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Cell phones top lists of what gets us steamed

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Sci/Tech

California's Mohave Desert was about the last place Michel Peterson wanted to be stuck with two flat tires last year. Especially when his cell phone had gone dead. To get help, he drove as far as he could on the bum tires — then trekked miles to the nearest freeway. It turns out T-Mobile had cut off Peterson's cell service over a billing dispute caused by the company's own error.

For a gaggle of reasons — confusing bills, poor customer service, spotty coverage, long-term contracts, handsets that die early — cell phones have become the thing people hate yet can't live without. In nearly every gauge of customer satisfaction, the wireless industry scores at or near the bottom. Worse than insurance companies. Worse than credit card outfits. Worse than car dealers.

"My biggest frustration with this whole business is, like many people these days, I am totally dependent on my cell phone," says Sylvia Cooley of Amherst, Mass., who says she's endured "mysterious glitches" on her Verizon Wireless bill, followed by overcharges and late fees. "I have come very close to getting rid of our cell phones."

Verizon Wireless spokesperson Tom Pica admits the company's mistake in Cooley's case. "And when something like this happens, we'll go out of our way to make the customer whole," he says.

Yet for all the headaches associated with cell phones, who's willing to go without? The number of wireless subscribers in the USA hit 180.5 million at the end of last year, up from 158.8 million the year before, according to CTIA, the wireless trade association. Wireless-service revenue in 2004 was $102 billion — about equal to the entire GDP of New Zealand.

Along with that growth, though, come expectations that critics say aren't being met. Even if few of us are ready to go back to our pre-cell phone days, the migraines have become maddening for some.

Peterson's ordeal began when two separate cell phone bills arrived in the mail. He owned just one phone. So Peterson, an information technology contractor from Orange, Calif., paid his regular bill and ignored the mystery account.
Customer service "said, 'We'll get it fixed,' " he recalls.

Months passed. No resolution. Peterson says he spent hours haggling with T-Mobile. "Meantime, they would lose my payments by applying them to one account or the other. So my service was getting disconnected periodically."

When he finally decided to bolt to another carrier, T-Mobile tried to enforce a $200 early-termination fee for the account he didn't have. It eventually waived the fee.

"We acknowledge there was an error specific to Mr. Peterson's account and sincerely regret any inconvenience that he experienced," says T-Mobile spokesman Peter Dobrow.

T-Mobile actually fares better than other carriers in the latest customer-satisfaction rankings by J.D. Power and Associates. But John Clelland, T-Mobile USA's senior marketing vice president, concedes that ranking high in an industry that generally evokes sneers is "like being the tallest pygmy."

Verizon Wireless also did well in J.D. Power's survey. But no carrier seems able to avoid the grumbling.

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