Speed Is the Wrong Thing to Focus on for Wireless Data

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T-Mobile has been getting a little bit of press lately over the company’s first foray into capital-4 4G service (because, let’s face it, for as fast as HSPA+ can be, calling it 4G is somewhere between a savvy marketing decision and a bald-faced lie), as it appears to have begun testing its LTE network out in Kansas City. That’s great, since LTE is clearly the future, but every time I hear about new LTE service going up somewhere (and believe me, the carriers send out a LOT of press releases to that effect) I can’t help but feel like there’s far too great a focus being placed on introducing new high-speed data options, when there’s still so much work left to be done elsewhere to finish building out the existing cellular data networks crisscrossing the United States.

There are three key areas a provider needs to focus on when developing its network: coverage, capacity, and maximum speed. Some of those are intertwined (like how speeds can dip when capacity is insufficient), but they’re the main factors affecting the quality of service we get, or if we can even get it at all.

I understand that it’s not particularly tenable to suggest that cellular coverage should be coast-to-coast inclusive, and I’m not about to insist that carriers focus their resources on deploying towers to saturate the likes of giant national parks or those huge swaths of land held by the military, but where there are people living, especially at appreciable densities, I expect there to be some decent wireless coverage.

It’s not like the carriers haven’t had the better part of two decades (or more) to develop infrastructure. I realize that technology has come a long way since they first got started, with AMPS giving way to digital systems and higher-and-higher speed data services, and that the ongoing struggle to keep up with the times takes resources away from those that could be spent increasing both the area networks cover and the capacity that coverage provides, but isn’t there some point where we should say, “spend a little less time making the best parts of your network even better, and spend more time making the worst parts at least passable”?

Just what constitutes “passable service” is going to vary based on personal opinion, but considering the very real bandwidth demands of mobile web and modern apps, I feel like 3G isn’t asking too much.

For what it’s worth, I live in a reasonably developed suburban area where T-Mobile says I should have “good” HSPA coverage, and the reality is that most of the time I can only get EDGE data, and even then only reliably if I go outside – in my house, I’m lucky to get a single bar of EDGE, and just as often have no signal at all. Sure, inside houses we always have WiFi to fall back upon, but it’s maddening to see how spotty coverage really is.

What’s to be done about all this? I wish I knew. Private companies have little motivation to do anything that’s not explicitly profitable, and it’s clear that delivering the highest-speed data they can to the most densely-populated areas is where they see the greatest potential for income. I don’t mean to get too socialist on you guys, but the radio spectrum is a public good, and if we’re going to give carriers exclusive control over portions of it, shouldn’t we demand that they extend their coverage to benefit the public at large, rather than concentrating on only the most profitable sectors of it?

High-speed data is awesome, but when it’s being offered at the expense of depriving other smartphone users of even medium-speed data, is that really something we should be championing?

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!