INSIDE MOBILE: How to Stop Cell Phone Calls from Automatically Going to Voice Mail

By J. Gerry Purdy  |  Posted 2010-08-17

INSIDE MOBILE: How to Stop Cell Phone Calls from Automatically Going to Voice Mail

Here's a common situation: You're holding your cell phone and, all of a sudden, you see a notification that you have a voice mail. You think that's strange since you had the cell phone right there in your hand and didn't see any call coming in. You listen to the voice mail and then you call the person back who left the message. That person tells you that they tried to reach you but the call went directly into voice mail. Again, you think how very strange it is. How could the call go directly into voice mail if you were holding the cell phone and the service signal looks strong?

I'll bet everyone with a cell phone has had this happen to them a number of times and I'll bet that you think that it shouldn't have happened. Well, there's a rational explanation for what's causing this problem. And I have a suggestion as to how the wireless operators can fix it.

According to AT&T Analyst Relations, there are three primary scenarios in which cell phone calls get routed to voice mail: in an out-of-coverage area, if there is a network outage or if the cell phone's "Call Forwarding Immediate" feature is turned on.

I strongly suspect that the primary culprit underlying the problem may be network congestion such as when there are too many calls initiated within the range of nearby cell phone towers. In the congested area, the network would treat some of the calls as if they were out of coverage and automatically forward them to voice mail.

Here's what I believe happens when you make a call in a congested area. You hit "Enter" or "Send" on your cell phone, which initiates the call. But if the network is congested in your area (that is, too many calls being managed by the nearest cell towers), then I believe that the network treats the additional incoming calls as if they were out of the coverage area and sends the calls automatically to the recipient's voice mail. He or she then receives a "voice mail waiting" notification later on their phone-without it ever ringing.

The frequency of the network not completing the call is definitely increasing due to more wireless subscribers and usage-especially in densely populated areas such as major cities. And I've noticed that there's increased frequency of calls going automatically to voice mail when you're at the intersection of two busy freeways (such as the I-75 and I-285 intersection in Atlanta or the Bayshore Freeway and Highway 17 intersection in San Jose). There are many other freeway intersections with dense cross traffic, especially during rush hour.

Intelligent Call Completion Needed

Intelligent call completion needed

OK, that helps everyone understand what's happening when they suddenly get a "voice mail waiting" notification without their phone ever ringing. But that doesn't really solve the problem. What can be done to prevent this from happening in the first place? Here's one solution (and there are likely others):

When the cell phone call comes into the network with a request to be made to someone who is in a congested area, the network should return a message to the person initiating the call so they are informed that there's network congestion. The network could then ask the caller if they would like to leave a voice mail or be notified when the call can go through. The caller could then decide whether to leave a voice mail (knowing that the call can't be completed) or have the network notify them as to when the call can be completed.

The person being called should also get a message indicating that an incoming call was attempted and that the caller has opted to leave a voice mail (or would like to complete the call when the network is less congested). Now, the person being called can decide if they want the call to come through, if they do not want to accept the call (from, say, someone with whom they do not want to talk) or if they just want to let the caller leave a voice mail. Eventually, the network should enable subscribers to create a list of numbers from which they do not want to receive calls-similar to the National Do Not Call Registry list that controls telemarketing calls.

If the recipient accepts the call (they can determine this from the name showing up on the phone's display), then the network should notify the caller that the connection to the intended person can now be made and the call will be completed. The person called is also notified with a "Call Being Completed" notification and the two people are connected.

There are systems similar to this that are already in place within enterprise phone systems from vendors such as Cisco, but it may be some time before the intelligence in the cellular networks improves to the point that "intelligent call completion" is deployed. And it may likely happen first between two people who are on the same cell phone network and then migrate to calls happening between different networks.

So, the next time you see a "voice mail waiting" notification on your cell phone when it's turned on and appears to be working, just realize that the network wasn't able to complete the call so it automatically put the caller's request into voice mail. Hopefully, in the near future, that impersonal process will be replaced by a level of network intelligence that allows important calls to be completed-even if it takes some time for the network congestion to be reduced.

J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D. is Principal Analyst of Mobile & Wireless at MobileTrax LLC. As a nationally recognized industry authority, Dr. Purdy focuses on monitoring and analyzing emerging trends, technologies and market behavior in the mobile computing and wireless data communications industry in North America. Dr. Purdy is an "edge of network" analyst looking at devices, applications and services, as well as wireless connectivity to those devices. Dr. Purdy provides critical insights regarding mobile and wireless devices, wireless data communications and connection to the infrastructure that powers the data in the wireless handheld. He is author of the column Inside Mobile & Wireless that provides industry insights and is read by over 100,000 people a month.

Dr. Purdy continues to be affiliated with the venture capital industry as well. He currently is Managing Director at Yosemite Ventures. And he spent five years as a Venture Advisor for Diamondhead Ventures in Menlo Park where he identified, attracted and recommended investments in emerging companies in mobile and wireless. He has had a prior affiliation with East Peak Advisors and, subsequently, following their acquisition, with FBR Capital Markets. For more than 16 years, Dr. Purdy has been consulting, speaking, researching, networking, writing and developing state-of-the-art concepts that challenge people's mind-sets, as well as developing new ways of thinking and forecasting in the mobile computing and wireless data arenas. Often quoted, Dr. Purdy's ideas and opinions are followed closely by thought leaders in the mobile and wireless industry. He is author of three books as well.

Dr. Purdy currently is a member of the Program Advisory Board of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) which produces CES, one of the largest trade shows in the world. He is a frequent moderator at CTIA conferences and GSM Mobile World Congress. He also is a member of the Board of the Atlanta Wireless Technology Forum. Dr. Purdy has a B.S. degree in Engineering Physics from University of Tennessee, a M.S. degree in Computer Science from UCLA, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Exercise Physiology from Stanford University. He can be reached at

Disclosure Statement: From time to time, I may have a direct or indirect equity position in a company that is mentioned in this column. If that situation happens, then I'll disclose it at that time.

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