We hear dead spots

There are several towers, but will wireless coverage ever be perfect?

There are several towers, but will wireless coverage ever be perfect?

March 18, 2007|by JULIE E. GREENE

"Hi, honey. I need to run an errand. I'll be home ... ." Then silence.

That silence is the sign of a dropped cell phone call, which might be more frustrating than the garbled sound of a bad cellular connection. And it's something with which many cell phone users are all too familiar.

To find out how wireless coverage is progressing in the area, The Herald-Mail called cell phone companies and a handful of consumers.

The Herald-Mail conducted several tests in which cellular phone customers were asked to call the newspaper's land line before they entered a typical trouble area for their cellular services.


Several people mentioned trouble spots along state or federal highways as they entered or left Washington County, including Interstate 81 heading into Franklin County, Pa.; Interstate 70 crossing the mountains into Frederick County, Md.; and U.S. 11 going into Berkeley County, W.Va. (We're not recommending talking on a cell phone while driving, but it works for the purpose of this test.)

All three areas were tested. In two of four cases, two of the calls were dropped - one in Berkeley County, W.Va., and one in Franklin County, Pa.

The other two calls didn't get dropped, though the sound during each call cut out a little. (See the sidebar for test results.)

Mountains, steel buildings, windows tinted with a metallic film, even trees with full foliage could be responsible for dropped calls or dead spots - areas where cellular calls can't be made or received even though it's in the caller's coverage area, cellular industry officials said.

Then there are the calls that don't go through or get cut off because the closest cell tower is at capacity or the caller is in one of what are probably many small holes in the coverage area.

Building a wireless network to provide cell phone coverage is like installing a sprinkler system, said Alexa Kaufman, spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless. You space the sprinkler heads so there's enough overlap to evenly water the lawn, otherwise there's overwatering or dead spots.

Now think about doing that in a hilly environment. "It definitely makes it more challenging," she said.

Ideally, cellular companies want their antenna arrays in high areas in rural settings to create an umbrella effect, but lower in highly populated urban areas to reduce interference among cell sites, said Dave Fabry, a U.S. Cellular network operations manager for the Tri-State area.

Quality of coverage

The Federal Communications Commission does not have a specific minimum of standard for cellular coverage or quality, according to an FCC spokeswoman.

Companies with a wireless service license are to have provided substantial service by the end of their license term, though there are no specific requirements.

One of the main reasons for the substantial service requirement is to make sure the spectrum is being used and a company isn't just sitting on a license without using it, according to an FCC spokeswoman.

To monitor and improve the quality of their coverage areas, cell phone companies have crews, their own or independent contractors, who drive around testing cell reception.

Verizon Wireless has crews driving around in souped-up sport utility vehicles that carry $500,000 worth of telecommunications equipment testing Verizon Wireless' voice and data networks as well as its competitors, said John Johnson, corporate communications director for Verizon Wireless.

The technicians are looking for ineffective attempts to place a call and calls that get dropped, Johnson said.

The data collected helps company officials determine the cause of the problem, such as a cellular traffic jam and a need for more capacity in an area or no signal coverage and the need to expand the network, Johnson said.

The testing continues because the need for capacity can change as well as the factors that interfere with coverage.

"The quality of a call may change with the seasons," Johnson said. Where there was no interference during winter, there can be in spring because leaves grew.

The company spent about $290 million in 2006 expanding its network and capacity in 2006 in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, Johnson said.

In December, U.S. Cellular activated two more cell sites in the Hagerstown area to help with capacity and dead spots. They are in Maugansville to help with coverage and capacity and along Commonwealth Avenue in Hagerstown to help with capacity, Fabry said.

U.S. Cellular officials said it's almost impossible to have 100 percent coverage in a county, though they couldn't say where their dead spots were.

"We monitor our coverage area," said Melissa Watkins, public relations counsel for U.S. Cellular.

Kaufman, with Cingular Wireless, said she didn't have a catalog listing where Cingular's dead spots were. They could change as the company is constantly evaluating its service area, she said.

The company provides an online tool allowing people to check coverage at an address and offers a 30-day money-back guarantee in case people are unsatisfied with their service, she said.

However, in some situations, a cellular company has to rely on a partner for the quality of the network.

While numerous cell companies can get licenses to operate at 1,900 MHz, only two cell companies can be licensed per county at 800 MHz, a lower frequency that covers a broader geographic area, industry officials said.

For instance, Cellular One and U.S. Cellular are licensed to operate in Washington County at 800 MHz. Verizon Wireless partners with U.S. Cellular in Washington County and U.S. Cellular customers use Verizon Wireless towers in Frederick County, Md.

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