While wireless carriers tout the whiz-bang features of the latest gadgets, they often fail to spell out their limitations, which include dead zones in big cities and many rural areas, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
The problem is a result of carriers' move from analog to more efficient digital networks, which can handle many more calls than the older technology and offer revenue-generating services, such as Internet surfing and music downloads.
Major carriers like Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless Services still rely on analog networks to handle calls in rural areas not covered by the digital networks and to act as a back up in big cities. However, in a rush to market with the latest handsets, a number of the carriers have cutback on the number of phones with components that pickup analog signals, the newspaper said.
The five top-selling phones from Cingular and AT&T Wireless do not include analog components, as well as one of Verizon's best-selling phones, the VX6000 camera phone by LG Electronics Inc., the Journal said.
While problems can't be avoided during major transitions in technology, carriers haven't done a very good job in informing consumers of the impact on coverage, or the limitations of some of the latest handsets, Paul Dittner, analyst for market researcher Gartner Inc., said in a telephone interview.
"That's still a significant problem in the U.S. -- being an informed consumer and having companies give you the best and most clear explanation of what it is you are buying," Dittner said, adding that carriers also often fail to clearly explain the costs of wireless services.
Nevertheless, consumers who want the advanced features from so-called "smartphones" and digital networks are going to have to be prepared for the downside.
"It's a tradeoff," Dittner said. "(Carriers) have to move to digital in order to support the number of subscribers that want to use cellular phones."
Dittner also pointed out that cellular phones, even when coverage was all analog, have always had coverage problems, and today's networks are far better than in the past at covering the vast rural areas of the U.S. "That's always been a problem and its always going to be a problem," he said.
Nevertheless, among the more serious problems from phasing out analog service is an increase in the likelihood of not being able to make an emergency call, the Journal said. Consumer Reports surveyed 1,880 of its subscribers and found about 15 percent had trouble calling 911.
The Federal Communications Commission requires carriers to continue operating analog networks until Feb. 18, 2008, but the agency does not require handset makers to support the older technology.
Digital networks cover a large portion of the U.S., but still have hug gaps in coverage. Rural areas that are still analog only include much of Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, Kentucky, Vermont and New Hampshire.