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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No Connection? - When Bad Connections Happen to Good Phones

article, mobile
In July 2009, TerreStar Networks launched the answer to your bad cell phone reception problems—literally. Thanks to the now-operational TerreStar-1 satellite, whenever you run into coverage trouble, you need only hit the button on your phone to switch from the local cellular network to space-based satellite coverage. You’ll have service anywhere in the U.S., even up to 200 miles offshore. Of course, there are some caveats. You’ll need to be an AT&T subscriber. Having the satellite option will add $25 to your monthly bill before charges of 65 cents per voice minute and $5 per megabyte of data. The only phone supporting TerreStar today is the $1,500 TerreStar Genus, which requires an existing AT&T account to run, looks like a BlackBerry, and runs the increasingly out-of-date Windows Mobile 6.5. And when using the satellite mode, the phone must have clear line of sight to the southern sky.If you’re not OK with all of the above and still want to do something about shoddy cellular reception, you’ve come to the right place.

Why Does Reception Die?

In general, poor phone reception springs from three sources: your general area, your wireless carrier, and your immediate environment. There are some instances, as with the recent iPhone 4 antenna brouhaha, when a phone can have a significant impact on reception performance, but Jonathan Bacon, director of marketing at wireless products manufacturer Wilson Electronics (, notes that cell phones must pass rigorous testing by carriers, so the odds of getting a “bad” phone model for reception is fairly minimal. The other factors mentioned are more likely to be the culprit.

Your area. Even major carriers such as AT&T and Verizon don’t cover large tracts of the U.S. landscape. Moreover, you might have great service in one spot, move 20 miles down the road, and suddenly find yourself in a coverage dead zone. Usually, carriers with a major presence in a region will tend to blanket urban centers and freeways, but ultimately the network deployment dollars follow the people. In more sparsely populated or traveled areas, the chances of weaker coverage increase.

Your wireless carrier. Actually, blaming the carrier for dropped calls and shoddy signals is only partly justified. “It has more to do with the frequency carriers use to transmit signals than the phones or whether the technology is GSM or CDMA,” says Bacon. “For example, AT&T and T-Mobile transmit at 1900MHz while Verizon and Sprint transmit at 800MHz. Typically, 800MHz has an easier time traveling farther. That said, performance has more to do with how the carrier builds out its network than any other variable.”

Specifically, the number of towers a carrier has in an area and the effectiveness with which a user’s connection gets passed from one tower to the next as the phone moves (known as “handoff”) are critical. For example, when Clearwire debuted its WiMAX service in Portland, Ore., we experimented with having a passenger connect to the WiMAX network as we drove through downtown—an area where coverage should have been dense. We were never able to sustain a connection for more than a minute either because the new service lacked enough towers to eliminate coverage gaps or because our connection wasn’t being handed off effectively from tower to tower. We were told that Clearwire would increase its tower coverage as service subscription levels rose. This is a predictable pattern with new wireless services and one you should be careful of when investigating new “4G” offerings.

Your immediate environment. Concrete and metal are death to radio waves, which is why cell phones have such a hard time operating in many large buildings. Even some window tinting, which can contain iron, may block cellular signals. Wood and stucco will pass signals, but the wire sometimes used to support stucco can interfere with cellular connections. Note that vegetation, particularly leaves on trees, can block phone signals, which is why people in cabins will sometimes be able to achieve a weak connection in winter but no connection in the summer.

Obviously, distance from the nearest tower also affects reception. Under optimal line of sight conditions, a phone can sustain a connection with a tower cell from more than 20 miles away. More commonly, a tower might have only a two-mile radius, and some towers in dense urban areas cover less than a mile.

The relationship between signal and your phone’s battery should be kept in mind. In areas where you have a weak signal, your battery will drain much faster because the phone is increasing power in order to boost the signal for your transmission back to and from the tower.

What Can You Do?
Ensure compatibility. Make sure your phone uses a radio compatible with the cellular networks present in all of the areas you travel. If your phone lacks a radio that operates on the same band as the network you’re in, you won’t be able to connect. This is why some business phones work on three or even four bands.

Boost your signal. Companies such as Wilson Electronics and Larsen Antennas ( manufacture a full range of antennas made for everything from rooftops to car trunks to boats. You can also purchase an aftermarket external antenna that plugs directly into your phone’s antenna port if it has one. Unfortunately, the trend for more compact smartphones has forced antenna ports from most new phones. In such cases, an amplifier may do the trick. Amplifiers such as the Wilson Sleek ($99) use an external vehicle antenna and an amplifier (which doubles as a cradle in the Sleek’s case) that gets power from the car’s 12V outlet. You set the phone next to or into the amplifier device and communicate through the phone via Bluetooth.

Consider 4G options. With pre-4G (chiefly HSDPA, LTE, and WiMAX) and 4G technologies now coming to market, expect that these can deliver superior performance over 3G but not necessarily better reception capabilities. Environment and carrier network deployment will still determine signal quality, regardless of the technology’s potential speed. If anything, rushing into 4G could yield worse reception experiences until carriers fill in their coverage dead spots. Focus on the improvements you can make today for top reception results. ▲

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