Finding the best cell phone carrier

Okay, someone tell me if this device exists (or build it!). I want a device where I can pay $10-15 to get a gadget in the mail. The gadget would sit in my pocket for a week wherever I go. The device would record cell phone signal strength for each of the four major U.S. carriers every few seconds. After a week or so, the device would deliver the verdict on which cell phone carrier would have the strongest signal for me. Then I could mail the device back so someone else could use it — sort of a Netflix-like model to temporarily borrow this device.

At any point, I could go to a web page to view a map of where I’d been. The page would show a “heat map” of signal strength for each carrier or frequency band. Maybe I could also slice/dice by time or see the total number of readings in each location. I’m pretty sure you could rig this up out of 2-3 cell phones running Android in the worst case.

So far, I’ve found:

Android

- RF Signal Tracker is a nice app to collect and map signal strength data. It looks like it can upload to OpenCellID, which is a project to create an open database of cell IDs (numbers that correspond to cells).
- Antennas is a pretty cool free app to show you nearby antennas and signal strength. It can even export some data in KML for use with Google Maps/Earth, but it doesn’t seem to make a heat map that could be easily grokked.
- Sensorly has a free Android app, but they seem to want you to pay to zoom in closer than city level. I’m willing to do that, but didn’t see the for-pay addon in the Android Market.

iPhone

- I also found an iPhone app called Signals that will continuously collect signal data and upload it.
- AT&T offers an iPhone app called Mark the Spot to report dropped calls, no coverage, etc. I have to admit that I don’t understand why this is manual though. Personally, I’d want my phone to ping my carrier with its location every time the phone dropped a call.

Web

- SignalMap is a website to (manually!) submit the number of bars for a location. It doesn’t appear to have any mobile app to back it up. Likewise, Dead Cell Zones and Got Reception? appear to rely on manual reports. I don’t think manual reports is the best way to tackle cell phone coverage maps though — you really want an app for this.
- http://www.cellreception.com/ has the standard manual reports data, but also will map the location of cell phone towers based on the location of cell phone towers registered with the FCC.
- Root Wireless powers the cell phone signal strength maps that CNET uses, but I didn’t see any apps I could download or install on a phone. I registered to be a beta tester a long time ago, but no one ever contacted me.

That’s what I could find. Do you know of any good Android (or iPhone) programs to collect, map, or upload cell phone strength measurements? If so, let me know in the comments.

49 Responses to Finding the best cell phone carrier (Leave a comment)

  1. no clue :( still saving up to buy my first Android phone …

  2. Man, I can’t believe someone hasn’t made a full fledged “gadget” like this yet. And honestly, I can’t believe there isn’t a site offering a city wide overview of each carriers network.

    I’m interested to see the responses!

  3. That is a great idea. I’d love to see what provider was best for the places I use my phone the most. (on the highway, my office and at home) and be able to choose the carrier that gave me the best connection. Is it even possible to connect to the signals without being a paying customer?

  4. Couldnt find RF Signal tracker in the market, not sure why but think its an app for a more higher version of Android(im running 1.5), but i like Antennas

  5. But Matt, I have three phones here. All on the same carrier, all get varying degrees of results.

  6. If someone is aware of an app or website that also works for the german providers i’d be very interested.

  7. The difficulty is that signal strength is itself not really a very good indicator of your ability to make or receive a phone call. Not to mention that data based services, such as SMS will be able to make a connection in areas where voice calls might be problematic.

    Using the phone signal strength indicator to judge network quality akin to judging a website by its Google Page Rank ;)

    This is why mobile networks tend to have people driving around all day every day with batches of mobile modems making actual calls and data connections to test the quality of their (and competitor) networks.

    Now, an application that sits in the background and uploads quality details based on actual calls/data service quality. That would be worth having.

  8. Vineet Gupta

    Good idea. But as Sven mentioned, connectivity depends on various other factors as well. A good bet would be to concentrate on some specific geographic location and take avg time samples. Only if they are consistent, this analysis would have some meaning.

