Video: Cell phones: Can you hear me now?

By Rehema Ellis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/28/2004 7:52:26 PM ET 2004-01-29T00:52:26

It’s the problem even cell phone companies joke about in their own ads. “I asked him to pick a movie — something old.  He thought I said I wanted a monkey — with a cold.”

Funny, but not to Julie Saintanne, a Hollywood advertising writer, who needs her cell phone 24/7.  Spotty service often forced her outside. “If I had to make a cell phone call at night or somebody was calling me on my cell phone at night, I actually had to go outside and find a place where I could get good reception,” Saintanne said.

Julie had to switch carriers to get better service, and she’s not alone.  A survey published in this month’s Consumer Reports magazine says 8 out of 10 cell users complained most about dropped calls, no coverage or dead zones, poor sound and static.

According to Consumers Union President Jim Guest, “Most cell phone users that Consumer Reports surveyed feel like they’re in cell hell.”

Surprisingly, one phone tested gets a clear signal down inside a New York City subway station, but above ground, even in the middle of Rockefeller Center, your phone might not work.

Former football star Steve Largent represents the cellular industry, which he says is investing $18 billion a year, “The laws of physics will never allow the wireless industry to perform flawlessly,” Largent said. “We can’t move a signal around mountains or trees or hills.”

So, why not just build more towers?  “We’re having to butt heads with local jurisdictions because they won’t allow us to build additional towers,” Largent said.

Some carriers are now promising to provide maps to users showing strong signal areas and dead zones.  “They say they’ll do it voluntarily. I don’t really believe it,” Consumer Reports’ Guest said.

There is legislation pending in Congress to mandate better service.  The biggest opponent?  The cellular industry itself.

Julie Saintanne says she’s happier with her new service but still expects the day will come when she’s saying those dreaded words again: “Can you hear me now?”

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