I was sitting at the North Boulder Recreation Center this morning, watching my daughter in her dance class and fiddling with my iPhone, just to be struck by how poor our cellular service really is, and how much we just accept it. Let me be straight: it stinks.
About twenty minutes into the class I got a call from someone in the Boulder city government, but the reception was so poor that I couldn’t really even understand what he was saying. I suggested he call back in thirty and he says “you’re breaking up something terrible. Should I call you back in five?”
He never called back.
Then I decided to poke around on the net a little bit, since I had the latest issue of MacLife on my lap and wanted to check out some of the sites they were writing about. The facility has an open wireless network, but…
… the base unit for the wireless network is apparently too far from where the dance rooms are because I sat and watched the wireless signal show up as strong, then vanish, then have the iPhone prompt me to join a wireless network (usually including that one, but sometimes showing me just the choice of a private, closed network that I couldn’t join).
So I tried surfing with the AT&T/Cingular EDGE network and maybe I had a weak signal or something, but it was unbearably slow. Like, 2-3 minutes of the progress indicator frozen at a time. Ironically, I was shopping for Apple products, but even then the iPhone did poorly.
Yes, I know the building is constructed with large steel girders and that theoretically it’s a poor environment for wireless signals to transmit, and yes I realize that wifi has a short range and that a large building can be plenty enough to extend beyond the range of a puny little consumer base station.
But this isn’t an isolated incident, and it’s not about the iPhone either. It’s about the state of cellular coverage and capabilities as we move into the last quarter of 2007. In too many ways it feels like nothing has progressed in the last few years, and my experiences of a year ago with my Motorola RAZR, or two years ago with my state-of-the-art LG phone on Verizon, were the same.
Dropped calls, static, incomprehensible remote callers, service that moves in out of availability like a coy co-ed, pricing that’s still remarkably anti-consumer, and even us being saddled with both ends of a cell call having to pay for the connection (unlike most of the rest of the world where you pay for originating a call, not receiving it). It stinks.
And speaking of dropped calls, for the entire five years that I have lived here in Colorado, I have experienced 100% call drop at a specific point on the local highway (Highway 36, the rise outside of Superior just before you come down the hill into Boulder). I have reported it. But nothing. No improvement, no installation of stronger towers on either side of this trouble spot. Just a place that’s so predictable that I literally tell people if I make the mistake of being on the cellphone at that point “just a sec, we’ll be disconnected, I’ll call you back”.
As with much of technology, my worry is that we’re so busy building the newest, next, fanciest, that we never go back and really build a robust and reliable infrastructure. I mean, really, when the most memorable slogans from the industry are “can you hear me now?” and “fewest dropped calls”, isn’t it time we took that as a warning signal that the underlying system is failing to meet our needs?
All I want is a cellphone, a mobile telephone where I can always make and receive clear and comprehensible calls, and where I can pop onto the ‘net if I so choose, without a ghastly performance penalty or the all-too-common “connection dropped” error.