You’re walking down the street, streaming music from Spotify.
Suddenly, the streaming cuts off. You look at your phone to see that what had been full bars moments before has fallen to nothing or close to it.
We have phones, tablets, and “phablets” that have download speeds faster than many home Internet connections.
It’s understandable that they lose service when underground or in thick buildings, but why can’t they at least maintain service when walking around outside?
Mobile Pulse is a company that monitors cellular coverage for government and enterprise clients so they can negotiate for better deals or have their service improved. We spoke to Christine Ekman, a co-founder and VP at the company, about the factors that actually go into service problems.
Cell towers have been completely overloaded since the release of the iPhone
According to Ekman, the biggest factor that goes into coverage dropping is overloaded towers. This happens for several related reasons, and they can all be traced back to the release of the original iPhone in 2007.
Back before the release of the iPhone, most phones ran on “2G” networks, which were more than enough to handle voice calls and downloading email.
Most people weren’t watching video or looking at pictures from the Internet because most phones weren’t even capable of that and the ones that were didn’t do it very well.
Then Apple released the iPhone and showed everyone how to do it right.
Within a period of a few years, cell phone carriers were overwhelmed with iOS and Android users gulping up more data than ever.
This was a problem for two reasons.
First, the “2G” and even most “3G” radios on cell towers weren’t designed for the number of users and the amount of data per user that these new smartphones brought.
To give you an idea of idea of how big the explosion in data growth has been, AT&T saw a 30,000% per cent increase in wireless data usage between 2007 and 2012. Thankfully, the LTE, or “4G,” radios that are being deployed now are actually designed for this kind of load.
Second, cell phone towers have to be connected to the Internet by a wired connection, kind of like massive WiFi routers. Back before the iPhone, these towers all had pretty meager connections.
As people began using more data on their smartphones, users ran into the same problem many people have when they’re trying to watch Netflix at home and someone starts a massive download on another device. The connection simply can’t handle all that data at once, and everyone’s speeds gets worse.
To handle that, wireless carriers have had to increase the capacity of those wired connections more than tenfold since 2007. That means laying new fibre cables for and installing what are essentially giant “modems” at each tower. AT&T alone has spent $US98 billion over the past five years making such upgrades, and even that hasn’t completely fixed the problem (as anyone who lives in New York City or San Francisco can attest to).
There are some other factors at play here too
Just as being underground or in a thick concrete building can block your signal, sometimes walking around a corner puts a thick building between you and the closest cell tower. Suddenly, your connection drops and your phone and the network start looking for a better tower for you to work with.
If there aren’t enough towers in your area, you might be out of luck. The obvious solution for this is to build more towers, right? Well, there are a few roadblocks in the way of simply deploying endless towers. Besides the “not in my backyard” phenomenon, where people complain about having to see cell towers, there are also permitting requirements, like height limits and rules regarding firefighter roof access.
To deal with this, some carriers are rolling out “small cells” and “distributed antenna systems” to small businesses and large public areas like stadiums, respectively. Just as Wi-Fi hotspots made coffee shops perfect for getting some work done on a laptop in the last decade, these new solutions will make it possible to take advantage of broadband-like speeds from nearly anywhere.