NY Times Phone Smart Article Commentary

The Web Brings Together Cellphone Users Searching for Signals
January 15, 2009
Phone Smart


Cellphone carriers aren’t shy about pointing people to the coverage maps on their Web sites that are supposed to show where they can expect to get good signals. (WHAT KIND OF PERSON OTHER THAN AN INDUSTRY INSIDER WOULD TAKE TIME TO SHARE GOOD SIGNALS?) Those maps suggest you can get a great signal just about anywhere, unless you live in remote areas.

And they’re right: you can get a great signal just about anywhere (THAT IS NEAR A CELL TOWER THAT IS NOT BLOCKED BY TREES, BUILDINGS OR HILLS) — if the weather is perfect, the phone is new and you are the only person in your area making a call at that particular moment.

For a more sober assessment of a carrier’s strong and weak spots, consumers need the opinions of family, colleagues, friends, enemies and strangers. Finding those opinions is a problem that is tailor-made for an Internet solution.

This month a new Web site, GotReception.com (2009), joins a short list of other sites that help cellphone users find carriers with good or even adequate reception in their areas. SignalMap.com (2008), DeadCellZones.com (SINCE 2001) and CellReception.com (2007) have been in business longer, and although none of the four have the problem licked, they can help people in some areas choose a carrier more wisely. (THE PROBLEM IS GETTING CARRIERS TO ACTUALLY RELY ON THIS DATA TO SERVICE THEIR NETWORK NOT HELPING CONSUMERS SHOP FOR THE BEST COVERAGE)

As useful as GotReception.com can be at times, it can also be confusing. (ITS WAY BEYOND CONFUSING AND LACKS ANY UTILITY FOR THE AVERAGE CONSUMER. IT REMINDS ME OF MY PHONE BILL I GET FROM THE CARRIER) Type in an address or ZIP code, for instance, and it will display a so-called heat map, with icons showing the location of cell towers or antennas, as well as spots where consumers have posted descriptions of their own experiences. Roughly 39,000 people have posted reviews. (MORE LIES. THERE IS NO WAY THIS IS TRUE THEY DON'T HAVE THE TRAFFIC TO SUPPORT THIS DATA. OVER WHAT PERIOD OF TIME AND HOW DID THEY ACQUIRE THE DATA?) (SEE QUANTCAST TRAFFIC)

The icons for Sprint are green, the icons for Verizon are orange, and so forth. But if you try to compare two or more carriers on a single map, GotReception blends the colors into a swirl resembling a watercolor in a rainstorm. (THEY COPIED FROM US AS WELL)

The site works much better if you select a single carrier — and if you happen to live in an area well populated with cellphone users who like to share their opinions. In certain areas of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for instance, you can find small clusters of complaints about poor signals from AT&T customers, as well as smaller pockets where the coverage appears better.

Sprint customers will find less help, probably because it has fewer subscribers than AT&T to begin with. That pattern holds on other sites as well. Of the 15,000 reviews posted to DeadCellZones.com last year, about 30 percent were for AT&T, while about 25 percent were for Verizon.

No matter the carrier, though, you will have a harder time finding good guidance from these sites if you are in the suburbs, where clusters of customer reviews are rare. On DeadCellZones, which has logged by far the most consumer opinions, just eight people reported dead spots in signal coverage in Stamford, Conn., and the reports showed no pattern that could be relied on when choosing a carrier.

Still, even in areas with few reviews, the quality of the reviews can sometimes make up for the quantity. One reviewer in Fair Lawn, N.J., for instance, reported a dead spot on River Road, and said the problem extended to other carriers as well.

Other posts are less useful, like one from a Verizon user in Elmwood Park, N.J., who reported “full bars” at a Dunkin’ Donuts lot. Great news for those who frequent that parking lot; of questionable use for those in the surrounding area. (SignalMap.com eschews comments, precisely for this reason.)

As with some other sites in this category, GotReception asks users to list their phone models. Sometimes this can help, as when a user complains about the poor coverage on a circa-2000 flip phone. Other times, it only clouds the matter. Should a report of great coverage be given more credibility because the phone was a new BlackBerry? Did that particular iPhone user have a hand covering the phone’s antenna?

Adam Korbl, GotReception’s chief executive, said his site would become more useful as more amateur reviewers post their experiences, but in the meantime, they can fish for other opinions elsewhere.

DeadCellZones.com is, in some ways (THANK YOU BUT STATE THIS EARLIER IN YOUR LOVE FEST ARTICLE), more helpful than GotReception because it sees no shades of gray. “We try to keep it simple,” said DeadCellZones’ chief executive, Jeff Cohn. “I just want people to say, ‘Hey, my signal consistently drops at this location.’ ”

As with the competition, DeadCellZones works best in more densely populated areas like Manhattan, where patterns are more easily found. Columbia students, for instance, widely complained to DeadCellZones about T-Mobile’s coverage on campus. T-Mobile’s coverage map shows full signal strength throughout the Upper West Side, including Columbia.

DeadCellZones, meanwhile, showed several dead zones in Lower Manhattan for AT&T, while the coverage map on the AT&T Web site suggested the area was blanketed by what the site regarded as the network’s “best” coverage.

Because wireless carriers are steadily building out their networks, one should pay attention to the dates of these postings. DeadCellZones, which has logged more than 100,000 complaints, deletes complaints after about a year. Some consumer reviews on CellReception.com, however, are four years old. (THEIR MAP DOES NOT WORK EITHER)

CellReception is an offshoot of Mobiledia.com (ANOTHER COPYCAT WEB SITE), a widely read mobile-industry blog. The site’s president, Allen Tsai, said it held more than 45,000 comments, mostly written by Mobiledia readers.

SignalMap, which started last year, is considering a different flavor of consumer-to-consumer help, according to Adam Corey, one of the site’s founders. Mr. Corey said SignalMap might begin compiling a list of those who are willing to answer questions, via e-mail, (THIS IS ALSO KNOWN AS SPAM) about signal quality. The service, he said, could connect users anonymously. (ORGANIC TRAFFIC IS THE BEST SOURCE OF RELIABLE CONSUMER DATA)

In the meantime, if you happen to visit one of these sites, do everyone a favor and post a review. One of the sites (DEADCELLZONES.COM IS THE CREATOR AND THE STANDARD) could eventually grow to the point that it holds a trove of data on every town, in that way greatly diminishing the chance that you will choose your next wireless carrier unwisely.

E-mail: phonesmart@nytimes.com

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