.
More frustrating, Zeckel says, was that Sprint didn't "tell me (before signing up) that it's not the entire Web or any e-mail." A Sprint spokesperson says Hotmail will be available this summer. Do yourself a favor: Before you sign up for a service with Internet access, be sure your carrier offers the sites you want and that those sites are cell phone viewable.
7. "Good luck getting your voice mail messages."
Business travelers beware: Your voice mails may be getting lost in transit. Complaints regarding voice mail have jumped from zero to 7 percent of cellular complaints in the past year, according to Kirk Parsons, senior director at J.D. Power and Associates. Why? Often the problem lies with the carriers' network software. Unlike your home's answering machine, where the message is likely to be stored on an audiotape, cellular voice mail is kept in cyberspace. It has to navigate a nationwide web of networks before reaching your phone. When you're outside of your home area, voice mail can easily get lost in space.
Parsons knows the problem firsthand. When in Los Angeles on business recently, "the voice mail icon didn't show up on my phone," he says. He realized only when he returned home that a half-dozen business calls had come in. Be alert: Avoid missing messages when traveling by checking your voice mail even if you don't see an icon.
8. "Pay-as-you-go doesn't pay off."
Don't want to sign up for a one- or two-year contract? One option, then, is a pay-as-you-go cellular phone. With such prepaid carriers, you purchase a handset and airtime up front, adding more value via credit card as needed. In January, Christine Bohac tried TracFone, the leading prepaid service. Even though Bohac used her phone only a few times, within a week the Chicago resident blew through all of her $20 worth of airtime.
How come? As TracFone spokeswoman Sherri Pfefer explained to us, the company indicates in all its promotional material that roaming costs extra. But for Bohac, "My phone was always in roaming" -- even when she was at home. Besides roaming problems, many prepaid phones hit users with exorbitant fees -- about 45 cents per minute. The charge is worth it if you use the phone only for emergencies; just don't get hooked on the convenience.
9. "We'll hold your number hostage."
Despite sketchy service and lopsided bills, many cell phone users don't switch services for one simple reason: Phone numbers are not transferable between carriers, leaving users virtually trapped by their provider. A Harris Interactive and NightFire Software survey showed that 25 percent of cell phone users wouldn't switch because they didn't want to change their number. Freedom, though, may be near.
The FCC has mandated that by Nov. 24, 2003, consumers in the top 100 markets must be able to take their numbers with them when changing carriers. The cellular industry opposes the rule and has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to intervene. Why? For one thing, carriers will have to spend more than $900 million to launch number portability. Plus, the rule will increase the carriers' annual consumer churn rate, which is 31 percent right now. Still, the ruling will likely go into effect. "The ability to change numbers means more competition, better service and lower rates,"says Sally Greenberg, a lawyer at the Consumers Union.
10. "Family plans aren't too friendly."
John Gourley thought he was doing right by his family by signing up for one of Verizon's America's Choice plans. Gourley, his wife and two children were to share a pool of 1,000 mobile-to-mobile minutes. A true family value -- that is, until they discovered that when they called each other using cell phones, both users were charged minutes. For instance, in one month son Paul and daughter Mary used 750 more minutes than the plan allowed, with each extra minute costing 45 cents.
Gourley says he asked the salesperson at the Verizon store where he purchased the plan "over and over" if the person making the mobile-to-mobile call would be the only one charged for airtime. According to Gourley, "He said, 'Yes, sir.'" Obviously, that turned out not to be the case. A Verizon spokesperson says that the mobile-to-mobile charge is stipulated in service contracts. For just that reason, New York attorney Adam Gonnelli says family-plan users, whose numbers grew by 27 percent last year, need to stay vigilant. "Companies don't give you all the details when you sign up." He suggests that you request to see in writing what your plan will include before you sign.