Over the last several months, I have been battling some absolutely strange behavior with my Verizon Wireless phones. Throughout the process, I learned a lot more about what can go wrong with a cell phone, and how you can work with your carrier to fix it than I ever cared to know. I'll share what I had to go through with Verizon so that if you are experiencing similar problems, you will not have to lose as much time as I have in the troubleshooting process.
Until earlier this year, my calls dropped once every few months. But beginning in mid-May, I was starting to drop calls more and more frequently, outbound calls were taking a long time to connect (even to non-cell numbers and voicemail), and I was missing calls completely. Also, the signal strength on the phone (measured in the popular "bars") was usually solid, but sometimes it would fluctuate wildly. The phone could go from four bars with 3G to zero bars and 1X in a second. (Something to note is that I work from home, so my phone is in the same location for almost the entire day.)
When I first called Verizon, the phone I had at the time (a Motorola Devour) had a lot of known problems, including the bouncing signal issue and dropped calls. Verizon quickly replaced the phone. By the time we were done with this, I had gone through three Motorola Devours and two Motorola DROIDs. Unfortunately, the majority of the support staff only knows how to tell you to do a factory reset on the phone or file an RMA on the device, which does not resolve the problem in far too many cases. The rule of thumb is that, any time you are stymied by a technical issue, you need to request an escalation to the next level, and when you are stuck on a business issue, escalate to the supervisor.
Over the course of the troubleshooting process, I learned that it's best to demand an escalation to Level 3 if your problem cannot be solved, and to insist that a ticket be opened with the networking group as well. The networking group has the top level engineers who can really dig deep into the phone and find out what is going on. One thing that I found, though, is that the engineers at that level often have wildly different sets of experiences that leads them down different paths. For example, one engineer felt that turning on "hybrid PRL" for my account would solve the problems. I later learned that, while this is a successful solution for some similar problems, it is not the cure-all that this technician thought it would be. That being said, if you have the kinds of problems that I was having, ask for this first. Unfortunately, the hybrid PRL did not solve my problem.
In the process of trying to learn more about my issue, I confirmed something that I always suspected: the signal strength bars on the phone have zero bearing on reality. One day I opened up the phone's status and examined its signal strength (measured in dB down), and I saw that at some moments, it could be at -87 dB with four bars, and other times it could be at -87 dB with zero bars. The signal could vary by as much as 20 dB with no change in bars, or it could not change at all but the bars would be all over the place. The lesson here? Ignore the bars on your Android phone — the bars are meaningless. This anomaly explains the wildly fluctuating signal that the Verizon field technicians could not confirm when they spent some time in my area measuring signal strength.
Eventually, we were down to one last option. Verizon sells a network extender, which is like your own personal cell tower. It connects to your Internet connection like a VoIP box and sends out cell signal with about the same range as a good Wi-Fi router (in my case, it covers my house). While this would not be a great option for most folks, because I primarily stay in the same location all day long, it was a potential winner. But the network extender did not fix my issues either. First of all, it turns out that when you have hybrid PRL on, the network extender cannot work properly with your phone. When that was turned off again, the network extender itself worked with my phone. But all the same, I was having issues where I would walk away from my desk, leave the network extender's range, and my call would be dropped when the phone tried moving to the local cell tower. So the network extender really was not a viable solution.
It was a few days after I gave up on the network extender that I wrote the first draft of this article and sent it to my editor here at TechRepublic. She ran it by Verizon to see if they wanted to offer a response, and Verizon took a very strong interest in the case, and got in touch with me to see what they could do to fix things. This time, they put one of their top engineers in my area in direct contact with me. After about a week, he solved the problem. It was indeed a problem with the local cell towers; there was some sort of misconfiguration as a result of the integration with the Alltell network. After fixing the issues, I have returned to the same level of service that I had before the troubles started.
I have to give Verizon credit for eventually fixing the problem. In my opinion, I think I received swift attention because we put brought it up to folks who could get the problem in front of engineers as a priority. I had opened up two tickets with their networking group already. The first ticket was closed because the physical signal strength in my area was fine (I told them that the physical signal was not the problem). The second ticket was closed ,and I was told that I was in an area that was "marginally stable" due to there being too many users in the area, which clearly was not the case since the problem was solved without building a new cell tower.
During this troubleshooting process, I learned that you have to be patient to get solutions. If I had gone along with the standard customer service script, I would probably be on my 10th phone right now, or paid the early termination fees and gone to a different carrier with no guarantee of better service. Neither route was one I wanted to take.
In addition to being patient, you also need to be a bit pushy. If it seems like the person you are talking to cannot fix the problem, ask for an escalation, and always find out what the options are if the current "fix" does not work. Knowing what the next direction is can help a lot, especially since you are likely to not be working with the same technician the next time you call. Best of luck!
A response from Verizon Wireless
"It is Verizon Wireless' goal to deliver outstanding customer service in every interaction with every customer. The numerous customer service awards we have won attest to our ability to meet that goal time and again.
"We have a very effective process in place to manage every customer's network concern, and our customer service reps are trained on how to help customers with simple troubleshooting issues. While Mr. James' situation was unusual, it should have been addressed much earlier in the process. At Verizon Wireless, our philosophy is that all employees are responsible for providing the best customer experience. Regardless of what job we are responsible for, we all take ownership in customer service.
"We encourage our customers with any issues to contact our Customer Service representatives who will be happy to assist."
Public Relations Manager,
Mary Weilage is a Senior Editor for CBS Interactive. She has worked for TechRepublic since 1999.