What fresh (phone) hell is this?*


Credit: Images_of_M

Unlike most of my colleagues at GigaOM, I’m no gadget freak. I have a perfectly adequate, not-new iPhone 4(s aapl) (no Siri for me) and I actually still miss my Blackberry Curve(s bbry) but don’t tell Om. People like me — and there are a lot of us — don’t need the latest and greatest. But here’s what we do need: To be able to make and take phone calls.

Many smartphonesAnd too often that just doesn’t happen. How many dropped calls have you suffered lately? You get my point. But this week, the problem of dropped or aborted calls took on new significance. I was off most of the week dealing with a family health emergency with my mom and here’s what’s happened, telephonically speaking.

First, four calls to the on-call doctor on Saturday — the service promises a 30-minute turnaround time —  went unanswered FOR TWO DAYS.  When the doctor did call — on Monday morning — he said none of those pages ever got to his cell phone. I believe him, not that it matters: In effect, an appalling communications breakdown is no better than a negligent on-call doc.

Second, my mom’s surgeon was unable to reach my cell late Monday night when he was supposed to brief me on his plan of action. I didn’t actually him believe him but at that point, the die was cast and I got the briefing as mom was wheeled into the OR.

But then, as minutes, then hours ticked by, and it was long past the time I should have received a call from recovery, I wondered. Using a hospital phone, I called my cell and sure enough got a fast busy.  Turns out the hospital phone system — from Verizon(s vz) it turns out — did not recognize my 13-year-old “new” area code. The IT department had to program in the area code to fix the problem. It took a few minutes, but jeez, isn’t this the kind of thing that shouldn’t happen anymore?

Given the good result — successful surgery — it all came out ok, but I can’t help but wonder that, with all these super smart phones and 4G networks and blah blah blah, how it is that so much basic stuff — the ability to complete calls — just goes wrong.

Another example: The last time I called Triple A from the same cell phone, I had to wait (and wait)  for them to route me through the system. They assumed, based on my cell number that I was in the Boston area, when I was 1000 miles away. Shouldn’t they just have “known” where i was based on the phone’s GPS data? Probably yes, but they didn’t.

A similar issue can occur when you enter your cell phone number on customer service calls. Many companies, including Comcast(s cmcsa) in my experience, don’t get that people keep their cell numbers when they move. So they send you to a service person based on where they **think** you are located based on that cell phone number. It makes for a very unsatisfying customer experience.

Zillions of silly free mobile apps are fine and dandy but I’d rather have a device and network that actually does what they’re supposed to: Make phone calls.

*with apologies to Dorothy Parker.



I’m really confused now. Your phone did work Barb when you went to make outgoing phone calls. The calls you didn’t receive (hospital) had nothing to do with your phone. You end the article by stating: “I’d rather have a device and network that actually does what they’re supposed to: Make phone calls.”

It seems this more just a general complaint that everything doesn’t work the way YOU want it to work, not so much a problem with the phone or the places you’re calling.

In what you’ve said, everything worked the way it was programmed and setup to work. Maybe your complaint is more that companies haven’t kept up with the technology in the cell phones to pinpoint our location when we call them.

Michael Mincey

What I find funny here is that it sounds more like just wanting to complain. Nicolai provided a VERY detailed explanation for the causes of what could have happened, but you don’t want an intelligent explanation. You just want to scream and shout. That’s your right, but you should take the time to also research why things happen and not just assume what should happen when the causes can be many. I laughed more than anything as I read the article (more than 10 years of telecom here) as what you wrote was pretty ridiculous. I go through 4 phones a year, and I’ve never experienced what you explained. There have been a ton of advances in the industry. I think that you are just a very hard to please customer.

Tuppence Beresford

If expecting a call to go through (or, more precisely, expecting *some* — not even all — of the six calls recounted here to go through) is being hard to please, then I think you’ve just argued Barb’s point. I would guess that if your mom was in the hospital and the phone system failed on you numerous times in many different areas — from the hospital PBX being woefully out-of-date to the on-call doc’s phone not getting cell phone messages — you’d feel you had a right to complain. In an emergency situation, you shouldn’t have to take the time to research why things happen. You should get the doctor so you can spend your time addressing the emergency, not why or where the phone system failed you. That burden should not fall on the consumer.

