Over the past three years, the cellular radio mobile telephone industry has proved to be one of the major growth industries in Europe. In the UK, there are now nearly 400,000 users and 300,000 car telephones with 16,000 new subscribers each month signing on to the two services available here, Cellnet and Vodafone. But the […]
Over the past three years, the cellular radio mobile telephone industry has proved to be one of the major growth industries in Europe. In the UK, there are now nearly 400,000 users and 300,000 car telephones with 16,000 new subscribers each month signing on to the two services available here, Cellnet and Vodafone. But the flip side to this success story is a rising tide of user complaints which have accelerated in the past couple of months. Considerable dissatisfaction with the cellular services is felt by UK users, notably in the built-up area round London, and particularly on the troublesome M25 orbital motorway. Similar complaints are heard from other conurbations where thereis an overloading of the system.
Users’ pressure group Earlier this year mounting pressure on the existing system moved the Ministry of Defence to release 600 additional channels, including channel frequencies previously reserved for the proposed pan-European digital cellular service due for inauguration in 1991. These extra channels have now been allocated between Cellnet and Vodafone for mobile communications use in the London area, but despite this remedial action criticism continues to mount. One user, Nicholas Michaelson, has become so infuriated with the poor service provided by his cellular phone that he is co-ordinating the formation of a cellular users’ pressure group. Through this, he hopes to extract answers to some of the key issues from the two service providers as well as giving advice to members of the group on installation, the relative merits of different types of mobile phones and the rates charged by different service providers, which can vary widely. Vivienne Peters, chief executive officer of the Telecom Users Association, says: A lot of our members are also large mobile users, so we are very interested in the cellular issue. Basically, we want to see the same things achieved as the new group: a higher quality of service as well as a more wide ranging one. The Association has just sent its members a questionnaire to assess the size of the problem and thus expects to have a clearer picture by the middle of the month. The Cellnet and Vodafone operators refute the suggestion that complaints on the service they provide are mounting. According to Vodafone, the number of calls to its fault-line has stayed reasonably constant over the last year, and Cellnet claims that the number of complaints is actually decreasing. The Government’s Office of Telecommunications watchdog body endorses these claims, reporting that there has not been a deluge of complaints. The problems that are reported are not necessarily attributable to faults with the service itself, although some undoubtedly have their roots here. In some areas, there have been delays of up to two years in installing new base stations in built-up areas where the volume of traffic carried means that the existing base station is heavily over-loaded. This in turn leads to the situation where users’ calls fail to be connected because of the number of other calls being made at the same time. A typical example is if traffic is held up on a motorway and calls are made back to offices or homes to warn that there is a traffic problem. But the cellular operators often find it far from easy to find sites for additional base stations.
Calls are also subject to poor reception, interference and even to getting lost, and these faults are not always attributable to faulty equipment or system overload. Many of them are claimed to be the result of poor installation by cowboy firms that have jumped on the bandwagon, looking to make quick and easy money from the buoyant market. Darryl Flinders of Ansell Communications, a company that provides installation and service support as well as independent consultancy services to cellulartelephone manufacturers, is concerned about educating the users. Flinders is increasingly alarmed by the standard of installation, leading to degradation of the signal through poor pick-up, and attributes many of the problems experienced with cellular equipment to
incorrect placement of aerials and to power starvation to the transceiver. In many cases, he argues, manufacturers’ installation instructions are totally ignored – and in one case a cellular phone was installed so as to render the gear lever inaccessible to the driver. Other companies in the market have also expressed concern. Talkland, a company set up to provide a one-stop shop for mobile users, has noted that excessive charges are being levied on service users by airtime retailers. Airtime is bought by retailers in half minute blocks, but users are frequently charged in minimum units of one minute. Talkland is also concerned that users are charged for all calls they dial, even if the call is not subsequently successfully connected. There is variation not only in the call charges levied but also in the installation and connection charges.
Trade association In another instance of positive action from within the industry, six retailers have jointly formed a trade association, the Federation of Independent Cellular Retailers, to focus on the issues of charges for calls and equipment and on installation practices. The Department of Trade & Industry has also recently launched a quality assurance scheme that sets out codes of practice for dealers, although it may be difficult to endorse these. The proposed cellular user group may be able to play a vital role here if its members are prepared to report their experiences back, either to the group or, possibly, to the Department itself. The sudden flurry of activity by these various groups, all apparently intent on cleaning up the industry by eliminating the cowboy operators and standardising on charges are the first rumblings. Cellular users appear to have been sitting on their grumbles about service level provision for long enough. And any action now may go some way towards clearing log jam on the UK’s analogue cellular airwaves which must run in parallel with the new digital system well into the 1990s.
Help is at hand for members of the Automobile Association who are worried that their car telephones may have been wrongly installed: for the rest of September, the AA is offering a free Phone Help service, checking out the installation of cellular car telephones.