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When Phones Go Bad

Fancier Gadgets Mean More Acute Problems

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page F01

Robert Burger recently paid $460 for a new Motorola cell phone with a wireless earpiece.

It didn't work. "I can't get it to recognize the earpiece," said Burger, an administrator in a Washington law firm who says he spends thousands of minutes on his cell phone every month. "And the battery isn't holding a good charge."

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This year, 98.9 million cell phones will be distributed to customers in North America, according to research firm Instat/MDR. About 20 to 25 percent of them will run into problems within the first year, costing money and time for consumers like Burger, estimates Neil Strother, an Instat analyst.

In a world of balky gadgets, cell phones occupy an uncertain middle ground between the costly, indispensable items we fix when they break (computers if they're recent models) and those we throw away to buy replacements (VHS players, answering machines).

Many of today's cell phones come loaded with cameras, e-mail, schedulers, Web browsers, Bluetooth wireless capability, speakerphones, digital music players and video players. And all of those features mean there's more to go wrong.

The average life cycle of a phone is down, to 19.4 months this year from 25 months three years ago, thanks not only to phones that fail but also to customers who change providers or upgrade to the latest models, according to the Yankee Group, a research firm in Boston.

This year, replacement-phone sales are expected to reach 103 million -- costing consumers $4.8 billion -- or nearly double the 56.4 million sold three years ago, according to the research firm.

Replacing a broken or lost cell phone can be a pricey proposition because most carriers won't provide their advertised discounts of $100 or more unless customers commit to extending their contracts for a year or two. Customers who are early into a contract may not qualify for a discount at all.

Dionne Hamilton, a legal secretary in Silver Spring, is fed up with her LG 3100 phone, which she said is one of four in her family that drops calls or loses service altogether.

She brought it in for a software upgrade three months ago, but it's acting up again, she said. "It's not under warranty," which means she would have to pay between $100 and $200 to replace it with a similar new phone. "But I don't want to."

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