Barb Darrow

thanks tuppence. the problem with tech is that techies don’t think like poor consumers who bear the brunt of the screwups and then blame the consumers for not being techies.

And yet they all claim to want to “delight” their customers.


Thanks for the article, Barb. I’m glad things turned out well with your family health situation. I work in Medicine and also have “the ability to make good, clear phone calls” my top priority when shopping for a phone. I was so excited when the iphone originally came out, but ended up at the time getting a Motorola flip phone because I needed a device on which I could make phone calls. (Plus, I got poor AT%T coverage in my home or I would probably have abandoned my top priority for the cool new phone.) The last time I bought a phone (Samsung, Android) , I walked into a Verizon store and told them I needed a phone that made good phone calls and was directed without hesitation to the latest Motorola phone. One problem is – there is no longer an alternative to the terrible phone service provided by carriers. The other problem, to digress, is that while there is an article on this blog today about some fancy, shmancy thin skin electronica, US medicine has not mastered the ability to communicate to a family member in the waiting room that their loved one is out of surgery.

Barb Darrow

Wow…to tell a phone user that it’s his or her job to troubleshoot why calls don’t go through is just the problem. It’s not ridiculous to expect your calls to be completed. Blaming the user is silly and one reason normal people get turned off to tech.

Michael Mincey

It was nothing about ‘blaming’ the user. Firstly, I pointed to the fact that Nicolai pointed out some causes as to why things may have happened. You didn’t care about that and just wanted to blame your phone/carrier when they don’t have control. I’ve heard hundreds of times where people want to blame the phone, the carrier, or whatever. First of all, you select your device. Different devices don’t always work the same from internal antenna strength, reception capability, design (hello, antennagate) and other factors. Still, YOU chose it. Take the time to research the device and some of that goes away. Buy a cheaper phone, don’t expect miracles and so on. Then, you have the carrier. Anyone that reads the news or reads Consumer Reports and the like would know which carriers and technologies have their issues. That doesn’t take a ‘techie’ to see that. That just takes some time and effort to research before buying and being a RESPONSIBLE shopper.

Bottom line is if you want a device that just works, landlines have reached that plateau.

Barb Darrow

i didn’t blame the phone, the carrier, or the pbx provider. The post is about a telephony system that failed and to point out that this is not acceptable.


Barb, You’re a journalist. Check your spelling. Similar to dropped calls, that seems to be one of those things that people just accept anymore.

Barb Darrow

to be fair, i had dropped calls on my Blackberry and Moto phones too…. and in this case teh problem wasn’t erallly dropped calls but a profound failure of telephony to work– whtehr because of an aging PBX or a bad paging system or whatever…

speaking as a consumer who shouldn’t have to sweat these things, teh overall experience was abysmal regardless of who or what was to blame

And yes my iPhone does drop tons of calls.


I’ve never heard good things about non-current iPhones and dropped calls. Even before antennagate I’d heard iPhones were prone to dropped calls. It’s one of the reason I’ve never owned an iPhone–I needed a good phone first and foremost.


You can’t broadcast your location to everybody ,it’s a matter of privacy.
In some cases you might want someone to be able to locate you but in many others you really don’t want that.
Triple A could make an app where you have the option to share location (maybe they even have one, no clue) but in the end the car itself should be smart enough to send data to them.
As for why calls don’t work, no competition. The prices are very high, compared to other locations around the globe and the services lack quality.It’s what you get when the election system legalizes corruption and regulators are just for show.


If your hospital needs to program area code routing to be able to reach your cell, they should upgrade their telephony infrastructure to something not from the Flintstones era. This problem has nothing whatsoever to do with your smartphone or carrier though.

The fact that your telecom operator and triple A use incorrect geo-location data has nothing to do with the smartphone or with the capabilities of the network either. Good, reliable geo-location is available in your smartphone (from wifi and cellular radio triangulation) and in the HLR in the network of your telco. These companies are to blame for not using tools that connect to those reliable data sources.

Barb Darrow

The point of the post is — despite huge breakthroughs in devices and feeds and speeds, the phone experience often fails. Do I care who’s fault it is? No. Do most people care who’s fault it is? No. They just want a system that works and to your point, no smartphone in the world will solve these problems. Thanks for your note.

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