Tech Savvy: Mixed signals

Hey there, Tech Savvy fans! A belated thank you to our veterans this past week for your service and sacrifice. We appreciate your dedication. This week I received a question from a reader asking if I had any thoughts or ideas on how they might be...

Photo courtesy of Open Signal

Hey there, Tech Savvy fans! A belated thank you to our veterans this past week for your service and sacrifice. We appreciate your dedication.

This week I received a question from a reader asking if I had any thoughts or ideas on how they might be able to deal with some service issues they've been having. It seems over the course of some years they have seen a noticeable reduction in the strength of the signal they are receiving at their home from their wireless provider. It's not something you normally hear about, usually we hear more about expanded coverage, not decreases.

I wrote back and gave them some thoughts that came to mind, and we'll go over that here, but with the regular deer season wrapping up, and snowmobiling, cross country skiing, and the potential for being stranded in snow storms, it seems like a good time to look at this issue as a whole.

The first thing I like to point out with reception is that a lot of it still has to do with your device itself, not all devices are created equal. Mobile devices require antennae to take in the signals from the towers and, depending on what other features your device has, they may have sacrificed the size or strength of the antenna to make room for things like a different processor, added battery or other items. In many cases even low bars are still close enough to towers to maintain a signal and be usable, so the device maker doesn't have to strive for perfect signal reception all the time.

Devices also vary in how they represent your signal strength from one device to another. Not all two bar signals mean the same strength.


In my personal experience over the years, I have had the best consistent signal retention from Motorola devices, the most spotty I've had have been between HTC and LG. That being said, I've had HTC devices that worked really well, and used some Motorola ones that really didn't deliver what I was expecting. I will say that in the last year and-a-half to two years, more and more devices seem to be on an even playing field for reception. I think this is a combination of more tower accessibility and the components and technology improving.

One way to test if your device is the issue, is to check your signal strength in a place where you get good reception, then move into a building that is fairly heavy - old schools, brick buildings, basements or other areas like that - and see how your signal varies. If you simply walk inside the door and you lose your signal, it may be that your device doesn't have the best antenna system and any interference will hinder your signal. If you can retain moderate signals even when you are in a less than ideal area, your device may not be the sole culprit.

Our reader had also reached out to their carrier and asked them for some suggestions and one of the things they brought up is also something I would recommend looking at - a cellphone network extender. Most carriers have their own version of this, it's basically a mini cellphone tower that you can put in your home and it boosts the signals from the towers and makes it easier for your device to pick them up. A small scale example I experienced when I was testing the mobile hotspots for the Grid Down series, was placing the hotspot in an open area to capitalize on the reception, and then I was able to be in heavier cover but able to connect to the hotspot for a more stable connection.

Network extenders work much like this. They can be placed in ideal reception areas and then your devices connect to them to get the better reception. These may or may not fix your issue, and I'd recommend going to your carrier and asking them about this option.

If you want to explore this option check to see if there are multiple options, if they have different solutions for different issues you want to make sure you get the right one. You might also want to call ahead and ask them specifically what things they look for when determining if an extender will do the trick. If you live in a valley with towering pines all around, an extender may not do you any good.

One option that usually comes to mind is that if you just switch carriers then you will be in better shape, so you start looking for who has the best deal on at the time. It is an option to consider, but there are a few things to keep in mind. If you have generally poor reception all the time, and you always have, then it may be worth considering. If you've only had poor reception since you switched a device, it may be the device.

An easy way to see if other carriers might be a solution, and for trying different devices, is to check if you know anyone with that service or device, see what their experience is when they visit. I've always been a big fan of getting first hand knowledge and doing my own testing, so if I want to see how an iPhone compares to what I've got, I ask a friend if they can replicate what I'm trying to do and see how it works for them. It's not always one hundred percent accurate, but it's usually a great straw poll for a quick answer. The only downside will be if all your friends have the same service and device.

There are also numerous third party websites that you can use to check against the carrier generated maps, and check for potential service gaps. Keep in mind that many of these maps are created by user reports, so if someone doesn't provide the information, it doesn't get on there. It may not be inaccurate, but it also may not be the whole picture.


Open Signal, , was one that I really liked. It is your basic digital map, but then you can click different options and you get an easy to read heat map for coverage and then pinpoints where towers are located.

Finally, one more issue that affects your speed and coverage is related to how many users are on the service at the same time.

Cellphone towers and carriers have to share the available space with all the other users and when it starts filling up, it moves slower. Think of it like a rowboat - if you keep adding more people, but no one else helps row, you go slower and slower, eventually as the boat becomes full you some people have to get off, or it becomes so crowded that some fall off. These networks work the same way - as more and more people hop on the network it runs slower and eventually users get kicked off if that number increases past the capacity of the network at that time. In reality it usually doesn't kick you off, but your share of the speed goes way down.

Test your networks at varying times of the day, it may be that your area is simply congested with people on the same network at the same time.

I hope this helps explain coverage a little more, have a great weekend, good luck to the other deer hunters this weekend - stay safe out there.

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