  9. I agree that networks can vary by time of day and congestion. But keeping the device for a week or more should let many of those differences wash out.

  10. Maybe something like PerfectoMobile would work for this.

  11. I can’t imagine you can put a GSM and CDMA receiver in a device and have that type of functionality for $10-15, especially with the limited demand it would have. I suspect it would be more like $50. Also as mentioned, signal strength is not a very good measure unfortunately. I have five bars on my iPhone on AT&T in one area I frequently make calls yet I get failed calls when making outbound calls, and was told it is something to do with interference. I can go to three bars or even auto switch from 3G to Edge (with almost no bars) just by moving 5 feet.

  12. Great idea, Matt. Ian makes valuable points about why signal strength is not always as valuable factor in the equation as you think (just like Page Rank …. LoL), but basic signal strength is something the carriers themselves often know little about and tell less.

    I sold off a successful mobile-data related business in a western state over this issue … carriers would try to tell me coverage data for whole counties or Zip codes, when in fact the signal strength varies in much smaller areas for near max to nil … maybe this is OK for calling the wife to check on milk and bread, but it’s no way to run a business.

    With regard to the non-subscriber question, the way the cellular network operates is that every device turns on, selects the strongest signal it finds and sends it’s ID to that node. The carrier who operates the node sends back one of three replies … OK to make and receive calls, OK to receive calls, or shut up, you are not recognized … so the signal strength data would be there for any device attempting to use the network.

  13. David

    If the goal of finding the best cell phone carrier is to choose who to give your business to, I’d want this app to also overlay my cell usage during that week. One carrier might have a larger area of good (or bad) signal strength in areas that I never make calls, but for example drive through on my way to and from work each day… I don’t necessarily want that data to bias which carrier would be better for me.

  14. That Signals iPhone app looks pretty good. The only problem is often the number of bars lies about signal quality. Many times in San Francisco my phone believes it has 3-5 bars, but as soon as you try to actually use voice or data it fails. I think a better measure, at least for data, would be a quick download speed test.

  15. Forgot to say: I’m pretty sure AT&T’s purpose in “Mark the Spot” is not to map their network failures. If they’re not monitoring signal quality data at the towers themselves, they’re even less competent than we think. My guess is the app was written as a way to give angry customers something they could do. A sort of empty gesture.

  16. Signal strength only tells you so much. I’ve been in places where I have the full five bars, but the phone still cannot dial out. Thanks AT&T. How about an app that auto-dials every 10 minutes to verify that you can actually connect to the network?

  17. John A Davis

    Even more than this we need a way to get a monthly rate that is affordable.

  18. Paul

    Matt, would you really be willing to give up your iphone?

  19. Your mentioning of android reminded me of something which is not related to this post. Are you aware of the sleekest PC Tablet ADAM to be launched by Indians at hyderabad which uses android os. IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) guys are saying its gonna be the next big thing and comparing it to apple’s success. Indians get hyped easily. What are your thoughts?
    company’s website notionink.in

  20. More good info Matt, where do you find all these links? will you let us know when you find out? lol

  21. I have to agree with IanVisits, Vineet, and Ken. Even after a week of just measuring signal strength you won’t have an idea of actual usability, especially if you plan on using something like an Android phone or iPhone. I rarely have less than full strength on my iPhone but feel lucky if I can actually use it for anything between roughly 8:00AM – 8:00PM if I am in Manhattan. (Let’s hear it for 2 year contracts!)

    I think something that does a rough speed test uploading a small-to-medium file would be very effective.

  22. Matt, IMO you’d have to compare for at least 1 Year to wash out all variables, even then……..

  23. Monica

    You’re very biased on what comments you approve. That will be noted by the team.

  24. John Carney

    I’ve been chasing this topic for a couple of days to pick both a phone and a carrier. I’m told that two “identical phones” get different reception at the same location, at the same time. So in addition to measuring and displaying the signal strength throughout an area, I would appreciate a website that reports cellphone performance; not the CPU/memory type of performance, but feature such as receiver sensitivity, transmitter power, etc. Better still would be one or two figures of merit for handsets that facilitate comparisons between them.

