Why Cell Phones Don’t Work (Well) From The Air

cell phone tower antennaSome people are wondering why no one has been able to track MH370 through cellphone data. We know the NSA has been storing cell metadata for tracking. Isn’t this the same scenario?

A brief lesson in physics is needed. Don’t be scared. No math.

Think of an antenna as the launching point for radio waves. If the antenna is a single element, those radio waves will depart at equal levels in all directions. A car’s AM/FM whip antenna is an example of this.

Remember the days of rooftop TV antennas? They had many elements. That wasn’t just to make them more unsightly!

tv-antennaAntennas may also include reflective or directive elements or surfaces not connected to the transmitter or receiver, such as parasitic elements, parabolic reflectors or horns, which serve to direct the radio waves into a beam or other desired radiation pattern. – Wikipedia

That’s exactly what’s going on at the cell site.

cellair-aWhy bother sending signals where they’re wasted? With a directional antenna you can redirect power to where it’s needed. In most cases that means concentrating nearly all a cell tower’s power parallel or slightly down toward the ground. Pointing down slightly is necessary because of the Earth’s natural curve.

The extra gain in the antennas beams, used to increase signal strength to us on the ground, is taken from what would radiate upwards!

Radiation Pattern of a Cell Tower AntennaI’m sure I’m not the only person to ever power up a cellphone in flight to see if I could hit a tower. I’ve never been successful. This is why.

Vacation… Again

Here’s something new employees never look at, or think about (and not just where I work, but everywhere). If you stay long enough, you get a lot of vacation! Right now I get four weeks of vacation plus ten additional days for working holidays. That’s six full weeks off.

With that in mind, and Steffie getting six weeks between semesters (Wow – college is better than work!), we’ve decided to take a vacation.

I’ve mentioned my Southwest Airlines credit card before, and it enters into this vacation. With a bunch of free tickets stowed away, air fare was not a problem. Now, where to go?

I’m not quite sure how we got to this point, but a cruise was brought up by one of us and agreed to by all of us.

We’ve been all over the Caribbean, so decided to go elsewhere. We’ll be flying to Los Angeles, spending the night, at a hotel. then boarding our ship, the Norwegian Star, in San Pedro for a trip down the Mexican Coast… or as the cruise lines call it, the Mexican Riviera.

Norwegian Star Intinerary
Day Port Arrive Depart
Wed. Los Angeles – – 6:00pm
Thu. At sea – – – –
Fri. At sea – – – –
Sat. Manzanillo 10:00am 6:00pm
Sun. Puerto Vallarta 7:00am 6:00pm
Mon. Mazatlan 8:00am 6:00pm
Tue. Cabo San Lucas 7:00am 2:00pm
Wed. At sea – – – –
Thu. Los Angeles 9:00am – –

Originally the ship was to go to Acapulco first and slowly head north over eight days. That changed a few weeks ago when a problem showed up on the ship’s propulsion system. It can no longer do 25 knots… only 20. Acapulco is too far.

They say the ship will be fine until it gets dry docked in March. I don’t want to see us cruising behind a tow truck.

At first we were disappointed. Helaine and I went to Acapulco for our honeymoon. As time went on, we were told Acapulco isn’t what it once was (and even when we were there the beach had Federales armed with automatic weapons!).

From Los Angeles we go to Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. Mostly I will go with the flow, doing what Helaine and Steffie want to do (i.e. mostly shopping).

In Manzanillo I plan on meeting up with a professor from the Monterrey Institute for a day trip to the Colima Volcano. It is just a plan because the professor hasn’t written back in the last day – we’ll see.

There have been changes to cruising since we last went. The ship has its own cell site – though at $1.99/minute mine will be turned off! There is also Internet access. It is also pricey and slow, but I will be checking email (which is how our voicemail will be delivered too). Having Internet access also means the blog will be fed.

We decided to get a room with a balcony. OK – I decided to get a room with a balcony and then convinced everyone else. This way, if there’s any conflict, the offending party can be thrown overboard without breaking the porthole glass. I think it was a practical decision.

I do have one fear on this trip – weather. The forecast for our departure from Connecticut is rainy with a little frozen stuff mixed in. California, though suffering from awful weather for the last few weeks, should be sunny with temps near 70.

We have never cruised the Pacific. Though Magellan thought it was placid when he named it, it can be anything but! I will be popping Bonine like there’s no tomorrow. I once got seasick while snorkeling! Hopefully the waves will be small.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

This is one of my favorite expressions: “No good deed goes unpunished.”&#185 It speaks to the law of unintended consequences. Let me give you today’s example.

A few years ago, my cell service provider was AT&T Wireless. I’m sure they’re lovely people, good to their families, active in their church. To me, running a cell phone company was not among their strong points.

AT&T had this strange way of dropping calls. Granted, every cell phone provider has ways to tick off its customers – but AT&T’s was special to me.

