A table of mobile phone users experience various degrees of success in June 2006 at the People’s Republik bar in Cambridge. (Photo: Lodri)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site MainStreet.com ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, I was asked about mobile phones and a merger of AT&T and T-Mobile.

It has reached the point that I don’t want to talk to certain people on the phone because the voice quality is so bad: mushy, indistinct sound that reduces communication to being able to tell only mood or tone, the audio equivalent of trying to read a letter written in ink after it’s been soaking in water for several hours.

Imagine the ink bleeding into a blur where it’s possible to tell the difference between long words, short words and punctuation, but not what those words are or whether what you’re seeing is a colon or semi-colon, a period or comma. But you probably don’t have to imagine the problem behind that metaphor. CTIA — the Wireless Association, whose annual show just wrapped up, says 91 percent of Americans are using mobile phones, while a March 3 report by J.D. Powers and Associates says there’s been “a halt in overall call quality improvement” — and, in fact, while it’s users of smartphones who have the most problems making voice calls, “problem rates for traditional handsets have risen” since the previous annual study.

Risen! America is abandoning its landlines in favor of mobile phones that are actually getting worse.

If you think it’s bad trying to talk to your sister when you have no idea what she’s saying, and admitting the problem is so bad you probably shouldn’t communicate by phone, try that with the person you’re dating.

Pretty awkward, which is why I tried to fake it for a while, asking her to repeat things a few times. But that gets old, so sometimes I would just act as though I’d heard what she said — laughing when I thought it appropriate, speaking in generalizations and sometimes, until I realized how dangerous it could be, giving affirmations. (There is no good way to say, “I know I agreed to it, but it was only because I had no idea what you were asking.”)

Not so encouraging

I have Verizon, which I switched to because T-Mobile’s call quality was terrible, and that makes it not so encouraging that AT&T is trying to buy T-Mobile for $39 billion. The way I think of it, McDonald’s could buy a smaller fast-food competitor for the same amount, but that would just give it a larger “network” and take away $39 billion it could be using to actually improve what it does. I chose Verizon in part because J.D. Powers ranks it as the best carrier in the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and West and calls it a tie with AT&T in the Mid-Atlantic. As a result, my phone calls are only truly terrible with a couple of people and I get to believe it’s not me, it’s them (another awesome thing to tell someone you’re dating, even if she is a T-Mobile customer). Nothing about this information solves the problem, though, and it all leads back to the question of why things are so bad.

That’s actually pretty simple. Here’s what Mike Gikas, the senior electronics editor for Consumer Reports, told NPR this month: “We know that voice quality is not driving sales … When was the last time you saw an advertisement for a cellphone bragging about voice quality?”

But that is also not a real answer, since it just leads to the question of why we put up with it.

Another easy one: Because Americans are easily distracted by shiny, fancy, impractical things that make them feel big and powerful when everything is working right, and Americans are aspirational and therefore sure things will in fact work right once we have the shiny, fancy, impractical things that require them to. We have iPhones that play “Angry Birds” but drop calls, just like we bought Hummers in defiance of the notion gas would hit $4 a gallon and took out mortgages on McMansions without the salaries to pay them off. Somehow things are going to work out, right?

Well, no, because our mobile carriers can always count on our indolence and ignorance as they hold the line on terrible quality while increasing our bills to buy more companies to provide us fewer options. While the voice quality on our phones hasn’t improved, we’ve been sending more and more text messages — a 2,433 percent increase from 2005 to last year, in fact, according to CTIA, with the phone companies charging more and more for them. The price of a text message doubled from 2005 to 2008 alone, to 20 cents from a dime, with that leap obscured by the sale of lump-sum texting plans most people will never use up. In January, the same AT&T that has $39 billion to spend on T-Mobile eliminated half of their text-messaging plans, leaving customers two to choose from: one costing $10 a month for 1,000 messages and another costing $20 for an unlimited number of messages. I text to avoid talking on the phone and still haven’t come anywhere near 1,000.

The actual cost of AT&T or other carriers transmitting a text message? The mobile carriers don’t want to say, but according to expert testimony before the U.S. Senate, it’s three-tenths of a penny.

It’s true voices on mobile phones can be unintelligible. But this text-messaging thing, and by extension the mobile phone business and especially AT&T’s elimination of another U.S. competitor, just sounds bad.