Right after Memorial Day, Scott Ross and other techs at Spokane Wireless prepare for the next wave of water-damaged cell phones.
“We know that the first day we get back from the weekend we’ll have at least a dozen phones that people dropped in the lake or some river,” said Ross, a 43-year-old former construction worker and chief tech for Spokane Wireless.
In his back office at 520 E. North Foothills Dr., Ross works at a desk with stacks of cell phones and handset pieces sitting in plastic bins. On the desk is an anti-static pad and a soldering gun.
In the front of the building are about a dozen customers, most of them having dropped off a nonworking phone, waiting to see if it can be repaired within 30 minutes. (Some can, others can’t.)
“We can repair probably 80 percent (of phones with water damage),” Ross said. Typically he asks how the phone got wet. One woman arrived holding a nonworking phone in a Ziploc bag. She finally admitted to Ross the phone was fished out of a construction site portable outhouse.
“We can’t fix that one,” Ross told her. “Porta-Potty phones don’t get repaired.”
Cell phones keep selling briskly, with more than 44 million handsets purchased in the United States in 2007. At the same time, independent repair centers for cell phones are becoming harder to find, said Ross. That’s due to cell phone carriers encouraging customers to upgrade or swap phones rather than turn to repair shops, Ross said.
The reduction in service depots has left Spokane Wireless the best-recognized place to take an ailing handset, said several cell phone company sales people.
“I’ve never used them, but as soon as I went to work here I was told to send people to them,” said Aaron Herberg, a sales rep at a Spokane T-Mobile store.
Ross said Spokane Wireless sees phones sent to its store from Seattle and Portland. The Motorola wireless phone Web site, in fact, recommends that Washington residents needing service send their broken phones to Spokane Wireless.
Ross said Spokane Wireless repairs between 20 and 50 cell phones each day, five days a week.
Four years ago, after a construction injury forced him to switch careers, Ross went to work for Mark Boyer, who started Spokane Wireless in 1999. A natural techie, Ross learned he had a knack for diagnosing problems, fixing broken parts and deciphering repair manuals.
The four most frequent problems Ross and his co-workers see are water damage, broken or cracked screens, damaged charger connectors and speaker failures. Ross said he’ll repair the problem 80 percent of the time. At times he’ll have to scavenge an old part to replace one that’s cracked or useless.
Typically the cost to repair a basic phone runs about $45, more if additional parts must be replaced. The store also unlocks a cell phone so that it can be activated with another carrier – a common practice when a Sprint customer wants his phone to be usable with Verizon, for instance.
Boyer said the repair side of the business is secondary to the sale of phones at the store. He likes keeping the repair costs low so that customers develop a loyalty to Spokane Wireless.
He’s also glad to help stop customers from giving up and buying a new phone when they have a cell phone, out of warranty, that’s not functioning.
“Most people swap their phones all because a small plastic part costing no more than $35 breaks,” Boyer said.
Ross said the surge in total numbers of cell phones being used hasn’t created the same spike in repair services. He saw a boost in repairs four years ago and lasting until 2006.
“For the last two years it’s been steady, but not growing,” he said.
The hardest cell phone repair he comes across involves the charger port – the tiny opening on a phone in which a user connects a power charger. If a user is charging the phone and talking on it, there’s a likelihood of twisting the cord and tearing the connector off the handset circuit board.
“It says on page 3 not to talk on a phone while charging it, but no one reads that,” Ross said with a laugh.
Apple’s widely worshipped iPhone shows up for repairs, too. Most times, iPhones come in because they have a cracked LCD screen and are out of warranty.
“That’s a repair I don’t do,” said Ross, explaining that a colleague at Spokane Wireless tackles all iPhone fixes. That’s because the LCD touch screen on an iPhone takes about an hour to remove because of a layered sheet just below the screen called a digitizer. That digitizer is thin and has to be removed slowly with a heat gun.
Despite seeing hundreds of handsets with problems each month, Ross generally is impressed with the quality of the phones being produced by major manufacturers.
“They are definitely making better phones than they used to,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive the kinds of features they’ve added and improved.”