Overload Has AT&T Cellular Customers Losing Calls, Patience

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Overload Has AT&T Cellular Customers Losing Calls, Patience By Peter S. Goodman Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, April 13, 2000; Page A01

Like millions of others, Jim O'Brien bought wireless service from ATT with the not-unreasonable expectation that his phone would ring when someone dialed his number, allowing him to then have a conversation. Turns out, he was wrong.

In the three weeks since O'Brien, an oft-traveling Internet account director, walked away from an ATT store in Washington with his new phone, it has rung just a handful of times, though his fiancee has tried him on hundreds of occasions, he said. Usually, she hears a recorded message that all circuits are busy. Rarely does his voice mail field the unsuccessful calls.

O'Brien has ample company. Though ATT would not provide numbers, the company acknowledged yesterday that many of its wireless customers in the Washington and Baltimore areas have suffered frequent busy signals, dropped calls and intermittent voice-mail service in recent weeks.

ATT says it's a victim of its own success: The boom in new customers is outpacing the infrastructure, as sometimes happens when a company's sales efforts get ahead of its capacity. But even as the problems occur, ATT continues to market service aggressively and is preparing to sell as much as $13.2 billion worth of shares tracking its wireless holdings, which would amount to the largest initial public offering in history.

"Phenomenal growth is going on," said Bruce Martin, ATT Wireless vice president and general manager for Washington, Baltimore and New England. "We have run into issues of provisioning. Some people are having issues with that."

As ATT portrays it, no one could have anticipated how quickly wireless phones would spread, or how much time people would spend talking on them. A survey released this week by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association showed that wireless customers now use their phones an average of 180 minutes a month, up from 130 minutes a year ago. The industry added 16.8 million customers in the United States last year--one every two seconds.

"People have actually started using their phones," Martin said. "That has stressed our system."

ATT's latest woes come at an awkward time for the company. Its stock offering is aimed at fully exploiting the success of its vast national wireless network. Officials hope to convince Wall Street that ATT's days as staid and old-fashioned Ma Bell are ancient history, that the company is now planted at the sweet spot of the technology revolution.

Yet, on the eve of the sale, ATT is proving unable to satisfy customers in one of the nation's largest markets. The company is drawing derisive comparisons to America Online, the Internet service provider whose mass marketing six years ago overshot its capacity, bringing busy signals, consumer frustration and class-action lawsuits.

"It sounds like they pulled an AOL," said Bob Baum of Bethesda, whose efforts to reach his wife on her ATT phone have lately proved futile. "You can't open the paper without seeing their large ads. Presumably, they do projections. . . . If they can't handle their capacity, they shouldn't have their sales reps out."

AOL was selling something that was still a novelty. ATT is in a business that has become a critical component of daily life, making some customers uneasy about its reliability.

When car trouble set in this week, Catherine Pulley, one such customer, tried to call a friend with an ATT phone for a lift. She quit after 22 failed tries. "I'm not in a life-threatening situation, but it was enough to make me think, 'What if something really happened?' " Pulley said.

Wireless usage overwhelming capacity is not a new story. As carriers such as Sprint PCS have discovered through their own misadventures, signing people up for service can be easier than building networks to handle calls. ATT has gained notoriety for similar problems in New York.

Martin said the biggest bottlenecks in the Washington area occur on the land lines the company buys from Bell Atlantic to link its system to the wired network, with most of the customer difficulties confined to high-use areas during peak hours. In the past two weeks, two accidental cuts of fiber-optic cables by wayward contractors have further strained capacity, he added.

ATT is buying more lines from Bell Atlantic--a process that could take several weeks. "This is on the top of our priority list," Martin said. "Within 60 to 90 days, the problem will be gone completely."

Customers took little solace. "ATT is a very big company," said Scott Tambert, a researcher who lives in the District. "They should be able to fix this problem, and yet this is going on for weeks and weeks."

Tambert's phone began going silent for much of the day about five weeks ago, he said. Far more than an inconvenience, it was a threat to his business, he said. Two years ago, he bought into an ATT ad that urged customers to make their wireless phone their only phone and canceled his regular Bell Atlantic service.

Tambert locates photographs and film clips for advertising agencies and filmmakers. He didn't realize he had a problem until a friend finally got through to him, complaining that he had tried dozens of other times.

"What is the sound of a phone not ringing? I thought, business is slow," Tambert said. "The idea of having a cell phone is so people can reach you, and they can't even leave a message. It's a devastating thing to my business."

Most frustrating, he said, was his inability to get a coherent story from ATT. Tambert's first call to ATT's customer-care line yielded a denial of trouble. "They told me I was crazy," he said. "I didn't know how to use my own phone, which I've had for two years."

Later, ATT told him its cell towers were malfunctioning. Yesterday, a sympathetic representative said ATT was suffering system-wide troubles in the area and was inundated with complaints. They extended a month's credit.

ATT said it does not track the number of local customer complaints but has offered hundreds of people partial service refunds.

Not enough to satisfy O'Brien. Yesterday, he went back to the Connecticut Avenue ATT store where he bought his phone. They said he could return it for a full refund, but they would not fully refund his monthly service fee.

"I paid the service and I can't make phone calls," O'Brien said, clearly incensed. "You guys won't refund us the price?"

The man behind the counter vented his own frustrations: He was swamped with complaints, yet even he--a retail representative--could not get a satisfying explanation from the corporation. The trouble had only set in a week or so earlier, he insisted.

O'Brien didn't buy it. "The day that I left this store, I couldn't receive a call," he said. "I find it hard to believe that they didn't know about this when they sold me this phone."

As he spoke, agents inside continued to sign up new customers.

"If this was going to be a long-term problem, we probably would stop selling," Martin said. "This is a short-term fix."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 13, 2000

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