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Six Things Customers Hate About Cell Phone Service

People are attached to their cell phones and smartphones, but this love affair has its limitations.

Business people and consumers have developed a firm attachment to their cell phones and smartphones, but there several areas where they would like to see improvement. As part of a broader investigation InformationWeek did into the business practices of cellular service providers, we compiled the following list of common complaints.

Disabled features. Cellular carriers are involved in the cell phone design process, which means they exercise some degree of control over which features go into a phone and which get left out. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University School of Law, who has studied the issue, says carriers sometimes block or modify features, including call timers, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, Advanced SMS, browsers, photo and sound file transfer, E-mail clients, and SIM card mobility.

Phones "locked" to work on only one network. Cell phones and smartphones sold by AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile are generally only for use on one carrier's network. If someone purchases a phone from AT&T, they won't be able to use it on the Verizon Wireless network, and vice versa. Some carriers will unlock a phone upon request, but only under certain conditions, such as a three-month commitment to their service or upon termination of a service. Unlocked phones can be purchased separately, but they tend to cost more and lack the tech support that comes with carrier-provided phones.

"Walled garden" Internet access. Walled garden refers to a restricted view of the Internet. It's almost impossible to find certain Web sites and applications on standard cell phones (those lacking a mobile operating system) unless they're located in "portals" provided by the carriers. And basic Web applications require a subscription. Carriers set up this controlled environment by providing a menu of sites they want to expose rather than unrestricted Internet access. Newer cell phones come with browsers based on the Wireless Application Protocol, which often displays information in text form without the rich graphics found on full-fledged Web browsers.

Unreliable service. Despite improvements by the cellular carriers, there are still too many dropped calls, dead zones, weak signal, and service outages. To a carrier, a "dropped call" is just that -- the connection is completely lost. But that doesn't take into account times when the signal becomes so weak as to become useless, another common problem. Cell coverage is good in places where the carriers have put up plenty of cell towers, but many locations across the U.S. still suffer from dead zones. Imagine getting a network busy signal or a dropped call 70% to 80% of the time. That's an experience described by cell phone user in response to my recent blog entry "Attention Cellular Customers: It's Time To Speak Out!". "To me this is breach of contract" by the carrier, writes the user.

Incompatible products and services. The balkanization of wireless standards in the U.S. has resulted in networks based on two different cellular technologies: Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) used by Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and Alltel; and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) used by AT&T and T-Mobile. This compounds the problem of locked phones (see above), since a phone designed for one network may not work on another even if the carriers wanted that.

Cell phones generally can't be used as laptop modems even though it's technically feasible. Some carriers charge extra for using your cell phone as a wireless modem, while others block that capability all together by disabling the Bluetooth functionally that would enable it. Sprint allows customers to use Bluetooth as a modem on PAM-capable phones (PAM stands for phone-as-modem), but subscribers must have an appropriate service plan. AT&T customers can use 3G phones as modems if they've purchased a BroadbandConnect data plan. T-Mobile is the exception; it allows subscribers to openly use their Bluetooth-enabled phones as modems.

Return to the story:
Cell Service Providers Get A Wake-Up Call From Business Users

Continue to the blog:
Attention Cellular Customers: It's Time To Speak Out!

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