May 10, 2010 – Converted the Sorry State of American Cellular editorial from the original JYCS. Note that this piece is rather outdated, as cellular service in the United States has improved dramatically since then. Poor customer service and areas of poor reception still exist, however. Also, I made some generalizations in the article that make me cringe when I read them today.
(Author’s Note: I wrote the following article after getting frustrated from being unable to check my voicemail all night and for having to drive several blocks before my cell phone will find a signal. I’ve used various phones and although my provider insists that my area isn’t dead, the same problems occur over and over again. Having been to other countries and continents and used cell phones there, I’ve yet to ever see a “no signal” message on my phone. This is clearly an American phenomenon.)
On any given day, one of the major American wireless telephone providers will succeed in getting at least one ad to you via television, radio, billboards, and junk mail. And on any given day, thousands of Americans will sign up for new cell phone service. In a small number of years, American cellular service (U.S. cell service) has grown from a privileged few’s newest gadget to an indispensable part of many peoples’ lives, largely due to aggressive marketing, lower technology costs, and increased competition between providers. There is, however, a price to be paid for this explosion: poor coverage and reception, dropped calls, horrible customer service, and unfair contracts.
Poor reception and coverage plague all of the U.S. cell service providers. I live in the city of San Francisco, a city which most people would consider metropolitan, and a major American city. In the almost five years that I have owned a cell phone, the level of cellular reception in my bedroom has remained low and inconsistent when using a Pacific Bell Wireless/Cingular/T-Mobile tower. The only times when reception was flawless were when I used AT&T TDMA, AT&T pre-Cingular merger GSM (see my other cell phone article), and Verizon CDMA. I have not tested Sprint CDMA. To not change or update working, let alone inadequate, equipment in five years is unacceptable, especially in such a high-tech and evolving industry. Yet, that is exactly what Cingular has done. They have allowed at least one dead zone to exist in a metropolitan area for at least five years. And Cingular is not alone. Visit any of the major providers’ websites user forums and you will find dozens of customers unable to receive a signal, and not being able to do a damn thing about it. Things become worse the farther you move away from a metropolitan area and the highways that connect them. There just isn’t enough network coverage to cover for the amount of advertising coverage that U.S. cell service providers continue to generate. U.S. cell service providers should concentrate less on marketing and more on improving their flawed product.
On many occasions I have contacted customer service to complain about the lack of acceptable service in my area. Although I have received good service from knowledgeable reps, they are one in a million. Most of the reps I have dealt with are poorly trained, lack listening comprehension skills, and possess less than basic knowledge of cellular technology. There are times when I have had to repeat the same information to the same rep three or four times. Other times, a rep will continually ask for my name, even though I have already given it. Once, I even had a rep hang up on me for asking to speak with a supervisor (see my other article). And there have been times when I’ve had to teach the rep how to perform a certain task with a specific cell phone model! Since customer service is considered to be unskilled labor, we can only again blame U.S. cell service providers for not providing the proper training. Again, the reason can be seen on televisions, heard on radios, and read on junk mail: too much marketing, not enough training. U.S. cell service providers should spend less money on marketing, and more money on providing training to their employees.
Unfair contracts are the basis of the current U.S. cell service industry. Providers realize that a significant number of customers (like myself) will not receive a usable signal and would naturally want to cancel the service. They know that the actual product sold is inferior to the perceived product advertised. They therefore create unfair contracts that protect and benefit themselves by design. The infamous “early termination” fee exemplifies this. The so-called reasoning behind the early termination fee is that providers supposedly lose a significant amount of money when they purchase cell phones that are then given free to customers who sign up with their service. What is not mentioned is that cell service and cell phone providers have had a long-standing, symbiotic relationship. One cannot exist without the other, and therefore it is only natural that they would give each other perks and incentives to further their mutually profitable partnership (ever notice how you can’t use one provider’s phone with another’s service? Well, you can. In other countries, that is). In addition, the price of producing a cell phone continues to decrease due to increased volume and improved production technology. Therefore, when cell service providers give you a free phone, it doesn’t hurt them as much as they’d like you to believe. It’s just a smokescreen hiding the unfairness of their contracts.
Unfortunately, things are not likely to change any time soon. Although there are many U.S. cell service providers, they all share the same problems, and one cannot simply change providers if service is poor. Cingular and AT&T recently merged, further exacerbating the situation. The only solution for potential customers is to hope that you’re not one of the unlucky ones who lives or frequents an area that is in one of your provider’s dead zones. Borrow a friend’s phone to see if his provider works in your area (although that didn’t really help for me, see my other article). Finally, don’t let a cell service provider get away with poor service. File complaints with them as well as your local and national watchdog groups. In the end, you are the only one who can make a change, because you have something that the providers want: money.