Mobile phone service was the second-lowest ranked industry -- beating only cable providers among the 40 rated -- in the University of Michigan's newest customer satisfaction index.
And there's more: mobile companies were the No. 2 sector in complaints last year to Better Business Bureaus, dropping from first place in 2002. Only auto dealers did worse.
"The industry claims that people love their cell phones and they're very happy with the service," said Carl Wood, a commissioner on the California Public Utilities commission who fought the industry for four years to establish state wireless regulatory power. "That's half right."
Consumers complain of frequently dropped calls, lousy customer service and exorbitant penalties for exiting a contract. Then there are the fees -- Verizon Wireless plans to collectively charge customers more than $173 million a year in fees for number portability alone.
The complaints range from mundane to dramatic.
After Julie McMurry's husband died last summer, Verizon Wireless told the Enumclaw, Wash. woman that she would have to pay an early termination fee on his cell phone contract. "I said, 'This isn't an arbitrary thing, I'd be glad to fax you a copy of the death certificate. The man's dead."'
The Verizon rep said McMurry could either pay the fee or give the phone to another family member.
She called Carl Hilliard, president of the Wireless Consumers Alliance. "I just happened to be in a meeting with Verizon Wireless's attorney and mentioned it to him," Hilliard said. "It was reversed."
California last week adopted a Telecommunications Bill of Rights that requires companies to inform customers about rate increases, bill customers only for services that they request and allow customers to drop a service, without penalty, within 30 days.
A tougher measure failed to pass. "In the last year or so, the industry has just gone all out on every front to stop this," said Wood, the utilities commissioner. The industry has promised to challenge the new regulations in court.
The new rules offer fewer safeguards against deceptive marketing and advertising than Wood proposal, which also would have blocked companies from changing the terms of an existing contract.
Eric Rabe, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Corp. said the company thought even the watered-down rules unnecessary.
"We do the majority of this stuff already," he claimed. "This is an attempt by a regulatory body to exercise regulatory authority where they have not heretofore had it."
But many consumers are frustrated.
Claire Smith, 21, of San Diego, set up automatic payments for her Cingular Wireless bill. Cingular charged her credit card, then sent paper bills. When she didn't pay the duplicate bill, they cut off her service, saying she was delinquent. "They tried to double bill me," she said.
Neil Coleman, 34, of Jersey City, N.J., asked for a national plan when he signed up with AT&T Wireless. He worked inside his local calling area for months, then was sent to Dallas. His next mobile bill was $600, most of it roaming charges.
Calls to AT&T Wireless's customer service ended with a representative telling him it was his responsibility to review his bill. There, on page four, in the left-hand corner, in small print, the bill said "local plan."
Even simple things, like making a call, aren't always possible.
"Wireless carriers have been the victims of people believing their advertising," said Roger Entner, director of the wireless mobile services practice at The Yankee Group. "The carriers have been able to position it as a utility in the eyes of the customers, but it can't live up to that."
Companies insist they're working on improvements, that they're investing in their networks, simplifying billing and tying bonuses to customer satisfaction.
But they've got some ways to go.
Sprint PCS ads even acknowledge consumer's frustration. A four-page ad in USA Today asked, "What if the rest of the world were like the wireless industry?"
It showed a group of children outside a fenced playground, reading the rules, which included, "You have to guess how many minutes you're going to use your ball - for the next two years. Don't guess too high or too low, or you'll be sorry."
The final rule: "If you don't like the rules, try another playground. It'll be exactly the same."
To improve service, the company has increased training for customer service employees to 10 days a year, introduced a new plan it said addresses common complaints and tied executive compensation to customer satisfaction, said Cindy Rock, senior vice president for customer solutions at Sprint PCS.
Cingular Wireless's chief operating officer, Ralph de la Vega, claims the company's service is also improving.
In April, it started giving new customers a summary of contract terms and costs. It also gives them a sample copy of what their first bill will look like.
AT&T Wireless, which has led the industry in complaints, according to Federal Communications Commission statistics made public by Consumers Union, was bought by Cingular for $41 billion in February. Cingular is in the process of merging the two companies.
Verizon Wireless said it added 1,600 customer service employees last year.
The company has led customer satisfaction surveys, although the Michigan survey, a quarterly index which this past week included wireless for the first time, said it was tops in "a lackluster field."
Asked about the ranking, Verizon's Rabe said, "Compared to what? Lands' End? You have to compare apples to apples. I wouldn't compare the customer experience of dealing with a complicated technology with buying a shirt. It's just a whole different challenge."
Cell phone troubles even dogged the reporting of this story.
Twice spokespeople for different wireless companies called on cell phones whose signals faded to silence.
By Ellen Simon