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Data is good, but not without voice

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RANT: The U.S. wireless industry’s annual fiesta, CTIA 2007, is finally wrapping up. By all means it looks like a successful show, capped by a news release from CTIA that boasts that data revenues of the industry jumped 77% in 2006 to $15.2 billion, representing about 13% of the total wireless industry revenues, currently pegged at about $125 billion.

Thanks to all those newfangled services – music, videos, television and even the web – the mobile data revenues will increase next year. But that is not a reason for the industry dons to forget what puts gas in their Cadillacs: Voice.

In 2006, voice brought in about $110 billion, and that is such a large amount of money that the U.S. wireless providers should cringe at the fact that they have to use advertising tag lines such as “fewest dropped calls” or ask people to come and try their service for 30 days or switch back for free.

No self-respecting descendant of Ma Bell should be able to sleep at night till they fix the voice network. After all Europeans have managed to lick the dropped call problem, by putting decent enough quality in place. Even the Chinese and Indian carriers with their microscopic ARPU manage to complete calls pretty much everywhere.

What brings on the rant today? How about the for past three days I have been unable to retrieve voicemails, or calls have dropped in mid-sentence, leading to a string of profanities and hence dirty looks from nice old ladies.

Frankly we all suffer this ignominy on a daily basis.

Ask anyone in America – and I do mean anyone – and they will be quick to express their dissatisfaction with their wireless phone company – regardless of carrier. Despite the presence of four large national mobile carriers, the voice network problems are almost universal.

Even those endorsed by industry ranking services are not exactly paragons of quality for there have been instances when their own phones don’t work in their company stores.

Voice is more critical to these mobile carriers than they realize. If the phone doesn’t work, we switch to another one with fewer headaches and buy our data plans from them instead … and the music and the TV and the videos! It’s that basic.

The problem is that FCC and others who are supposed to watch out for the consumer don’t really do their job and make voice call coverage mandatory. Just like they made wireless e911 mandatory! How about a QoS guarantee for the consumers?

Don’t the big phone and telecom operators sign service level agreements with big customers? Why not a similar agreement with the consumers – who frankly spend more money on their telecom services, at least in aggregate. So before they try and bring down Google, it is time for wireless carriers to tend to their own yard. Can you hear me now? Probably not, if I’m calling on a wireless phone.

15 Responses to “Data is good, but not without voice”

  1. Jesse Kopelman

    Consistently bad voice with no apparent problems on the data side indicates a lack of capacity on the voice side. Either the cells have too few radios and thus you are getting forced on to a cell that is not your natural best server or the frequency reuse is too tight due to lack of spectrum. If the problem is the latter, it can be fixed by building more cells. If it is the former, the carrier is just not doing a good job of maintaining their network. Funny how the carriers do just enough to remain competitive with each other as opposed to trying to make their customers happy. Again, a sure sign of no true competition. It’s kind of like the US auto industry before the Japanese started having real success and applying pressure. If the FCC didn’t do such a good job of creating/bolstering artificial spectrum scarcity, the major carriers would now be enjoying similar troubles to Ford and GM.

  2. I don’t think population density has anything to do with why US cellular operators consistently deliver crappy service. In San Francisco’s Castro District, I had to stand at the window of my apartment to get service. In some parts of the Financial District (where Om lives), my calls are dropped. Meanwhile on the coast of Spain’s Cabo de Gata Nijar, a natural park near Almeria, I get clear, continuous voice coverage on the beach and there’s hardly a soul around! Try that on the beach between Santa Cruz and Capitola where there is spotty cell phone coverage. By the way, Sweden is sparsely populated too, but I’ve had terrific mobile phone service there.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree. My friends look at me like I’m a creature from another planet when I keep my landline. There are times when I need voice quality, and I will not accept a degraded connection. But Om, I think part of the problem is the “If I hadn’t seen such riches I could live with being poor”, those who are international, who have traveled, have seen better telecommunications. Those who spend most of their time in the U.S. assume that ours is the best, and that mobile is just the way it is. Like healthcare, we assume that we can do no better since we have the best already. Until consumers clamour for better quality in their services, they will accept what they have. Or as the New York Times says, perhaps we need to “Expect the World”

  4. Andrew,

    Thanks for your comments. Jesse is right when he makes my case. I wish I could somehow show you the nice array of antennas on the roof tops. it is strange.


    I am using the same carrier for voice and data. however the data connection seems to works (EDGE) pretty much all the time.

    EVDO is the same thing – the data cards works fine, voice doesn’t. And this is not just near my apartment but pretty much everywhere in the Bay Area.

  5. Completely agree. In fact, not only is voice service horrible, its getting worse. When I got my first mobile phone ten years ago, I didn’t have this level of frustration at dropped calls, poor quality etc. Sure, I had a large, heavy phone with a dorky antenna that I could extend to increase the signal, but it actually worked pretty well.

  6. Jesse Kopelman

    Andrew, you have a valid point, but you miss a large part of Om’s argument. He is living in the heart of a major American city where there is plenty of density and revenue potential to justify building a landline-quality wireless network, yet he is still having problems. Clearly, lack of true competition is the culprit.

    Om, is your voice and data service from the same carrier? EDGE uses the same radios as voice (HSPDA does not though), so your problem is somewhat unusual. Still, the latency for EDGE is huge and a lot of periodic problems that would ruin a voice call (or cause it to drop) can be hidden in there. I remember a time, when working for AT&T Wireless, that I was having some issues in my apartment and since I knew the engineer responsible for that serving site, I called him to complain. It still took over a week to fix the problem! I used to walk by his cubicle and complain . . .

  7. Om,

    Not sure how fair it is to compare Europe and Asia to the US market. Europe and Asia are very dense so it makes sense for carriers to invest because the footprint is small and the return high. The US is sparsely populated – making it difficult to justify the same level of coverage.

  8. Well coverage is an issue & typically you can’t complain about it to these companies because of the contracts. I have tried this with Verizon. I moved and in my new home coverage was non existent. Had to go out to make calls. So while mobile service is not a right, users should have rights to a level of service for which they are paying.

    So I think Om is right on this one. The FCC should do something about this like if the user complains, they operator must run some sort of voice quality test (they know the location) and if it does not pass some criteria, then they cannot penalize the user. The user can view the results over the internet or something.

  9. Konrad,

    this is happening in downtown san francisco, right in the heart of the financial district, not just any place. I can see the antennas from my apartment, and yet there are these problems.

    ironically my EDGE/3G connection works flawlessly at better than optimum speeds. go figure.

  10. das,

    communist? after all these years the wireless carriers on their own have not really been able to basically provide a semblance of reliable service. when free market fails, that’s when authorities need to step in.

    talking about coverage expansion coverage, that is their core business. when growing grapes for wine, the vineyards don’t start planting olive trees before ensuring that the grapes are going to grow.

    its the same logic here. wireless companies are using price cuts as an excuse for poor quality.

  11. I am all for you rallying consumers who agree with you to demand better voice coverage from the carriers.

    But when you go into arguing that the FCC should mandate it, that is just plain communist. Cell phone voice coverage is not a right.

    There is a large capital cost to provide coverage. Carriers could build out their networks to eliminate all coverage problems, but then cell phone service would cost significantly higher than it does now.

    The market will always be the best means to sort out these types of problems.

  12. …How about the for past three days I have been unable to retrieve voicemails, or calls have dropped in mid-sentence…

    If you were at CTIA during these 3 days, that would explain (partially) your bad experience. I don’t know of any US carrier which would invest in microcells (special GSM base stations) in conference centers, in order to increase their network capacity, what is common in Europe. Well, maybe in future…