Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Every Carrier's Coverage STINKS - Just In Different Places
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAY 25, 2010 (on a blog hosting site that's not very friendly about exporting their data)
I hear and read complaints every day about the coverage problems that vex cell phone users. Judging by the vitriolic tenor of the comments it’s safe to say that most of them – especially in Los Angeles, where I live and hear them first-hand – could be a little happier.
The vast majority of complaints appear to be aimed squarely at AT&T and I’m certainly not about to defend them; as an avid iPhone user I’ve had more than my share of dropped calls and connections that just time out. That said, having a little experience in building systems adds a great deal of perspective so while I’m not going to defend the carriers it’s important to see both sides of the coin.
It's easy to complain about cellular coverage but may not be quite as easy to understand how incredibly difficult it is to provide comprehensive, continuous coverage to an area like Los Angeles. This city is a cellular engineering nightmare with canyons, mountains, dense population, freeways overloaded with traffic, foliage, a zillion square miles to cover within the metro area - and all done in the face of regular protests from people who want coverage in their back yard without having a cell tower there.
After 20+ years of experience building and running cellular-related companies I can tell you one thing for sure: every carrier's coverage stinks - just in different places. And one of the main reasons why places like Asia and Europe are so much further ahead in their coverage (they are much further ahead – I’ve had the surrealistic experience of having my phone ring while on the subway, well below street level, in Hong Kong) is that cellular coverage hadn't been as critical here as it was there for one simple reason: their landline phone systems are pathetic.
Anyone who remembers traveling to Europe prior to the proliferation of cell phones will attest to the misery involved in making or, worse yet, receiving a phone call in even the most civilized countries. In Germany you’d never know how many digits were supposed to be in a phone number; in Spain landlines were so difficult to obtain that houses were sold with the phones as part of the deal – years after a family left a property the phone could still be listed under their name because it would just take too long to replace or update it. And in Greece – well, if you think the country only started downhill recently during the financial meltdown, you should have tried receiving a call in your hotel room in Athens.
In short, European and Asian phone companies never invested much money developing their landline services because they were all awarded monopolies (don’t get me started on regulation vs. free-market progress). When they started pouring billions into wireless systems and discovered that their competitors – usually one in each country – were thrashing them in market share and quality of service they bellied up to the bar and started competing. Next thing you know, voila, great coverage everywhere.
There's another reason, too, that coverage in the U.S. has suffered, which has to do with the government's regulation of the cellular company's technology about 30 years ago – almost all overseas phone systems, and virtually 100% of those in Europe, were forced to use GSM technology whereas here in the U.S. that decision was left for each carrier to determine individually. That may not have been a good thing here a long time ago (among the many benefits to standardization is a larger market for manufacturers to address). But because there weren't any battles over which technical standard to use the European and Asian communities devoted their efforts to building expansive, penetrating cellular phone systems.
The real problem today, though, isn’t the technology. It’s people. Paranoid people. People who protest the addition of a cell site in their neighborhood because they’re afraid that their children will turn green or their TVs will pick up signals from Mars. Take this to the bank: you get more radiation from using a hair dryer than you do from a digital cell site 100 feet from your house. Nonetheless, the resistance is enormous and is usually loudest by the people who complain most vociferously about the lack of coverage in the area.
You can't have it both ways - either allow some cell sites in the local area or quit complaining about the coverage.