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Cingular Wireless and Redmond-based AT&T Wireless, which merged late last year to form the nation's largest cellular carrier, together had the worst complaint record in 2004, according to information obtained by Consumers Union and released yesterday.
What's more, AT&T Wireless Services Inc., formerly based in Redmond, had the worst complaint record for two consecutive years, according to the data, which was obtained from the Federal Communications Commission through the Freedom of Information Act.
The total number of complaints filed about wireless phone service increased 38 percent: to 29,478 in 2004, from 21,357 in 2003.
"The staggering increase in complaints is further evidence that reform is needed in the wireless phone market so consumers can get a fair shake," said Janee Briesemeister, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, in a prepared statement.
"Since the cell-phone industry brought out its 'voluntary consumer code,' consumer complaints have skyrocketed, which shoots down their claim that the marketplace is working and consumer rights' laws aren't needed."
Of the more than 29,000 complaints filed in 2004, Cingular-AT&T Wireless ranked first -- i.e., worst -- among the top eight carriers both on a total-complaint basis (combining each company's complaint record before and after the merger), and in complaints adjusted for differences in the number of subscribers.
The combined complaints for Cingular-AT&T Wireless came in at 289 per 1 million customers. Of the national wireless companies, Verizon had the fewest complaints per 1 million, at 76.
One major factor behind AT&T Wireless' poor showing last year: complaints about problems with number portability, or moving a cell-phone number to another carrier. It was reported widely last year that AT&T Wireless customers had an especially difficult time moving numbers.
"That is what happened then. Here we are now," Cingular spokeswoman Anne Marshall said. "We're taking action to improve customer service."
She said the combined companies have simplified billing and have begun providing detailed online mapping of coverage areas and printouts explaining all fees and charges at the time of sign-up.
They have also introduced a 30- day grace period during which customers can cancel their plans, paying only for services used to date, Marshall said.
Smaller regional carriers, such as Alltel and U.S. Cellular, had some of the lowest complaint rates. Among all wireless companies, regional carrier US Cellular has the lowest number of complaints per 1 million subscribers, at 39. But Cellular One, another regional company, had the second-worst rate for total complaints and for billing problems.
Alltel in January agreed to buy Bellevue-based Western Wireless Corp., a deal set to close midyear.
For all of the major cell-phone companies, consumers complained the most about billing problems. Complaints about transferring their phone numbers, service quality, contracts and marketing were close behind.
The FCC is the only regulatory agency overseeing wireless service. It fields consumer complaints but does not disclose that information to help shoppers make informed decisions.
Consumers Union said it is supporting legislation in several states, most notably California, that would give state regulators, not just the FCC, the ability to deal with customer complaints about the wireless industry.