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Let's hang up on bad cell phone service

By David Kirkpatrick

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(FORTUNE.COM) -- Amidst all the hullabaloo and justifiable celebration about our newfound ability in the U.S. to change cell phone providers without losing our phone number, it's worth reiterating some basic realities:

Cell phone service in the U.S. remains unacceptable in quality.

Too many calls drop in too many places, no matter which of the six major providers you use. Walking down major Manhattan streets, I have had calls dropped innumerable times by both AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile. I have seldom been able to keep an AT&T call connected on any New York regional railroad line. In fact, it's hard anywhere in the country, using any service, to have a lengthy call between two parties, both on mobile phones, without at least one mysterious connectivity drop.

It's gotten so bad that nearly 5,000 New Yorkers took the time to log complaints about their cellular service with the city's consumer affairs office from October 27 to November 24, and the map of reported mobile phone problems for AT&T Wireless seems to cover most of Manhattan. Everybody experiences these problems. We are getting dangerously acclimated to poor service, which leads to my next point.

Moving exclusively to wireless lines is dangerous for consumers or businesses.

When New York and much of the East blacked out in August we got a lesson in the relative strengths of various kinds of telephone systems. Almost immediately, all cell phone systems went dead. But while some wired phones also stopped working, most continued. This is because local service providers like Verizon have long been required by law to build failsafe mechanisms into their systems. They have auxiliary power supplies to deal with a failure like this summer's. And since a conventional wire-line phone is powered through the wire, phones kept operating.

Of course, despite this system reliability, those who had thrown out their old conventional phones and come to rely only on wireless in-home phones were also without service. There was no power for the transmitters.

A new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that about 20 percent of Americans have considered going fully unwired, and 2 percent have already done so. That's a mistake.

Cell phone providers need to step up to their civic responsibility and create systems as reliable as the wired phone network. This will take some technological creativity, because the solutions are not obvious. But voice and data communications are too important-we should not shift them exclusively to wireless if there is a significant chance systems will fail in an emergency.

Providers have taken important steps since September 11 to improve their systems, but they still have far to go. If they don't make big changes voluntarily, we should create new laws to force their hands. Let's see cell phone providers compete on the strength of their emergency reliability.

Nonetheless, the new rules are welcome and long overdue. There's no question that the inability to keep one's number when switching carriers inhibited competition and was unfair to consumers.

For all my complaints, there is something groundbreaking going on here. For the first time ever, really, we are now going to see genuine competition in communications services in the U.S. With six providers jockeying for our business we can expect to see all kinds of new benefits.

For example, maybe customer service will actually prove to be a competitive differentiator for somebody. It hasn't been one in communications up to now. So let's give two cheers for the new rules.

Can Google grow up?

The cover story in FORTUNE's new issue is a well-reported and groundbreaking piece about Google by my colleague Fred Vogelstein. Everybody should read it right away. Like the cell providers, Google is increasingly providing what can be seen as an essential service to society. How could we live without it?

Fred enumerates Google's many virtues, but also uncovers surprising disorder inside Google's house as it approaches a likely initial public stock offering next year. A lack of corporate hierarchy makes it unclear who is responsible for what. (Hardly anybody even has a meaningful title.) Suppliers and partners find making deals maddeningly difficult. And the arrogance of success appears to have crept in. We know what pride goeth before. Meanwhile, a raft of competitors including Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Amazon, and eBay could begin to pose competitive threats to Google, reports Fred.

However, as FORTUNE's technology opinion guy, let me add a few caveats to the story. First, don't underestimate the importance of brand -- Google's now tests up there in the ranks with Coke. The service is so entrenched that an entire generation has learned to equate it with acquiring information. These young people don't think much about the antiquated distinction between online and offline media. They just want information and google it. My daughter has routinely used Google in school ever since third grade, back in 2000. The only other search brand with any presence among her peers is Ask Jeeves. Businesses with powerful brands go away very, very slowly, even if their underlying quality evaporates.

Would I buy Google's stock in the IPO? Probably not. The mob psychology that is likely to rule its movements will be too unpredictable, and by the time any mere mortal becomes able to buy it the price will almost certainly be sky-high. That will be true even if Google, as is reported to be a possibility, chooses an Internet auction method of pricing its stock for the IPO. That would just mean that a nose-bleed price hits even initial buyers.

But the company is not in any serious trouble now, I'm convinced. Perhaps I'm biased because I know founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin fairly well, along with CEO Eric Schmidt.

But so far there is absolutely no sign that any of the other major Internet brands have begun to match Google technologically. And it's worth considering that many of the problems that Fred discovers may be merely the flip side of doing something fundamentally different.

Who's to say if Page and Brin could have created something so radically effective had they not also created a radically different work environment, despite its many stresses, which Fred notes. Would anybody assert that our conventional forms of corporate organization are the only ones that can possibly work?

I like the fact that Google is experimenting with new organization of people, as well as information.

David Kirkpatrick is senior editor for Internet and technology for FORTUNE.COM.

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