Home Commentary Op-ed Poor V.I. Cell Phone Service Caused by Host of Issues

Poor V.I. Cell Phone Service Caused by Host of Issues


I have been reading some of the comments made by others regarding cell phone providers and whether they are to blame or if Innovative is to blame for the constant problems experienced by V.I. consumers.
As a disclaimer, I do not work for any cell phone company or for Innovative. Hopefully I can shed some light on this process that will help consumers understand a little better.
These issues are caused most likely by poor capacity planning and/or business decisions.
To start at the beginning, a cell phone provider must interconnect to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). Here in the VI, we only have a single phone company, which is Innovative.
These interconnections are how the cell providers hand calls to Innovative (for local calls) and how they accept incoming calls originating from the Innovative network or long distance callers.
The capacity of these interconnects is finite and must be monitored for usage levels so that additional capacity can be planned, purchased and installed. Lead times are 90 days+ in most situations for additional capacity into the Innovative phone switch. These interconnects also cost cell phone providers money on a monthly recurring basis, so they must be budgeted, approved, etc.
There are entire armies within the cell providers made up of technicians, planners, marketing specialists that do this for a living. After all, you cannot offer a really good cell phone promotion in an area that is already at or near capacity. All that would do is create a backlash of unhappy customers when they race to get your service and fill up the remaining capacity in that area. The method by which they calculate capacity planning is well understood and was developed in the 1900s by the Danish mathematician, statistician, and engineer A.K. Erlang.
During peak daytime (late afternoon) and weekends there is a surge of usage. Also, significant events or days cause dramatic increases of usage and capacity can be maxed out. For example, Mother's Day is one of the busiest days for the long distance telephone network to process calls, as everyone calls home to Mom. All of this is factored into capacity planning and when to buy more.
Each company sets their own metrics of what percentage they tolerate for dropped calls (usually cell handoff problems), blocked calls (no capacity),etc. Based on what metrics they set, they may be willing to tolerate the customer complaints since it means they don't have to order additional capacity for a few extra months.
To be fair, these are sometimes business decisions and sometimes technical issues (e.g., Innovative runs out of capacity from time to time into the switch as well — or they cannot perform the installation due to equipment shortage).
In the end, this is all about doing business in a market against which you cannot apply traditional metrics. For example, most capacity planners in the states would budget D days for delivery of capacity, when we are D+60 or D+90 or more. The area has very unique challenges in that regard.
Here in the VI, cell providers typically backhaul the call switching (the decision making) to Puerto Rico, where they have more staff available to maintain the equipment. This is due to PR having MILLIONS of customers and being able to justify (budget-wise) having that level of staffing. This is what causes the 'Spanish lessons' during error conditions with some providers. As consumers, we are not privy to the details of the error. Was there no more capacity? Was it a switching error within the cell company equipment? We will never know. Innovative, of course, doesn't need to backhaul to Puerto Rico, since they have local switching equipment.
This is also why turnaround time on repairs here in the VI often are multi-day, since not all providers have on-island technical staff. Some providers must fly staff in from Puerto Rico with equipment to make the repairs.
The backhaul to Puerto Rico typically takes place on undersea cable. There is at least one provider that uses a private microwave relay to bypass the undersea cable; that microwave goes to Puerto Rico as well. This backhaul is another area where there could be congestion and capacity delays. Capacity on the undersea cable between here and Puerto Rico was nearly exhausted last time I checked and took lots of money and time to get additional capacity allocated.
The newer error message that Innovative has now ('… cell phone provider circuits ..') was probably recorded to offload some of the heat Innovative staff was getting from the public. Again, we don't know the details of the situation, all we know is that there is a capacity problem!
Did the cell carrier forget to order more capacity? Do they not care? Did Innovative not deliver the capacity? Has a portion of the capacity suffered an outage and that is why it suddenly does not work? The generic recording won't provide the details, of course.
Now on to the Caller ID issue. In the PSTN world, CallerID is sent with special tones between the first and second rings that a CallerID device is able to decode into text and numbers. This is why you have to wait until the second ring in order to see the information on the CallerID box. This does not apply in PBX scenarios which intercepts it and then digitally transmits it to your PBX phone.
In cell phone networks, things are different since there is always an information link between the phone and the cell site/base station and cell phone-switching equipment. The CallerID information is sent along with some of the call startup information to the headset ('Starting ringing, you have a call from 800-555-1212').
For CallerID to be passed correctly there are several different protocols (languages of the equipment) that are used. If a call stays 'On-Net' (originates and terminates within the same service providers network) you should not have any problems as there are no translations that have to take place to other protocols.
If a call is 'Off-Net' (originates/terminates off of the providers network), you are most likely out of luck in the VI, since Innovative does not implement the proper protocols for passing this type of information to/from the interconnect links.
Yes, I know that Innovative can provide CallerID on phone lines but they cannot (or will not) provide CallerID on the higher capacity circuits that cell phone, ISPs, or VoIP providers use (aka 'T1' circuits, which can handle 24 calls at once when used in this manner).
Without getting into too many details, this protocol is typically SS7, or Signaling System #7. In most areas, SS7 is a given as it is the 'standard' for this type of stuff. Most (all?) of the cell providers run SS7 internally. I have even been hinted to that Innovative Wireless runs it internally (or is planning to), but they cannot run it with the rest of the Innovative house.
This disparity of information passing is why we have situations like: when you call a cell phone from an Innovative phone, you will never see caller ID.
The same holds true when calling to an Innovative number; even if that number pays for the CallerID service, they will not be able to see who is calling since Innovative does not support sending that information on the interconnect trunks in either direction. Innovative only supports and sends CallerID information for On-Net calls since it has no way to pass the information for Off-Net calls.
When you are lucky, you may be able to get CallerID from one cell phone provider to another (e.g., Cingular to Sprint). This is most likely because they have direct interconnects with each other and they are able to do a direct call-handoff to each other without the CallerID information being lost. Sometimes you won't get it; that may be when those direct links are down or are at capacity and the providers must rollover to using Innovative as the bridge between the two cell networks.
In summary, most of this comes down to money and resources. Innovative doesn't want to spend money to upgrade t
heir network to run industry standard protocols, the cell phone providers don't want to spend money to increase capacity for a small area. The consumer suffers the most by being stuck on the end of an error message that doesn't indicate who is at fault and who they can contact to fix it.
Anyone you talk to at the retail sales office of a cell phone provider will have no clue as to what you are talking about if you starting asking what the capacity planning model is and what the call drop/block rates are. They are there to push merchandise; they will tell you whatever you want to hear or send you on your way, as the next person most likely won't be asking those questions.
Also, it is easy to simply bash Innovative, as they are the phone company and are generally a fair target in most people's minds. The problems are not always on the Innovative side, but I think everyone would agree there is room for improvement all around.
Editor's Note: Jason Ackley resides on Saint Thomas, where he is chief
technology officer at Ackley Communications.


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