Smartphones, Not Carriers, to Blame for Poor Service: Strand Consult

Carriers, shushed by "gag orders" need to create a "nuanced debate" about the factors at play in poor smartphone reception, says a new report.

Smartphones, not wireless carriers, are often to blame for dropped calls and "mobile black holes," according to a new report from Danish research firm Strand Consult.

The firm is calling for greater consumer and media education on how smartphones interact with mobile networks and an end to the "gag orders" it says smartphone makers force mobile operators to sign, preventing them from talking publicly about service issues, or the so-called holes in their networks.

The Strand report pointed to a study by the Danish Telecommunications Industry Association (DTIA), which found that 16 percent of smartphone users said they experience "mobile black holes" at least once a week when calling from home. Though among feature phone owners—or what the DTIA calls "ordinary mobile phones"—that figure was 8 percent.

The same study found 27 percent of smartphone owners to experience holes at least once a week when placing calls out of the home, while only 7 percent of feature phone users said the same.

Customers blame these service disruptions on the networks and the operators that build them, said Strand Consult, and this is damaging to the operators' brands.

"Today's complicated smartphone technologies are increasingly the reason for mobile black holes, not the operator's brand," said the report.

"With increased competition in the smartphone market, we see many phones come to market before they are completed and tested," it continued. "Phone manufacturers only correct the errors through software updates once the customer has purchased the phone. This allows phone manufacturers to put part of the onus of product quality to operators and customers to lessen their development costs."

The report offers the example of the iPhone 5, which launched with a chipset said to support Long Term Evolution (LTE), though millions of customers didn't experience LTE until Apple updated the software a month after launch.

"It is natural the media and consumers should complain about poor service, but they need to be sure to impugn the correct party," said the report.

"It's time for mobile operators to break the silence as to what causes black holes on mobile networks," it went on. "In negotiating smartphone subsidies with handset makers, many operators sign 'gag orders' that preclude them from talking about the smartphone deficiencies, even when it's the smartphones that are causing the black holes on the network."

Smartphone Labeling Legislation

With the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007, blaming AT&T for poor service became something of a national pastime. Fast-forward three years to the iPhone 4, and some user frustrations finally shifted toward Apple. While then-CEO Steve Jobs originally brushed off complaints about dropped calls by reportedly telling a user not to hold his phone a certain way, Apple eventually conceded that its antenna design was at fault.

Recognizing that antenna design and other factors can significantly impact a user's mobile phone experience, the regulatory authorities of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark on May 22 wrote to Daniel Calleja Crespo, director general of the European Commission, asking that a "labeling scheme" be put into place to offer consumers greater transparency regarding mobile phone performance.

A Digital Agenda for Europe policy and a Radio Spectrum Policy Programme have put targets in place for mobile device speeds, and the letter points out that, along with mobile broadband services, devices also play a role in reception quality.

The letter cited an Aalborg University study that showed a "factor 10 variation" in mobile reception performance. But without the relevant information about phone performance made available, "it is very difficult for consumers to assess whether a given phone has good or poor reception performance before buying it."

It continued, "A common EU labeling scheme for receiver performance of mobile phones would provide the necessary transparency for all users in the EU and make it a parameter for competition."

Strand Consult, pointing to the letter, added that if mobile operators do not create "a more nuanced debate about coverage," they'll find their images "will continue to degrade."

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