FCC gets 10,000 wireless service complaints in a year

We hear all the time from wireless carriers how great the wireless coverage is in the U.S. and how we have the best LTE network in the world. But there are many gaps in coverage, creating more of a patchwork of networks where some rural and more populated areas don't get 3G or better service for voice or data, or where service is spotty at 2G or below. Sometimes, wireless voice or data are even nonexistent where people live and work.

Granted, the overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. have access to good wireless service, but some estimates from the Federal Communications Commission have noted that 19 million Americans don't have access to good fixed broadband--which could be helped with wireless technologies.

The reasons for those wireless service problems were explained in an article, "Why some U.S. homes and business still don't have cellular service," on April 3.  Examples of readers without good wireless service were offered in the Ramblin' Hamblen  blog, "Wireless dead zones aren't just in rural areas," on April 4. 

Some readers with wireless service problems have asked me how they could complain effectively about missing wireless service, aside from going to a carrier near their homes or workplaces.

Rather than rely on anecdotes of problems with wireless service, it also makes sense to try to quantify the problems in a reliable way. It turns out that the FCC collects written complaints on a Form 2000B, which can be filed online or by mail.  The form requires the person complaining to provide his or her name, phone number and other information. It's fair to say that a complainer has to be pretty concerned to fill out the form and send it off.

In response to a written email request from Computerworld, the FCC summarized a year's worth of published data on the Form 2000B complaints. What the FCC didn't provide was any interpretation of how the complaints were resolved, or not resolved

Over the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2012, there were 10,132 complaints to the Federal Communications Commission  regarding poor wireless service. That's the most recent data available.

In addition, there were 10,856 complaints over wireless billing and rates for the same period, from fourth quarter 2011 through third quarter 2012, the FCC said.

The data was provided to Computerworld in response to our request, and summarizes published quarterly complaint reports.  

The complaints were reviewed and processed by FCC staff "through designated channels at the FCC," according to Mike Snyder, a media relations liaison at the FCC. 

Presumably the FCC commissioners have read summaries of the complaint reports and discussed them, but it isn't clear how any of the complaints are dealt with, either by private wireless carriers or the FCC.  "We can make no further comment on the complaints at this time," Snyder said in an email.

What's missing is whether anybody on the staff at the FCC thinks the 10,000 complaints are too many or too few or specious or filled with comments from cranks that the FCC has to tolerate. The FCC's commissioners couldn't be reached for immediate comment, but they almost never provide comments on this kind of request. Outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has published a long list of his accomplishments at the FCC over the past four years, but refused to comment about the disposition of the wireless service complaints. 

To be fair, the FCC does have an exceeding output of information on many matters. Individual commissioners will occasionally post written comments on opinions, but they are more reluctant to answer specific questions from reporters and try to let their comments during their quasi-judicial proceedings stand without much elaboration.   Certainly over recent years, federal attorneys have taken legal actions against carriers on billing, pricing and service matters and probably some of those arose from Form 2000B complaints.  There are a number of FCC initiatives to expand wireless voice and data services in underserved areas, as well.

However, what the FCC is missing and what seems entirely possible for the FCC to do is to inform the public on a raw data basis of the general dispositions of the complaints filed by the public. Wouldn't it be possible to just say that in a single year that X percent of 10,000 complaints were still under review? Or that Y percent had resulted in a lawsuit or administrative action?

It would be harder to say that a complaint of poor service had resulted in Z number of new cell towers and wireless services in a given area, but isn't that the kind of information that provides value? At Computerworld, we are constantly writing about how brilliant young software designers are turning raw data into intelligence.  The data, well, it's just electrons, if you think about it. And even the data that the FCC provided seems suspicious on its face: How can there be an almost equal number of service complaints and billing complaints?  And how come both numbers are about 10,000? It's all too pat for me to believe.

The FCC is beholden to Congress and federal administrative branches, but unfortunately for the public (except for a few really informed civic activists) the FCC doesn't seem to do much more than to offer a huge amount of data that isn't collated into useful information.  

I've covered federal agencies for 30 years and the FCC's bureaucracy is one of the most highly expert and intelligent, but also the most frustrating to understand and penetrate. I'm reminded of this every single time I try to request data and information or find it on the FCC's Web site.

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