May 12, 2000 1:55 PM PDT

Wireless services still facing growing pains

Minneapolis network consultant Shane Lindstrom's business depends on mobile phones, but today he's wishing that were a little less true.

Verizon Wireless, the mobile phone giant created by Vodafone and Bell Atlantic, has lost more than a month of his company's critical archived voice mail messages, apparently without any backups in place.

"It's partly 'our bad' for relying so heavily on their service," said Lindstrom, who is the chief technology officer for network consultancy Digital Winter. "But I guess the lesson is we can't rely on other people for some critical services."

A Verizon representative said the problem, which resulted from an attempted software and hardware upgrade Wednesday night, has affected about 16,000 customers in Minneapolis. The carrier is working with voice mail equipment company Octel to determine whether the messages can be retrieved, the representative added.

Verizon's glitch--which could cost Lindstrom and other small-business people thousands of dollars in missed or lost messages--is just one of the bumps in the wireless road that is keeping the systems from taking on traditional wired telephone services on a level playing field.

Subscribers are pouring into the wireless phone systems, giving companies such as Verizon, Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless explosive growth rates over the past year. Analysts are even more bullish on the industry's future, predicting that more than a billion cellular phones will be in use worldwide by the year 2003.

Some early mobile users have switched to the wireless services as their primary phone lines, instead of using more traditional wired phones. This option has looked increasingly attractive, at least on paper, as the wireless phone companies such as Sprint and AT&T offer "one-rate" services that don't charge long-distance fees.

"I think in the U.S. you're seeing the pattern go from disuse to use. AT&T started that with the Digital One Rate with rates equivalent to land lines," said Jane Zweig, executive vice president at wireless research firm Herschel Shosteck Associates. "Most people won't give up their home phones, but certainly the wireless phone becomes a much more prevalent device."

Zweig believes wireless phones are more apt to replace phones for voice service than they are to become a primary method of accessing data and Internet services.

"For voice you'll see some substitution, though I don't know if you'll get one-to-one replacement," she said. "But for data, it is absurd to think people will throw away their PCs for the mobile phone. I think for the data side of things it will be years, if ever, before wireless becomes a replacement."

But Lindstrom's experience is just one of many stories of network glitches, lost calls, rampant busy signals and other customer issues that still haunt the wireless industry.

Verizon technical staff told him today that the voice mail archives had been lost in the course of upgrading the system, that hundreds of thousands of messages had been lost, and that they had not been securely backed up. The company told him that customers who lost information were simply out of luck, he said.

"It's just not ready for prime time," Lindstrom said. His business had signed up for Verizon's service specifically because of the saved voice mail features, which they used to archive information about mobile workers' customer calls, he noted.

"Nowhere in the ads does it say even though they provide the service, it won't necessarily work," he said.

Other companies have had their own glitches that have kept many customers from relying on their services.

AT&T Wireless, for see story: Creating wireless giantsexample, found itself reaching the limits of its capacity in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, rendering subscribers unable to use their phones. Angry wireless users have even filed lawsuits against AT&T claiming fraud for misleading advertisements.

Those types of network problems in particular have led many analysts to say that the day when wireless can genuinely replace the traditional phone is a long way off, at least in the United States.

"I don't see wireless displacement of wireline services happening ever in the United States," said Kelly Quinn, senior wireless industry analyst for Aberdeen Group. "It may happen in isolated areas, but certainly not to the heraldic proportions that some people are predicting."

Quinn estimates that fewer than 1 percent of U.S. phone lines have been disconnected in favor of full-time mobile phone usage. Consumers continue to have fears about using their "bucket" of 500 or 1,000 anytime minutes that have become so popular with wireless service providers.

"If you can't be reached on the road, why on Earth would you want to give up the reliability and clear line sound of the home phone?" Quinn asked.

 

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