Technically, as you drive around with a cell phone, it transmits to different cell sites as signals and conditions vary. The handoff from one site to another is a complex dance choreographed at the cell sites with instructions relayed back to your phone. AT&T’s equipment seemed to be set in such a way that by the time they got around to telling your phone to switch, you were often already unable to hear the site – and the call would drop. There were favorite locations where this would happen like clockwork.

Once your cellphone has dropped the call, it becomes free to hunt on its own for the best cell site. So, what I would often experience on AT&T was a call that became unusable with low signal – that frustrating period when all you say is “can you hear me?” After a period of time the call would disconnect. As soon as it did, the signal bars on the phone would jump up to full scale.

So, even in areas where there was good signal, because of how their cell sites were configured, AT&T would drop my call. Now that’s a business plan!

It finally got to the point where I had to make a change and went to Cingular. Even without service at my home, Cingular was a better deal because my calls from the car were more likely to work.

Recently, Cingular made an offer for AT&T Wireless and will buy it. And, in what should be a nice gesture, Cingular has integrated AT&T’s network into the system – giving me access to those towers along with Cingular’s. I have service at home because it’s an AT&T tower.

Unfortunately, AT&T’s dropped call problems have now moved to Cingular. That’s right – the addition of all these new towers, all this new coverage, has meant more dropped calls!

Because the AT&T sites show up differently on my phone (it shows Cingular Extend instead of just Cingular) I can see whose service I am not getting when the calls drop – or when I ride around with unusable service in an area that used to be just fine. The problem is with the AT&T sites.

I’d like to call Cingular and tell them, but anyone with the ability to act or even understand this problem is totally hidden from the pubic. Try finding an email address. Try finding a contact for snail mail. It’s impossible.

Cingular is not alone. Many companies have discovered that dealing with their customers after the sale is expensive with little quantifiable financial upside – so they hide as best they can.

The local Cingular office (and I know folks from there who read this blog) has always been very nice and helpful as can be. Unfortunately, they too are totally removed from the actual operation of the company (in fact most of the ‘showrooms’ that say “Cingular” in big letters are neither owned nor run by Cingular).

Here’s the tragic part. When Cingular made this move to allow me the use of AT&T Wirelesses towers, they thought their customers would benefit. And, in some small ways we have. After all, I now have service at home. But the biggest effect has been to lessen the coverage and frustrate this customer.

&#185 – The quote is from Clare Boothe Luce. Here’s how the Library of Congress characterizes here: Talented, wealthy, beautiful, and controversial, Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987) is best remembered as a congresswoman (1942-1946), ambassador, playwright, socialite, and spouse of magazine magnate Henry R. Luce of Time-Life-Fortune.

CNET Reviews My Phone

I subscribe to CNET’s cell phone reviews. I’m not sure why. It was interesting reading them while I was shopping around. I should cancel it now.

Today, around three months after I got it, CNET reviewed my cell phone, the LG-G4010. It wasn’t mentioned in the review, but it should be noted that LG stands for Lucky Goldstar. I’m not sure how much confidence is built by having Lucky in your businesses name!

I have a love/hate relationship with this phone. It is as tiny as any phone I’ve ever had, and lightweight. It sits in my pocket most of the day at work. The vibration is strong enough that I seldom miss a call.

There are very few accessories for this phone. I’d like a clip to carry it on my belt. There is none. I’d like a data cable. There is none.

I’m afraid, though physically robust, the phone’s software is not. From time-to-time the phone forgets where my phonebook is stored. Is it on the SIM card? Is it in the native memory of the phone itself? Set it – it forgets it! The numbers aren’t gone, just lost. But, if you’re in the car, pressing a single speed dial number to reach someone and the phone says that entry is empty, you’ve been inconvenienced. It’s doubly true if you no longer know someone’s number, just their speed dial entry.

I’ve set the ringtone, only to have it revert to some other ring tone! This happened during my stay in Florida. I tried to use the least outlandish tone. What I got was the sampled sound of a bell from an old phone. I must have reset this feature a dozen times without success.

Astoundingly enough, the phone doesn’t have one feature that I though every cell phone had. There’s no way to have it wait while dialing. With all my previuous phones, voice mail meant pushing one button, waiting, pushing it again and hearing messages. Now, to get voice mail, I hit the first button, but must dial all the other codes myself – even while driving. That’s not right, since this seems like such a mature feature. Let’s call this ‘forgetware.’

The phone’s grayscale display features a wallpaper pattern. I’d rather not have it. Too bad. There’s no way to turn it off. It can be changed, but not turned off. Strange.

Last, but certainly not least is the manual. The manual is so beautifully designed and printed that when I originally had trouble following what it was saying, I though the problem was mine. This seems like a manual that might have been written in Korean and then poorly translated into English. Whatever the story, it’s a puzzle. I’m surprised Cingular let this get by since it increases their support costs.

