Good news for wireless service providers: the number of smartphone customers continued to grow during the past six months. The bad news: call quality performance has declined “considerably” over the same period. According to J.D. Power & Associates‘ semi-annual “2010 Wireless Call Quality Performance Study, Volume 1,” reported call quality problems for smartphones increased to 13 problems per (PP) 100 calls in the past six months as compared 11 PP 100 in the previous period.

Surveying 24,135 wireless customers across six U.S. regions between July and December 2009, J.D. Power analysts found that the number of reported dropped calls–one of seven performance problems monitored through the survey–increased 6 PP 100 from 4 PP 100. Overall, smartphone customers experience problems 6 PP 100 greater than traditional wireless handset users on average. Moreover, smartphone customers were 3x more likely to experience problems as compared to those using traditional handsets, according to a J.D. Power press release.

The latest survey results break a string of consecutive semi-annual periods of generally improved performance quality. “As carriers continue to upgrade network infrastructure, expand coverage areas and improve data speeds, smartphone usage will continue to test network capacity,” Kirk Parsons, J.D. Power’s senior director of wireless services, stated. “Smartphones will continue to stress wireless networks with higher data usage for texting, e-mailing and Web surfing, so it is crucial for wireless carriers to enhance existing network speed and capacity, as well as to develop and upgrade to next-generation technologies.”

There was some good news in the survey results for Verizon Wireless and U.S Cellular, however. For the 11th consecutive time, the former ranked highest in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions and also ranked highest in the Southeast, Southwest and West. U.S. Cellular earned the top rating in the North Central region for the ninth consecutive time.

J.D. Power analysts noted that wireless usage patterns continue to evolve. For instance, customers are making fewer voice calls and doing more text messaging, which is becoming the preferred means of communication. They also pointed out that in the first reporting period of 2010, 46% of calling took place outside the home or in a vehicle, locations where the problem rate increases 4 PP 100 compared with calls made from home or elsewhere indoors.

Advice for the industry from J.D. Powers: “Wireless customers rely on their phones to do everything from providing them with driving directions to sending picture messages, as well as placing calls, so carriers must provide their customers with a problem-free experience to keep them satisfied,” Parsons said.

“Wireless customers have higher expectations of their phones and the networks on which they operate than ever before. Carriers must continue to deliver on their promises for faster and more reliable connections as the number of customers using these advanced devices grows.”

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