September 30, 2002

Spotlight on: Students' Cell Phone Woes

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For thousands of Cornell students and Ithaca residents wireless phone usage in the area has become more of a burden than a convenience.

Cellular users frequently report problems including busy signals, “dropped calls,” blocked calls and error messages.

“I haven’t been able to receive an incoming call in 48 hours,” said Robin Fisher ’04, a Verizon Wireless customer.

Many students experience problems making and receiving phone calls after 9 p.m., when many service providers offer unlimited minutes, making it the time when the volume of people calling out is at its peak.

Robert Pini, a Sprint PCS public relations manager for upstate New York, explained that many wireless companies have structured their programs to allow for unlimited calling after 9 p.m. since this is considered an off-peak time for many.

“It’s actually a peak time for students though,” he said. “You’re in a location where there are many people from out of state so there’s a lot of calls being made during that time.”

The nighttime peak is not the only time students are having problems with cellular service on and around campus. Many report difficulties around the clock.

“At any given time I’ll dial a number and get an error message,” said Jared Needle ’04, an AT&T Wireless customer.

Such notifications include “your call cannot be completed as dialed,” and “the system is currently busy, please try again later.”

According to the AT&T Wireless brochures that can be found at all dealerships, the Regional Advantage plan for New York and New Jersey covers all of New York, including Ithaca, with full benefits. Features promised include caller identification, text messaging, and voice mail notification. Many students at Cornell do not receive all of these perks, for which they pay $30 or more per month.

“My service is very spotty. Whenever I’m on a call in my room I hear the voices fade in and out. It’s like I have to find the right spot in my room and not move or else I lose the signal,” said Josh Teitelbaum ’05, a Verizon Wireless customer.

Some have speculated that local service providers, including Verizon WIreless, Sprint PCS, Cingular and AT&T Wireless, are slow to respond to the rapid increase in cellular usage in the area.

Sprint PCS recently invested $1.6 million to provide cellular service in the Ithaca area.

According to Pini, “there has been explosive growth in the area, and we intend to provide seamless PCS service to students, faculty and staff of the university.”

Pini admitted that local coverage gaps are often at the root of service problems. “We need to establish full coverage over the campus, but this can only be achieved by working with the University.”

Currently, Verizon Wireless is the only company to have an agreement with Cornell to place their equipment directly on University facilities. Despite this, their cellular customers still report some service problems.

Jason Rhoades, director of CIT operations support deals frequently with Verizon wireless concerning coverage expansion. He explained that due to the topography of Ithaca, some parts of campus receive significantly worse reception.

AT&T Wireless has similar problems with coverage in the Ithaca area. They are not equipped for high customer demand, as the closest AT&T-owned store is in Johnson City, just west of Binghamton.

Best Buy in the Pyramid Mall sells AT&T Wireless phone plans and accessories, but the staff at the electronics superstore is “not at all knowledgeable,” according to an AT&T sales representative. The employee acknowledged that “they’re just there to sell you service.”

It is problematic that there are no AT&T Wireless stores nearby, because Anika, a customer service representative, admitted that “some customers are not receiving voice mail” despite paying for the service. Students with this and other technical difficulties must call a nation-wide customer service phone number for assistance.

Carlos, another customer service representative for AT&T Wireless, said that the company has no immediate plans of extending their service in this area. “We have roaming agreements with different carriers,” he said.

He explained AT&T has given its wireless customers over to other companies in more rural parts of the country. Tompkins County and the greater Finger Lakes region of New York have been relegated to Verizon Wireless. This means that “you’re in the hands of whatever carrier is there” and AT&T Wireless has no way to monitor the quality of service.

Henry Doney, associate vice-president of facilities services at Cornell explained that the University is not very enthusiastic about commercializing the campus.

Currently Verizon Wireless has their equipment on Barton Hall. Their antennae are well concealed, a major consideration for the administration. “We were concerned about how it would look,” said Doney.

Wireless providers have repeatedly requested to place their equipment on University buildings such as the central heating plant, near the School of Veterniary Medicine but the administration is hesitant.

“We have our own equipment on these buildings and we aren’t thrilled to let a commercial company put their own stuff up just to make a buck,” said Doney.

As companies and Cornell’s administration work to address these issues, cellular users will just have to stand by.

According to Rhoades, “Verizon is currently in the process of making some upgrades to deal with expanded coverage and increased usage.”

Sprint PCS is also optimistic. “We’re ready and willing and looking for alternative ways to escalate these issues to the appropriate levels so we can provide service,” said Pini.

Archived article by Melissa Korn