Noe Valley Voice February 2005

Clear Winner in Cell Phone Survey

By Kate Volkman

Who's got the best cell phone service in Noe Valley? That's what the Noe Valley Voice set out to uncover last month by conducting an informal poll of mobile phone users on 24th Street.

On a partly sunny weekend in January, we stopped pedestrians--with or without phones in their hands--and asked them about their overall satisfaction with their service provider, as well as the gritty details of their coverage, dropped calls, customer service, and rates.

While the results are in no way scientific, one cell phone service provider stood out from the rest: Verizon Wireless. Across the board, that company's customers seemed the happiest. To find out why, take a look at some of the comments made by the other respondents in our survey.

Photo by Pamela Gerard

Are You Satisfied with Your Cell Phone Service?

The Voice interviewed a total of 35 people, and the breakdown of service providers within that group speaks volumes about the neighborhood's preferences. We had nine Verizon customers, nine AT&T/Cingular, seven Sprint, four T-Mobile, three Metro PCS, two Nextel, and one lone caller with Working Assets.

When asked about their overall satisfaction, the Verizon customers offered the best reviews and the fewest complaints. "Excellent," "fine," and "good" were the words they used to describe their experience.

AT&T/Cingular and Sprint tied for second, with an equal number of good and bad reviews. Metro PCS users thought their service was just okay, while T-Mobile users seemed a bit more positive. The two Nextel customers were very unhappy with their service, as was the one Working Assets customer.

What About Dropped Calls?

Most customers across all service providers complained of bad reception and dropped calls in the same areas of Noe Valley.

Sprint customer Holly Gutierrez said, "There's the infamous drop-out in Bell Market." Crystal Mosqueda, a Metro PCS customer, agreed, saying she gets bad reception in the cold areas of Bell, especially in the meat department. Others reported dropped calls along Church Street between 23rd and Cesar Chavez streets.

The Verizon customers generally said they had no problems with dropped calls. However, Verizon user Jane Sheehan, who visits her girlfriend in Diamond Heights, has encountered spotty coverage by Addison Park.

Minerva Walsti, who rides the 48 Muni bus to pick up her brother from St. Philip's School, said there's a point just this side of Twin Peaks where her signal drops. A former Verizon customer, Shannon Schwartz, complained about receiving roaming charges near the corner of Castro and Market streets. ("Roaming" means traveling outside your cell phone plan's prescribed area.) She switched to Cingular, but she's still not happy.

Other AT&T/Cingular customers reported overall good coverage, but several complained that they couldn't get good reception in their homes. Residences ranged from Diamond and 23rd streets to Sanchez and 24th.

In addition to the Church Street corridor, customers experienced dropped calls on the 24-Divisadero bus where Castro Street becomes Divisadero, and on Pine Street in Pacific Heights.

Verizon customer John Friedman reported that he and a friend who has Cingular tested their mobile phone reception at the Noe Valley Ministry the other day. He said he could receive a signal, while she could not.

Sprint users said they experienced spotty coverage all over, but especially along 24th Street. Victor Toman, a drama teacher at San Francisco School of the Arts, thinks cold temperatures might explain his poor reception, or "there's something in the air that affects coverage, and the signal morphs."

T-Mobile customers also reported problems along 24th Street, especially in front Martha & Bros. Coffee. Rudy, who is a regular at Martha's on Saturday mornings, recalled a recent day when he took a run around the neighborhood while expecting a call. It never came through, although he later learned that the caller had tried to reach him a number of times. He also said reception in his apartment varied from room to room. "In my living room I can use my phone, but in my kitchen I can't. I'll say, 'Hold on, Mom. Let me go back to the living room.'"

The Metro PCS customers reported bad coverage in general. One said she had good reception in Noe, but nowhere else in the city. Maybe that's because Metro PCS is purely a local provider, and our interviewee's coverage area is limited to the Bay Area. The furthest places her phone reaches are Pittsburg, Modesto, San Jose, and Santa Rosa.

Nextel customers claimed everything about their service was "horrible," and that it was expensive, too. (But keep in mind we only talked to two users.)

Customer Service Makes a Big Difference

Our single Working Assets customer, Candice Smith, said she plans to switch providers when her contract is up. "I got it because they give 10 percent of their money to nonprofits, but it ended up being way too expensive. They didn't explain to us the hours you could use it, and how many hours. So I got the bill and it was $260, and they would not take a payment plan...because I couldn't afford to give the money up front. So two more months they gave us to terminate. I've had it for almost a year, and I've used it 10 times."

At the other end of the spectrum are the Verizon customers, who rated their company tops in the customer service department. "Verizon has outstanding customer service," said Jane Sheehan. "It's a little more expensive on a monthly basis, but I don't go over on my minutes, and I'm very pleased with that. I've gone over once, and they were happy to make an adjustment for me."

Sheehan had switched to Verizon after experiencing frustration with AT&T. However, all the AT&T/Cingular customers we interviewed, as well as those using Metro PCS and T-Mobile, said they were happy with their company's customer service. Two customers had bum phones, one from AT&T and one from T-Mobile. But both reported the phones were replaced easily, which made them look favorably upon their providers.

Sprint customer Gabriel Maltos is thrilled with the service he receives. He especially appreciates the personalized service at the Sprint PCS store on Castro near Market. He said the customer service representative there gave him a good tip: Once a year, take your phone to a store to be charged and upgraded for the new service areas. The rep also informed Maltos of an upcoming sale on a phone he planned to purchase. And Maltos reports that Sprint leaves him a text message notifying him when he is close to using up all of his peak minutes.

Plans, Prices, and Minutes

Rates varied among service providers, and among customers of the same service provider. Here are a few examples.

One Verizon customer paid $60 per month for 800 minutes. Another paid $45 for 600 minutes. Two AT&T/Cingular customers paid $39 for 1,000 minutes, while another paid $49 for 1,150 minutes.

A Metro PCS customer paid a flat rate of $60 for unlimited minutes locally, as well as an additional flat rate of $4 for text messaging and $3 for long-distance calls. One Sprint customer said he paid $39 for 375 minutes, while another customer paid $34 for 1,000 minutes.

Holly Gutierrez surmised, "With so much competition these days, it's no wonder the rates are so varied."

Both AT&T/Cingular and Verizon customers commented on how much they relied upon free unlimited in-network calls. Being in a network simply means that when you make calls to friends or family members who have the same service provider, the minutes are free.

Amy Gray said this was the main reason she signed on with Verizon. "My whole family uses Verizon. I can randomly call my sister during the day for a half an hour, and it's no big deal. I can call my mom, and we can rap as long as we want."