What's Wrong With Your Cell Phone Company

America's four big wireless carriers have chronically disappointed their customers. Here's where they fall short.

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Complaining about mobile phone service providers has nearly become a national pastime. Even the providers themselves now gripe about one other, with AT&T filing a lawsuit against Verizon claiming that its ad campaign misleads customers into believing there are enormous gaps in AT&T's wireless coverage. Coverage has, in fact, been a sore spot for AT&T: Customers have reported sluggish connections, possibly due to the rapid uptake in bandwidth-hogging iPhones. Yet as several tech bloggers have pointed out, all four of America's major wireless providers have had their share of problems lately, especially when it comes to keeping customers happy. Here's the breakdown:


  • Poor Coverage  Dave Jeyes at Tech Blorge says that AT&T isn't doing itself any favors by calling attention to the disparity between its wireless coverage and Verizon's, which is clearly superior: "Instead of suing Verizon for pointing out its anemic 3G network, maybe AT&T should funnel money into expanding coverage into new cities. With less dropped calls and dead zones, AT&T customers might be more willing to recommend a friend."
  • Land Line Erosion The Atlantic's own Daniel Indiviglio doesn't think AT&T a great case considering that the ads in question clearly state that the comparison is between the companies' 3G networks. He thinks that AT&T's sharp decline in landline customers and related profit loss might have something to do with the way the company is approaching the situation: "I think it demonstrates AT&T's desperation…If they succeed, and its iPhone-driven account growth takes a significant hit, then that would be very, very bad for AT&T. After all, its wireless segment is one of the few bright spots in its business these days."


  • Bad Customer Service   The Wire already highlighted an impassioned screed against Verizon's home broadband package from a political writer. When it comes to mobile service, there is similar anecdotal evidence to be found on the company's own feedback Web site. As one customer up it: "They continually say they will resolve your issue - but when they do not, they try to make it seem like it is the fault of the customer. I as a consumer thought the buyout of a cell phone provider by another would require the service to be at least as good as the previous provider's service - Verizon Wireless has failed to do this."
  • Scammers On Wednesday, bloggers circulated a memo indicating Verizon will be doubling the early cancellation fee for customers whose contracts include "advanced devices." Verizon, like the other major wireless carriers, sacrifices a large part of the initial cost of its smart phones to entice customers. The Droid, for instance, actually costs much more than its $199 list price but Verizon is able to recoup the loss over time. The only problem? People have been exploiting the system, as information Week's Eric Zeman points out: "Some suspect that the policy change is in the works to prevent scammers who take advantage of buy-one-get-one-free offers, cancel the contracts, and make a profit selling the devices that they got for free (even after paying the Early Termination Fee)."


  • Pitiful Partners  GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham says that Sprint made a mistake when it partnered with the past-its-prime Palm company to offer a new line of smart phones. She points to Sprint's dismal 3rd quarter report, which indicated that some 801,000 customers had deserted the carrier despite the exclusive launch of the Palm Pre. She said there isn't much the company can do to soften that blow : "Sprint is enlarging its prepaid business with an acquisition and competitive rate plans as a way to ensure that contract customers who leave for pre-paid plans still have a place in the Sprint family, but so far its bet on the Pre and pre-paid hasn’t pushed it back into the black."
  • Erroneous Ads  Erictric notices that Sprint hasn't been on the ball with its most recent advertising campaign: "Sprint has rolled out a new ad for the holidays promoting the Palm Pixi with Wi-Fi capabilities. The problem is: the Palm Pixi won’t be equipped with Wi-Fi. I don’t want to sound highly critical since I make quite a few mistakes myself, but someone has not been paying attention to the reports about the Pixi."


  • Disruptive Service Outages  On Tuesday night, social media sites were swarmed by frustrated T-Mobile customers venting their outrage at the company. Turns out that 5% of the wireless network's users lost their network service entirely for several hours, leaving them unable to even make calls, let alone send texts or connect to the Internet. Unfortunately, the incident was actually the second high-profile T-Mobile glitch in less than a month (see below). CNET solicited the reactions from customers and Ina Fried says they were about as bad as could be: "From a husband unable to connect with his pregnant wife, to small-business owners unable to reach clients, to people getting grief for seemingly ignoring text messages from their significant others, people wrote in with their grievances."
  • Data Loss  ZDNet's Andrew Nusca analyzes the fallout from a two-week long data loss epidemic that plagued T-Mobile's Sidekick users in October, resulting in the disappearance of personal contacts and other information. A popular, exclusive T-mobile phone, the Sidekick runs Microsoft's Danger OS, which was the chief culprit behind the data loss. Still, Nusca thinks that T-Mobile will bear the brunt of customers' ire: "In this case, the problem isn’t really T-Mobile’s at all, but this B2B problem is entirely the carrier’s to manage, since it’s been let down by a partner and simultaneously become the face of the problem. After all, customers pay T-Mobile. In their eyes, it’s T-Mobile’s fault if service doesn’t deliver."

No Provider is Perfect

  • A few bloggers have pinpointed faults they say are common to all carriers. eWeek's Don Reisinger lists ten, while BillShrink Guy rounds up 11.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.