No Dial Tone

Some scientists claim to have discovered a link between cell-phone use and brain cancer. Now Newport Beach resident John Vienna may have found a cure: buy a cell phone that simply ceases—inexplicably—to work; seek explanations from the myriad high-tech firms behind the phone; give up in frustration; and vow to never use a cell phone again.

No one was able to say with any certainty why Vienna's phone died. Indeed, contacted by the Weekly, the companies offered competing explanations for the problem. The cell phone—pitched in sophisticated ads as the satellite-driven center of a fast-moving global family—had suddenly become an enigmatic piece of machinery that no one could really understand.

Vienna spent four days in late August trying to pry an explanation from his service provider, Walnut Creek-based Airtouch Cellular. It's your batteries, Vienna says he was told. Maybe you dropped your phone. Maybe you're not using it right.

Vienna gave up with Airtouch and contacted Global Cellular, the company that had actually sold him the cell phone. Global Cellular told Vienna that his phone, a Korean-made Qualcomm 800mhz model, worked fine. They told him to call Airtouch Cellular, since the problem was likely to be with his service.

Vienna called Airtouch again, and after talking to half a dozen sales and customer-service representatives, he lucked out: a sympathetic-sounding Airtouch employee explained to him that the Qualcomm 800 cell phone he had purchased from Global Cellular was apparently never intended for sale in the United States. The employee added that Airtouch had recently upgraded its cellular service connection from a Motorola switch to a “high-tech digital” Nortel switch. The only problem: Qualcomm 800 phones lack a necessary computer chip to handle that upgrade.

Vienna says the Airtouch employee summed up his dilemma this way: “You're screwed.”

Contacted by the Weekly, Global Cellular general sales manager Scott Blair confirmed that his company is an authorized dealer of Airtouch Cellular-compatible phones. And he acknowledged that Global Cellular recently started logging frantic phone calls from people (including Vienna) whose cell phones had mysteriously ceased to operate. Blair declined to tell us how many complaints he'd received but said they started to pour in on Aug. 20—the same day, he said, that Airtouch's service upgrade went into effect.

“There have been complaints relating to this matter since they started the upgrade—enough so that I know there's a problem,” Blair said. “We're referring them back to Airtouch.”

So the Weekly contacted Airtouch Cellular's media representative, Andrew Colley. After hearing a blow-by-blow account of Vienna's cell-phone dilemma, Colley confirmed that on Aug. 20, Airtouch had indeed upgraded its service in the greater LA area from a Motorola to a Nortel switch. Colley told us he'd look into whether it was possible that Vienna's Qualcomm phone wasn't working because of that change.

Meanwhile, the Weekly contacted the San Diego offices of Qualcomm to get the cell-phone manufacturer's side of the story. We didn't expect Qualcomm to tell us their phones were pieces of junk, so we weren't surprised by the company's swift and unequivocal response.

“Our phones are completely compliant, and we exceed industry performance,” said Joanne Coleman, a spokeswoman for Qualcomm. “Every Qualcomm phone purchased today or in the past meets all industry specifications. It's not a question of any hardware being missing from the phone. Our phones go through strenuous testing before they leave the factory.”

That's when Airtouch's Colley called us back. “More than a year ago, we became aware that some of our dealers were approached by people selling phones that had the letters KOLON written on the back of the phone,” he said. “The phones were very similar in appearance to the Qualcomm 800 series that are sold by our dealers and agents. We believe these phones were originally shipped to Korea in 1997 and some of those units were not sold. We suspect that an enterprising distributor brought these phones back to the U.S.

“These phones do not meet Federal Communications Commission acceptance rules and should not have been imported into the U.S. or sold here,” Colley continued. “We did communicate this discovery to our sales channels more than a year ago. However, some of the phones were cleverly masked. The distributor presented them in a new plastic container that appeared to be FCC-labeled. We're thinking this individual [Vienna] purchased one of those phones.”

Colley even followed up by faxing us a statement providing the same explanation in writing. When the Weekly examined Vienna's phone, however, we couldn't find anything resembling the telltale KOLON label—just a lot of stuff written in Korean. “We're not aware of this being anything other than an isolated incident,” Colley told us. “His is the first complaint.”

That doesn't jibe with what we heard from Global Cellular about the complaints that have rolled in since Airtouch Cellular's Aug. 20 service upgrade. Airtouch ultimately offered to give Vienna a new cell phone, an offer he has so far refused to accept; in turn, the company refused Vienna's request that he be reimbursed for the period of service he lost. “I feel sorry for the thousands of other people who are going through this experience or will go through it,” said Vienna. “If your phone doesn't seem to be working, you might think it's your problem. Then you'd go and buy a new phone without ever knowing what really happened.”

While Vienna admits he still has no idea exactly what it was that killed his phone, he said what happened “turned me off to the whole cell-phone experience. I'm not sure I'll ever use one again.”

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