Can a merger ease America's love-hate cellphone linkup?

During the course of one day, Stephanie Skaarup's emotions toward her cellular service can range from elation to fury.

Ms. Skaarup was recently able to let her son, Nick, run free in a Boston mall because she knew she could reach him via their handsets. Minutes after meeting up with 11-year-old Nick, however, she made a routine call to the dog sitter and, inexplicably, the cellphone said her call wouldn't go through.

"They are awful and great at the same time," says Skaarup, a resident of Hillsdale, N.Y.

As with Skaarup's family, the yin and yang of the cellular lifestyle is becoming a familiar component of American culture. Consumers struggle daily to live with their cellphones, but also can't imagine life without them.

That is why the merger of two of the nation's largest cellphone companies might mark a discernable improvement in Americans' quality of life. The acquisition of AT&T's cellphone business by Cingular Wireless is evidence that the cellphone industry, notorious for bewildering marketing and dysfunctional customer service, could be getting a lot more stable.

If another merger occurs in the coming year, as experts predict, Americans may have fewer reasons to talk about their cellphones as though they are evil incarnate.

"The service has been very, very bad almost uniformly across the US," says Rudy Baca, a wireless-industry analyst for the Precursor Group, a telecommunications research firm in Washington. "There will be fewer dropped calls, fewer dead spots ... and bills will be clearer."

That would be welcome news to ambivalent users. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey, meanwhile, asked adults what invention they hate most but can't live without. More people (30 percent) cited their cellphone than anything else.

The buyout gives Cingular 46 million customers, making it the largest cellular provider in the country, ahead of Verizon with 38 million. it also reduces the number of major providers to five.

The change will be felt most immediately by the two companies' customers, in what some experts describe as a sort of release from consumer purgatory.

"Bringing them together, customers will see benefits on an array of issues," says Shauna Smith, an industry analyst at ARS, a market-research firm in La Jolla, Calif.

The clearest gain for consumers: consolidation doubles the amount of spectrum space Cingular can use to send calls across the ether. That means customers will experience fewer dropped calls, particularly in major cities where call volume is the highest.

Lost service and poor service

The company also expects to streamline its service, making bills clearer and customer service more user friendly. That is a boon to customers of AT&T in particular, which has traditionally responded to complaints in a fashion that some experts describe as medieval.

"Several million recently lost service for a few weeks and couldn't do anything about it," says Ms. Smith.

Intense competition among the six national carriers has led to an atmosphere in which each carrier promotes a bewildering array of plans, many of which boast national long-distance. Consumers enjoy cheap rates, but are often equally vexed by companies' failure to deliver reliable service.

Harvey Schwartz of Lincoln, Neb., was recently promised national long-distance when he signed up for Alltel service. But when he recently began a series of business trips, he soon realized he was being charged a roaming fee wherever he went.

"I looked on my screen and it gave me this little signal," says Mr. Schwartz, attending in Boston a convention for the awards and recognition business.

It is this sort of confusion worse confounded, in which cellular companies promise the world but deliver far less, that has so many consumers up in arms.

Part of the dissatisfaction is evidenced by record drop-out rates from cell plans.

The merger, say experts, is evidence that the cellular companies realize they cannot continue their present practices while still retaining customers and turning a profit.

"Conventional wisdom says there's got to be another merger," says Ken Hyers of In-Stat MDR, a market-research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.

A shrinking pool of providers

The deal will not be cleared by regulators until the end of the year, during which time observers say another of the major carriers is likely to snap up one of its own.

By year's end, consumers' options for service may be narrowed. But with greater scrutiny on a smaller number of players, each company will likely have to make its service more reliable.

Still, some experts worry that with fewer carriers, prices will go up at some point. And some complain that industry deregulation has permitted cellular companies to operate recklessly.

"The regulators have all but abdicated a public service function," says Dan Schiller, a communication professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "They've basically smoothed the way forward for whatever is proposed by the corporate chieftains."

Historically, the telephone industry grew up more in an environment of regulated monopoly. In the 1930s, the federal government permitted a monopoly by AT&T that, some argue, benefited the country in the long term. The government was able to impose a measure of accountability that required the company to expand service, make it affordable, and meet performance standards.

Although mergers offer the promise of better service in the cellular industry, the future of consolidation and reliable service cannot come soon enough for many consumers.

"My phone just shuts off randomly in the middle of a conversation," says Desirae Cinquanta, a graduate student in Boston. "The company tells me that I have to buy a new one."

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