  25. Matt,

    I’ve also wanted something like this and wasn’t satisfied with what I found, so I’ve been slowly working on a system to dynamically track actual network coverage/performance with an Android application that collects data from the device and uploads it to an AppEngine backend. With enough devices reporting over time, you should be able to get a very good idea of actual coverage per carrier/location/device type.

    I’ve just put up a subscription link at http://www.telemetrix.net/ for anyone who would like to be notified when I have something ready to test.

  26. Mark Helgestad

    Matt-

    As you know, this type of comm is a two-way street. If YOU have the best mobile phone and service for your location, based on this desired device/app/service feedback, doesn’t mean the person on the other end of a call does as well. I have an iPhone and a cell tower two blocks away that I can see from my kitchen window. How’s MY reception? Give me a call and find out ;-)

  27. Thanks Matt, this is a very good list you presented. Here at Root, we have already slowly rolled out our Beta releases of Android as well as Blackberry (plus many more OS support in the future). In our mobile applications, we do exactly what you highlighted plus a lot more analytics and network characteristics to really show precisely the issues that typically occur with mobile phone users. We will also be showing trends of where you have issues to help you schedule conference calls and other events that you rely on your phone to be “on”. The CNET website gives you an idea on where we are going. We hope to soon include all of our pre-registered users signed up to become Beta testers soon. If you haven’t seen your Welcome invitation yet, you soon will :)!

    Kevin Hasley
    [removed signature per comment policy]

  28. “You’re very biased on what comments you approve.”

    Monica, I’ve been cracking down more on low-quality, spammy, or self-promoting comments. One-liner comments like “Perfect insight, will help be explain it better after reading this” or other comments that I don’t really consider helpful, productive, or otherwise relevant to the conversation, I’ve been marking as Trash or Spam. And if someone can’t read the big red/bold text that says “If you comment, please use your personal name, not your business name” and they instead leave a commenter name like “SEO Wales” then I go ahead and mark the comment as trash or spam too. I don’t mind opposing voices at all, but they need to be articulate or useful or insightful criticisms, not just driveby one-line comments or self-promotion.

  29. “I can’t imagine you can put a GSM and CDMA receiver in a device and have that type of functionality for $10-15, especially with the limited demand it would have. I suspect it would be more like $50.”

    Sorry Christopher, I wasn’t very clear in my blog post. I’m thinking of a device that might cost $100-150 at retail (or maybe even a bit more), but you could rent it for ~$10/week like Netflix. They would send you the device, you use it for a while, then you mail the device back after you know what the best cell phone carrier is.

  30. Matt, you have got to lay the smackdown more often. It’s incredibly entertaining when you do. MOAR SMACKDOWN!!!

    Okay, on to the actual topic at hand. There is actually a way to do what you want (kind of), but it’s probably more expensive than what you’d be willing to pay and it’s highly unorthodox. But, since unorthodox methods are always the most fun, you’ll probably derive a lot of geeky enjoyment from what I’m about to suggest.

    About four years ago, a client of mine signed up for wireless Internet from Bell Canada. It worked through a Kyocera PCMCIA wireless card that he plugged into his laptop, a wireless card that basically works like a cell phone (you get a number to dial into, the wireless card broadcasts a signal, you log in and you do your Internet stuff).

    I got it set up on the laptop for him and when I first tried it, I noticed that the average speed was about 130 Kb/s. Now, since 130 Kb/s is about twice what dialup is and this service cost about 4 times as much, this didn’t equate to good value. Soooo…being the kind of person I am, I went with the client to a mall 15 minutes away, we gave Bell the card back, cancelled the service since it didn’t really work and went with Telus instead since they had a store in the same mall.

