On a recent Friday, I stood, shivering, on the
dimly-lit corner of 116th and Broadway trying to call my
friend on my new Sprint cell phone. As
if dialing numbers on the tiny keyboard with winter
gloves was not enough of an inconvenience, I found
that the Sprint network was unavailable and that my
phone was in "roaming" mode - looking for another
network to place the call.
I dialed the number, waited a few seconds, and
when I thought that my friend's phone was ringing, I
got a message from Verizon - was that James Earl
Jones? -- saying that their network could not identify
my phone. So, there I was, on my way to a party, but
stuck in one of the city's many "dead zones".
One week later, I finally
got around to reporting the
problem on a short
survey remembering Mayor Michael Bloomberg's announcement that the city is using
the 311 non-emergency
number and the nyc.gov Web site to collect and map
information about these "dead spots."
In New York, mobility
is not just a luxury, it is a way
of life. And, many New Yorkers have come to rely on
using cell phones to manage their lives, sometimes
even canceling their land-lines in favor of their
By 2005, more time will be spent on cell phones than
on land lines in New York according to data from
Senator Chuck Schumer. This is true even when
considering the large number of calls made in New York
City, the world's biggest telecommunications market.
In the next three years, the number of minutes of cell
phone calls made in New York State is projected to
increase 37 percent (66.7 billion to 106.2 billion)
while the number of minutes of land line calls is
projected to decrease 8.4 percent (106.2 billion to
Thus, poor reception quality and lack of cell phone
coverage, is not merely an inconvenience, it is also a
matter of public safety. Increasingly 911 phone calls
are being placed on cell phones. According to
Commissioner Gino Menchini, of the Department of Information, Technology and
Telecommunications (DoITT), "in certain circumstances,
cell phone dead zones create a hazardous condition for
New Yorkers. We hope the cell carriers will use this
information to improve the quality of their service
for the good of their customers and the city."
KEEPING YOUR PHONE NUMBER
The city plans to make the results of its cell phone
survey public on nyc.gov on the same day
that a new
federal policy (PDF file) goes into effect in the nation's top 100 metropolitan
areas that allows consumers to switch wireless providers without having to
give up their phone number.
the past, many cell phone customers have been
dissuaded from switching providers because they
consider their phone number to be part of their mobile
identity. Freelancers, consultants and
small business owners rely on having a number where
they can be reached anytime in order to keep in-touch
with their clients.
In addition, the Federal Communications Commission ruling allows customers to change
their home wire-line phone number into a cell phone
number. According to The New York Times, industry
analysts estimate that three percent to seven percent of
telephone users in the United States - or 4.5 million to 10.5 million
people - no longer have traditional land-lines and
rely on cellphone services exclusively.
However, given the telecommunications
failures of 9/11
and Blackout 2003, New Yorkers might want to think
twice about taking their home number with them, at
least until more reliable emergency communications
have been implemented.
The city is also trying to make sure that wireless
providers follow their own best practices, which were
announced in September. Some of these include
allowing for a 14-day trial period for new service and
making service maps available at stores and on company
Mayor Bloomberg's initiative shows support for this
new federal policy and sends a positive signal to the
wireless providers that serve New York City. The city
can help providers improve their service but, in the
end, if customers aren't satisfied, they can always
For years, wireless providers have been lobbying in
Washington to prevent the implementation of this law
which was part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
This is because customers already switch cell phone
providers more often than they change companies in other
types of services. This is called the "churn rate".
new federal policy however, comes with a few
caveats. Wireless carriers may charge customers a fee
to move their phone number to another carrier.
Getting a new phone also means having to re-enter
hundreds of names and numbers into the address book of
their new phones.
Since companies use different technologies, it is
likely that customers will have to replace their
phones. For example, an AT&T phone will not work on a
Sprint network, and a Sprint phone won't work on a
T-mobile network. Thus, many more cell phones will be
dumped at landfills where they will be "leaking toxic metals
and chemicals into the ground" according to the
Associated Press. About 100 million cell phones are
thrown out each year in the United States.
On November 19, Senator Chuck
Schumer warned New
Yorkers not to sign new long-term contracts with their
cell phone providers because they won't be able to
take advantage of better deals which will be offered
after November 24th. Many companies including AT&T,
Cingular and Sprint have been pushing to enroll
customers before the new policy goes into effect. The
new policy will promote competition among carriers
which will lead to lower prices and incentives for
companies to improve their coverage.
The Federal Communications Commission
expects six million of the 150 million cell
phone subscribers nationwide to switch providers
within the first seven days of the new policy. But,
only 42 percent of wireless customers nationwide know
about the new policy according to telecom consultancy
The Management Network Group as reported by The
Washington Post. Thus, the city's efforts to make
this information more easily accessible to the public
should be applauded.
I don't know about you, but after my experience
standing in the cold in a "dead zone" on Broadway, I'm
certainly going to re-evaluate my cell phone provider
once the new federal policy goes into effect.
Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.
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