My wife and I recently took a 4,000 mile trip to visit three national parks and eight states, including South Dakota. SD was the only state I had not visited in the 29 years I have lived in the U.S. After an extensive stay in South Dakota, I can now say I have been to all 50 states in the Union.
And of course, in each of the states I have used various cellular networks, devices and services from each of the major operators. So what I have I learned? In no particular order:,
- None of the major operators have perfect coverage across the country. Some operators are strong in some areas, but each of them have significant areas of coverage weakness.
- That said, none of the major operators are terrible everywhere. While I like to pick on certain carriers for poor network service, it is really because they are not strong where I tend to go. But the reality is that each of the operators have areas where they are strong.
- Network coverage is actually very good compared to where it was five or ten years ago. It is clear that the industry as a whole has invested and improved the networks (some more than others) to the point that most areas have some service.
- But the national parks in the west are generally lacking in coverage. This is understandable since no one wants to be looking at the Grand Tetons, for example, and see an ugly cell tower next to the mountains. Some campsites have cellular coverage purely as a result of where they are located. For example, I-94 runs along the south edge of and through part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. As a result, there are a few bars of LTE at the south end of the park. And the campground at Badlands National Park sits just inside the park and has good service. But Rocky Mountain national park has very poor/no coverage throughout the park.
- You can survive without cellular coverage! Remember that people managed it for many years and somehow got by.
- While you may not expect national parks to have good coverage (and they do not), some places you may expect to have good service are severely lacking. I am talking about you, Iowa. Last year, I rode across Iowa and documented the amazingly poor coverage and capacity in small towns.
- The reverse is also true: places where you may not expect great service have surprisingly good signals. For example, driving through South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming (and not on interstates), we were able to get a strong 4G signal and even LTE, certainly enough to stream podcasts, etc. Like west Texas, this is likely due to the oil industry: drilling operations need connectivity and are willing to pay for the service. So the demand for good service is there.
- Capacity is often more of a problem than coverage. I have been at a conference in Florida, for example, and had great coverage but amazingly poor LTE speeds. Pack enough people into a small area and many cellular networks are (still) unable to cope. This was especially true at my son’s graduation in California recently: the network I was using was unable to cope with all those parents and grandparents packed into the football stadium trying to send photos and video. After a conversation with my carrier, it appears that they have been trying to add new sites and work with the university to add capacity.
- The ‘number of bars’ on the phone is pretty much meaningless. You can have one bar and the LTE symbol showing and have great service, including being able to stream video. Alternatively, I have also been sitting in a hotel room with three/four bars indicated and unable to get a data connection. Obviously, the signal strength indicator does not show the amount of capacity available in the cell and so, sometimes, capacity and signal strength get out of sync.
- That said, cellular coverage, and mostly LTE coverage, today is good enough across the U.S. that I rarely have to use WiFi. I generally dislike connecting to public WiFi and will never use WiFi for financial applications or services. So if I have to access the bank account on the road, I use LTE. And for all of my travels, it is rare that I have to do something and cannot get a signal. Note that sometimes I choose to be in a national park and be out of coverage. Given the size of the U.S. (this country is huge), the fact that there is so much LTE coverage is impressive; we will see how long it will be for 5G services to reach the same level of service.
- And finally, battery life is not getting better! It seems I still have to plug in my smartphone every day and, when camping, I have an additional battery. Things have not changed in this regard in the last decade or so. While the batteries get larger, the processors get more power efficient, the screens in smartphones are also getting bigger (needing more power), have more pixels (more power) and there are more radios in the devices to run (more power). So with all the advances as the industry has moved from 3G to 4G LTE and now to 5G, the same old problem of battery power still persists. Some things never change.
By Iain Gillott, President, iGR (iGillottResearch, Inc.)
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August 1, 2019