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RealTime IT News

Cells and the City

In HBO's "Sex and the City," Carrie Bradshaw long refuses her annoyed friends requests she get a cell phone. Considering the spotty coverage, she might have a point.

In an admission that probably didn't shock many New Yorkers, AT&T Wireless said it still has problems with dropped calls in the city.

"New York continues to be a challenge," AT&T Wireless Vice President Greg Siemons said during a conference call Monday afternoon.

Siemons said dropped calls were a big problem at peak times, like 5 p.m., as harried New Yorkers clog the sidewalks and start dialing. He said the carrier's service fell about a percentage point below its internal goal of clear connections 99 percent of the time. In addition to New York City, AT&T Wireless said it had coverage problems in another city, which it did not name.

While AT&T Wireless trumpeted its honesty in coming clean about dropped calls, some New Yorkers were less impressed but philosophical.

"I was given an AT&T phone through work and it drops calls all the time," said Charles Riley, a New Yorker and AT&T Wireless customer for three months. "I have decided picking a [wireless carrier] is like trying to choose a president, just pick one and go with it -- you're going to be disappointed no matter what you decide."

In the fourth quarter of 2001, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recorded 2,423 consumer complaints regarding wireless service. Service quality ranked third, behind billing and advertising, representing 14 percent of all complaints. One wireless market researcher, Telephia, estimates the chances of getting disconnected during a two-minute call at 2 percent.

New Yorkers often complain of getting no reception in their apartments -- or having to lean out of windows to make calls.

With its huge population jamming networks, New York City is not the ideal place for cell-phone coverage. Scarborough Research estimates 63 percent of New Yorkers own mobile phones, ranking it 26th in the country in metropolitan cell-phone penetration.

"It goes back to the fact that New York is the city, man," said AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi. "It's got more people than anywhere else and those people use wireless phones to make a lot of calls."

He said about 2 million of AT&T Wireless' 20 million customers live in New York City, with many more commuting to the city or just visiting, causing a flood of calls to the 1,100 cell sites the carrier has dotting the city.

In February, Consumer Reports tested cellular coverage in nine major U.S. cities. The consumer-affairs magazine hired Telephia to drive around in a van placing calls and measuring the quality of service. The survey rated New York City as the third-worst metropolitan area for cellular coverage, besting only Los Angeles and Houston.

Blasi said AT&T Wireless was not alone trying to deal with sudden surges of calls from geographically small areas at certain times.

"All wireless carriers are experiencing the same kinds of things," he said. "In New York what happens is sometimes you're in an area where the cell site that might pick you up might not have capacity."

However, AT&T Wireless ranked below Sprint PCS in a Sept. 2001 report by consumer researcher J.D. Power and Associates, which gave the call and phone quality of AT&T Wireless the lowest ranking. J.D. Power did not exactly rave about Sprint's call quality, though, ranking it as "does not really stand out." That was enough to win the J.D. Power and Associates' customer-satisfaction award.

New Yorkers probably shouldn't hold out for the much-anticipated third-generation (3G) cellular networks improving matters. Yesterday, Hutchison admitted customers in Italy and the United Kingdom would have a problem with dropped calls when the company rolled out its 3G network in October.