All this being said, I still like the phone. I’ve learned to work around some of its weaknesses (like lack of external display) and enjoy its diminutive size. I had read some people complain of short battery life, but that’s not been a problem for me.

Of course there’s still no cell service at home. I am hoping Cingular is successful in its bid for AT&T and that it is AT&T’s cell site that I hear (but can’t use) from my house. That would be huge.

The Vegas term for this is ‘parlay’, a series of bets, each of which has to come true for you to get the payoff. Parlay players seldom win.

Cell Phone Deal – The Final Chapter

This is the (hopefully) last in a series of entries about my cell service. If you’d rather read the whole series from the beginning, click here.

Hold your calls, we’ve got a winner… or more succinctly, we’ve eliminated most of the losers. I re-signed yesterday with Cingular for National GSM service.

A couple of notes and observations are in order. This took an unbelievably long time. I’m not talking about yesterday at the store – which did take forever – but my decision making process. The cellular carriers make this maddeningly difficult.

First and foremost, you have to read each and every thing that you’re being offered and not offered. The cell companies know what they’re offering (well, sort of) but most of us don’t. While I was in the cell phone store yesterday, I watched customer after customer move up to the desk, like lambs to the slaughter. The salespeople offered and sold plans and conditions that weren’t understood by the customers. And, the customers, with little choice, signed on without much thought.

In my case, this is a $2,000 commitment – 2 years of service for the three of us – and I wanted to be sure everything was acceptable… or as acceptable as possible.

Most customers don’t know the difference between GSM or TDMA or CDMA, but these distinctions can be very important in deciding what you’re getting. The companies offer beautifully named national or regional networks, and then never disclose what these networks are… or are not. The maps I’ve seen continue to paint a nearly seamless blanket of coverage, which isn’t true.

The company that actually runs the Cingular store needs to reconsider the paper flow through the store. Forms had to be filled out by hand and multiple phone calls made to get my account set up. It’s 2003 – these forms should be computer generated and authorizations automated. I was in the store for nearly 2 hours. Some people, who waited in line while I was being taking care of, left.

As I wrote earlier, when a plan says no roaming fees, that still doesn’t mean you can use any signal your phone can hear. It used to be, if you were out of range of your plan, your phone would latch on to whatever it heard, and you’d pay for that privilege. But “no roaming” doesn’t necessarily mean that call is now free. It often means that call can no longer be made!

The best example is here at home. My phone shows a very, very strong signal (probably from T-Mobile or AT&T). If I try to make a call, the phone says “Emergency Only” and spits me back to the main menu.

As far as I can tell, I now have a comparable number of minutes, nights beginning at 7:00 PM, some sort of national coverage (though still no coverage here at home) and three new phones for a little less than I was paying. And, I extracted 3 free months of service, 2 of the 3 phones, and a waiver of the activation charge by getting on the phone with the Cingular company agent (thanks Kendrick Alexander) and asking for it (the folks in the Cingular store don’t really work for Cingular).

Helaine and I got LG G4010 phones. They are incredibly small with a stubby, fixed antenna. I have been pouring through the manual, looking for a way to use my company’s voicemail with this phone. That means adding a pause during the dialing sequence. As far as I can tell, you can’t do it. If that’s true, this would be the first cell phone I’ve ever seen that can’t perform this function.

If the manual wasn’t translated from some other language into English, the person who did write it should be ashamed. It is disorganized and confusing.

Steffie got a much fancier Samsung S307. It has a color display and more toys. I was proud because she wanted it and was willing to part with her own (hard earned) money to get it.

There was another company I had considered going with. Oh heck – it was Sprint. I didn’t go because of what I considered the very high cost of the phones and higher cost for monthly service. But really, the clincher was their move a few years ago (quickly rescinded) to charge for calls to customer service! To me, that showed a corporate culture that didn’t value the end user the way I want to be valued.

I would be 100% happy with Cingular but for one small problem. There’s no service here at home. Judging by the folks at their store, Cingular thinks it has coverage here. They recently put a cell site at Quinnipiac College, less than 2 miles away. But, it is blocked to me, and most of my neighbors because of Sleeping Giant Mountain. If they would have moved the site off campus, they could have killed two birds with one stone – putting coverage on campus and into this area and I’d be really smiling.

Now, it’s anger

As we approach 48 hours, there’s still no phone service here.

What could possibly take so long to repair? You would think a ‘widespread’ outage (their characterization to Helaine) would demand round-the-clock attention. I sense that’s not happening (though how would I really know).

I hear Tommy Lee Jones’ voice on TV. I see repairmen in the mud and rain in the commercials. It’s puffery, isn’t it?

Lily Tomlin used to perform routines as Ernestine, the telephone company employee. Her basic premise was, having the only game in town made the phone company brazen.

Nothing has changed.

My cell service expires 10-26. Unless I can find out that Cingular has imminent plans to plant a cell site in my neighborhood, I’m gone. It has become perfectly clear that cell service is no longer an optional item for home.