Cell-phone service surprises & portion sizes

An occasional visitor to the US finds his old assumptions challenged

For the past 10 years I've expected three constants when visiting the U.S.: friendly people, large portions of food and bad cell-phone coverage.

America's poor cell-phone networks have been a source of frustration and puzzlement for years -- how can such a technologically advanced country end up with "service" that routinely garbles messages and drops calls?

The service problems are highlighted in carrier advertisements, which often trumpet -- at the expense of service offerings -- attractions such as "fewest dropped calls." It has always struck me as strange that they would try to sell their services with the message that they'll mess up those services less than the competition.

In Japan, where I live, I've never seen a TV commercial boasting of fewest dropped calls because those are not a problem. And globally scattered colleagues say it's the same where they live. In my experience, even developing countries in Asia have vastly fewer problems than what I'd come to expect on my visits to the U.S.

What gives with that?

Ironically, America's advanced wireline network is partly to blame, says analyst Jeff Kagan.

"Historically, the U.S. has always had the best telephone service," he said. Back in the days of the wireline monopoly there were few complaints, calls connected quickly and service was available cheaply, says Kagan.

Indeed, as a teenager growing up in the U.K. and getting my impressions of America from TV, I came to envy the telephone lines that U.S. teens all apparently had in their bedrooms. But what I envied most was that local calls were free. The U.K. phone monopoly was run by the post office back then, and I remember trying to make calls sometimes and being told by a recorded message to try again because all lines to another part of the country were engaged.

In other countries, fixed lines were less common or were too expensive, so cellular played a more important role than in the U.S.

The use of different technologies is another reason that U.S. cellular service isn't on par with other countries. CDMA (code division multiple access), GSM (global system for mobile communications) and W-CDMA (wideband code division multiple access) are all used and they operate in different frequency bands, so phones are less common that switch networks when the service provider's signal drops. Reliance on a single technology in many other countries means that smaller networks can often fill in the gaps with coverage from a larger partner.

But in the past 10 years, cellular has become more important to many people and that demand is leading to improvements, which I noticed on this week's visit.

"If this recession was 10 years ago people would be canceling their wireless, but now they're canceling their wireline," Kagan says.

The rise in cellular's prominence means improved service, with more availability in buildings and subway stations, and coverage deeper into the countryside. There are so many buildings in New York with gap fillers in elevator shafts that everyone expects to be able to continue their phone conversations going up or down, says Brenda Boyd Raney of Verizon Wireless. Gap fillers are low-power base stations designed to cover areas that have poor cellular reception.

Verizon is spending US$5 billion a year on improving its network, but it meets with resistance at times.

"People do not want [cellular] towers in their communities so we do have to go to zoning boards," she says.

The unpopularity of cell-phone towers means it's sometimes more difficult to provide robust service in cities, although a new generation of small base stations called femtocells is helping to cover small gaps -- so-called "dead zones" -- in cellular coverage.

In one of the positive aspects of the U.S. cellular landscape, looking out over Boston this week from the Back Bay, I see no cellular antennas polluting the city's beautiful skyline. You're hard-pressed to look in any direction and not see a cell tower in Tokyo and other Asian cities.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the reception I've gotten on this trip. I arrived in Boston from Tokyo around noon last Saturday and it's now 9:30 a.m. Central Time in Chicago, where I'm on layover at O'Hare on my trip home, and none of my calls have been dropped and they've all been clear.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go tuck into the constant that I'm glad has remained the same in America: a huge plate of food.

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