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Opinion by Iain

Another road trip…. more mobile service complaints

October 13, 2020 | It seems that every time we take a road trip out West, I end up writing a column complaining about the mobile service (or lack thereof) on the trip.  How can it be this bad in 2020, some 40 years after the first mobile networks were deployed?  I have asked this question many times.  And each time, many of our readers reply back agreeing with my experience and telling their own story of poor mobile service.

This time I thought it would be different.  I was wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a road trip from Austin, TX up to Ithaca, NY to see my parents.  We wanted to minimize my parents’ exposure to the virus and so decided that driving was safer than flying.  We took our own food and drinks and were very careful when we stopped for gas, etc.  The trip took two long days and was actually very easy - interstate all the way with no major traffic delays.  The route we took was pretty direct - Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and finally New York.  We took the same route on the way back two weeks later.

On the drive, we entertained ourselves by playing music and listening to artists alphabetically; we started with artists beginning with ‘A’ in Austin and changed every few hours.  By the time we got home, we had gotten all the way through to ’T’ artists. We streamed music all the way and also listened to several podcasts and Internet radio programs. This is important to the story today.  

In the 30 years I have been in the U.S., I have visited every state and driven over large parts of the country.  I know there are very large areas, especially out West, that are very sparsely populated.  But in the East, the population density is generally higher.  So the mobile network service should be better, right?

Wrong.

We stayed on interstates and even then, there were many times we had one bar of LTE and very poor service, such that we could not stream music or podcasts.  In some cases, we dropped down to 3G.  This did not happen that much in the rural parts of western New York but rather in Ohio between the major cities, in Kentucky, in Tennessee and also in Arkansas.

How is it, that when the major mobile operators are continually congratulating themselves on their latest 5G service launch or winning another award for great service, that we can drive 3,500 miles on major interstates and get such a poor experience?  I know that LTE is not sexy any longer but the reality is that LTE and 5G NR on lower bands is what most people are using.  And before anyone asks, I have an iPhone 11 with the latest and greatest radio, software, etc.

Here is the reality of the situation: there is no way, based on my 4G LTE experience on this trip and others, that I would buy 5G service from my service provider.  In fact, before I were to try any new 5G service from any other provider, I would want a trial before committing.  And I am an analyst!  It is my job to try new services and the latest and greatest technology.  But if an operator cannot even provide an LTE service on major interstates to enable reliable basic streaming service, how can I expect them to support higher bandwidth, low latency 5G service?

Now, some of you may say that mobile service between major cities cannot be expected to be reliable. I disagree.  Given the amount of traffic on the interstates, there are many people who need reliable service, least of all the truckers.  And in the age of COVID-19, I expect there will be more and more people driving instead of flying; the recent surge in RV sales illustrates this point.  Plus, we have been investing in mobile networks for decades. Surely we can expect a basic data connection after all this time.

The next argument will be that I have the wrong operator; they will say “our service is better”.  Again, I disagree. I have used other networks in the past (including recently) and they all have problems.  One of the network providers had such a poor network in Austin that I was unable to drive five miles and keep a streaming connection.

My advice to the mobile operators is simple: spend some time and money on the basic service.  Remember that more people are driving and want simple, reliable, data connectivity.  High bandwidth, low latency 5G service in an urban metro area does not help me if I need AAA on the interstate in Ohio. Or Kentucky.  Or Arkansas.  Or Tennessee.

Comments welcomed!


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