As cellphone providers keep adding feature upon feature, I'm wondering if anyone's going to do something about a phone's main reason for being: placing and receiving telephone calls. Is anyone noticing the abysmal quality of cellphone service, or is it just me? At least once every time I talk on my iPhone, I have to ask the person with whom I'm speaking to repeat what was just said. Is this the way phone calls must be from now on? Are we just getting used to this?
Why does this happen? There are many technical explanations for the laughable sound quality of U.S. cellphone service, but the main reason calls sound so awful is that no one revolts against it. Which means the providers can get away with putting 100,000 phone calls on a system where there should be 10,000, cutting corners everywhere, and generally offering service that's "good enough." But for me, it's not good enough … not good enough at all.
The Poor Bloodsuckers
Let's get the most glaring issue out of the way: dropped calls. Verizon has the least dropped calls in the U.S., while T-Mobile is the worst offender. Why does this happen at all? Because the United States is made up of such wide open spaces, carriers whine about how there's too much area to be covered. They cry poverty while charging $1,310 per megabyte for text messaging.
To be fair, it's not always easy for phone companies to install transmission towers. They have to get permission from local authorities to construct those eyesores, and the best technical locations for them often don't jibe with the preferences of city planners and residents. Placement of a cellphone tower near residential areas can even negatively affect already-depressed property values. The result of this not-in-my-backyard phenomenon: dead spots, dropped calls and unavailable service.
Can. You. Hear. Me. Now...?
That's bad enough, but sometimes there's a more subtle problem: The circuit of communication isn't completely severed, but delayed. For example, there's that slight amount of time (a 300-millisecond delay, or a half-second if it's cellphone-to-cellphone) it takes for your voice to be compressed into a digital signal, resulting in awkward pauses and interruptions in the conversation. It's just long enough for things to sometimes get confusing. But customers are willing to settle for this slipshod kind of service. This delay is a dirty little secret of cellphone providers, who consider a delay under 400 milliseconds to be acceptable. It's not.
It gets worse. Service providers can't seem to master that full-duplex trick that's been near-perfect in landlines for the past 130 years. Full-duplex (otherwise known as double-duplex) gives you the ability to talk at the same time a caller on the other end talks, and you can both still hear each other. But that would require two complete send-and-receive circuits, something the cellular providers are too cheap to do the right way.
Then there's the most disgraceful, yet rarely mentioned problem with cellphone service today: dropping a word or two here and there. When the service can't deliver 100% of the words spoken, its value is drastically reduced. Look at this from another angle: What if you were watching a movie, and two or three times a minute, one word was dropped? Sometimes, it might not matter, but usually, missing one word in a sentence can alter its entire meaning. Subtlety is lost. Worst case, the sentence turns into complete gibberish. In such a word-dropping movie theater, people would be asking for their money back.
What if someone you were speaking with in person hiccupped every 10th word? What would happen if every time you talked, your ears shut down, rendering you deaf until you finished speaking? That's what we're putting up with, and no one seems to be too bothered about it. This is a pathetic state of affairs when analog cellphone technology from 15 years ago sounded many times better than today's "modern" service. A free call I made from Mumbai to Milwaukee on VoIP provider Skype sounded better than my $75-a-month cell phone service. It's just downright shameful.
Readers: Is anyone noticing? Why do we put up with it? Is this permanent? Does anyone care?