GAO urges more detail in cell phone service reports

As cellular telephones become commonplace, the General Accounting Office has said statistics about the quality of calls should be included in annual federal reports on the wireless industry.

In a report
released today, the congressional watchdog agency said the information should be in mandated Federal Communications Commission reports on the competitiveness of the industry, which sells wireless phone services to an estimated 145 million Americans.

A survey conducted last fall for GAO report found 83 percent of cell phone users were satisfied with their service and 9 percent were unhappy.

Of more than 14,000 consumer cellphone complaints logged last year with the FCC, 62 percent were over bills and rates. The FCC said 12 percent griped about service quality, which includes problems such as dropped calls, dead zones and poor sound quality.

FCC chairman Michael Powell, in a response to GAO, said the FCC would make efforts to include the information in future reports but noted call quality is "difficult to identify and categorize" because many factors lead to degraded calls.

An industry trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association in Washington, said it needs government help to improve service.

"Local governments too often make it difficult to locate antennas. State governments add taxes and fees for one purpose and then siphon them off to something else. The federal government imposes rules that redirect scarce investment dollars away from expanding networks and services," Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of CTIA, said in a statement. "Quality service doesn't come from new reports or regulations, it comes from government allowing wireless companies to put their dollars into expanding facilities."

At least two states, California and New York, have started inquiries into advertising claims by cellular companies, which like many technology companies have gone through performance challenges brought on by rapid growth.

There are at least six private-sector services, mostly Web-based, that provide cell service rankings, GAO said. Great Britain makes a quarterly survey of cellular customers for its government reports.

(Updated 8:34 a.m. May 6, 2003)

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