- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Tim Urton gets some satisfaction out of seeing the Verizon Wireless Inc. television pitchman traveling back roads and repeatedly asking folks back at the office, "Can you hear me now?"

After all, he says, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Mr. Urton is one of about 60 drivers who cruise Verizon's service area from Texas to New England in high-tech station wagons outfitted with banks of cell phones and computers.

Every 170 seconds, the phones dial out or receive a call to test the clarity and reliability of the company's service.

The process is expensive and time-consuming, but success in the crowded wireless market hinges on the fewest dropped calls and dead spots in the broadest service areas.

"We know we have holes in our system," Mr. Urton says. "We know our competitors have holes in their systems. Our job is to get out there and fill the holes."

Despite a growing number of mobile-phone users more than 123 million and plunging per-minute prices, wireless service in the United States can be surprisingly mediocre when compared, for example, with the European variety.

According to the J.D. Power and Associates customer survey, the cost per minute for wireless service in the United States has dropped from 56 cents in 1995 to 14 cents last year. In the survey's latest results from last year, more than half the households in the 25 largest U.S. markets had wireless phone service.

Wireless companies are seeing their income per customer drop, and the cost of getting and keeping customers increase, according to J.D. Power and Associates. It put the cost of acquiring each customer at $350 to $475.

Verizon isn't the only company looking for holes.

Cingular Wireless, based in Atlanta, does some of its own testing. "It's part scientific and part burning a lot of tire rubber," spokesman Clay Owen says.

Cingular also uses third-party tester Telephia Inc., a 4-year-old wireless-market-analysis firm that says it observes 1 billion wireless calls a day on average.

Telephia sells its to subscribers and does not release it to the public, company spokesman Alex Van Kroh says. Mr. Owen says Telephia is to the wireless industry what Nielsen ratings are to the television business.

But Verizon, the country's No. 1 wireless company, with nearly 29 million customers, prefers to use its own people, company spokeswoman Brenda Raney says.

Verizon's high-profile signal testing is also good marketing, independent industry analyst Jeff Kagan says, as it battles to discourage what the industry calls churn customers changing providers.

Churn can run as high as 30 percent a year and is a big problem for the wireless sector, Mr. Kagan says. Customers will leave for as little as $10 a month savings. But that changes if customers think they are getting larger coverage area from one provider.

"That's job number one; that's the tires on the car," Mr. Kagan says.

Most of Verizon's road warriors have engineering experience, but Miss Raney says their enthusiasm for their work sets them apart.

"You can't outsource that," she says.

Mr. Urton drives about 6,000 miles a month. Much of that is in rush-hour traffic in major cities in the Carolinas and western Virginia.

And the program is not cheap.

Mr. Urton's car, a Ford Taurus wagon with two silver boxes holding eight phones and two laptop computers, costs about $270,000. It costs $15 a mile to operate, as well.

Each 2½-minute call handled by the Taurus' phones yields 600 lines of data that detail the signal availability, clarity and speed of connection, as well as which cell tower is being used to complete a call.

Verizon doesn't always have the best signal, Miss Raney says, and that's why the road warriors are out there.

"We put $8 billion into our network in the past two years," she said. "We want to know where we stand in every market."


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