Telephone and cable companies have done a stellar job of eliminating slow or dropped Internet connections.
So why must cell phone users still live with the same irritations?
Anyone old enough to remember extending a cell phone antenna to start a call also knows how much better cell reception is now than in the 1990s. But cell users still often live on the razor's edge between a conversation and a soliloquy. And it is not improving very fast.
Nearly 20 percent of the wireless calls in North America and Europe have unacceptable voice quality, says Ditech Networks, a company in Mountain View, Calif., that sells voice improvement technology to network carriers.
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Ditech has no comparative data to discern a trend and it would not disclose how the various carriers stacked up. But Karl Brown, a company vice president, said: “My gut is that things are getting worse. We're using our cell phones in more places, we're trying to turn them into speakerphones, which generates echoes, and we're buying Bluetooth headsets that have problems picking up background noise.”
You can also blame the carriers for not keeping pace with demand, especially in the suburbs. There, networks increasingly fight not-in-my-backyard battles with residents when they try to situate new cell towers to accommodate chattier subscribers.
Customers shouldn't expect a great leap forward in call quality anytime soon, said Shiv Bakhshi, an analyst for IDC, a market consulting firm. Networks, he said, do not always have the capacity to satisfy peak demand from customers without glitches.
Carriers have no economic incentive to build capacity so quickly that they outpace demand, but nor will they let voice quality drop so much that subscribers bolt en masse.
“On average, I think voice quality is pretty good. We can understand each other,” he said.
Maybe at that moment. Bakhshi was using the AT&T wireless network in Seattle, and the line noise rendered his statements unintelligible, as in: “The cost of deploying a network in … that every single nook and cranny is covered with equal … is … part.”
The same glitches happen on every wireless network, of course, which is perhaps why AT&T was slightly defensive when asked about this one. Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, declared the state of cell phone quality “excellent.”
Sprint, which has recently been much more forthcoming about its faults as it tries to improve its customer service reputation, is striking a different tone. The company in late July began selling Airaves, or miniature cell phone towers, to strengthen cell signals in customers' homes.
The devices, which cost $99 (and a $5 monthly subscription), plug into a customer's broadband Internet connection and support up to three simultaneous Sprint calls. Kevin Packingham, a Sprint senior vice president, said the company is also giving the devices away.
At the same time, though, there are signs that consumers are coming to terms with the state of call quality. Industry data suggest the so-called churn rate, the percentage of customers that switch networks, stands at a modest 1.2 percent, or about half of what it was three years ago.