    I was somewhat worried when we got the exact same Kyocera card that Bell used for their service. But since we’d already come this far, I figured I might as well hook the card up to the laptop and see what happened. Much to my surprise, the speed was 10 times faster.than Bell for the same service. So for three years, that’s what he used.

    In other words, the answer may not be with a cell phone at all. It may be as simple as a laptop. It would obviously depend on which carriers offered both portable Internet and cell service and that use the same network for both, but it could work.

  31. On an unrelated note, Matt, you might want to check out your comment feed.

    http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/comments/feed/

    The web version seems to be about 10 comments behind for some reason. If you download the feed to a feed reader, it’s relatively up to date, but the web one always seems to lag. Not sure why that is.

  32. Hi Matt,

    I used signals on a test iPhone 3GS for two weeks. I found the results to be quite thorough and consistent. The updates were also readily revised and the app itself easy to use with little download time. The only gripe I actually had with it – probably through my own incompetence, was the fact it took me a while to find it on the store.

    But to be honest, I was pretty tired that day. . .

  33. Sohail

    Buy a satellite phone :P

  34. Exactly, the carrier shud kno from the cell phone automatically about dropped signals. I guess google shud approach the carriers & offer this functionality 2 them in android.

  35. Sandeeep Dahiya

    Hey Matt,
    Why don;t you try Blackberry Storm? You will love it.

  36. I have everything through Verizon so I hope they come out with something close to the above mentioned ones. Supposedly, they will offer a “package” shortly that will include their latest web phone.

  37. I like the idea of those! It seems that the signal strength varies vastly even by a couple of miles so much that it is hard to tell which provider would be best. I guess Verizon has the best overall coverage where I am! :)

  38. Matt if you are looking for a device as one you have explained , why not be the first to build one. I know for a fact i would be inclined to order a trial version of this to try.

    Should keep some of the ideas in the “idea book”……

  39. Christi Milligan

    Great idea, Matt. But wouldn’t it be even better if instead we had actual phones that could access the strongest signal no matter where we were in the world? Then at the end of the month, our monthly fees got divided up between the carriers who actually provided us with the quality of service we are paying for? We could forget choosing a carrier and being locked into a two year contract. Instead, we pay full price for our phones and we get access to the best quality network throughout the entire month, time of day, or location.

    Network providers could finally stop trying to figure out how to get more customers or how to belittle their competitors. Instead, they could focus all their efforts on improving their networks which is WHAT this country needs! If they aren’t making enough money in San Francisco because their network isn’t strong enough, well, then they know exactly where they need to beef up with their network.

    This is the ONLY solution that is going to improve the cell service in the US. It should not be up to the customer to figure out which network works best in the areas they travel. That is the job of the networks. They need to start doing their job so the cell phone user who pays for the cell phone and the service will get what they are paying for. Seems like a no-brainer, huh? But it is probably just a pipe dream (literally) unfortunately here in the US!

  40. Hi Matt,
    Sensorly is indeed doing exactly what you are looking for and more, including WiFi. As other people mentionned, it is not a perfect description of network quality but it will show you the average number of bars a phone will display and from our testing, that doesn’t tend to vary that much. We’ll be adding more metrics with time.

    We are now confident we can build a business without making consumers pay for the Android maps and have thus removed the zoom limit : all available maps are and will stay free starting in the version released this week and that’s where we’re going. Maps are now available in US, CA, UK, AU, NZ and FR. We roll out new countries every month.
    We’ll have CDMA maps up and running by April.
    Right now the coverage on the Tmobile US map is amazing considering it started on January 30th of this year !

    We also have been working on privacy issues and have a strong principle : Sensorly will not be an enabler for phone profiling. Phones are not identified by their MSISDN, IMEI or even their android hardware id so there is no way to track whose phone reported what. Take a look at our privacy policy.

    We’re also confident that the value we provide is sufficient for people to contribute to the service and have thus made “passive scans” that will start scanning opportunistically completely optional and configurable : on/off, battery discharge limits, no wifi scans, etc…

  41. I once had some casual work for a phone carrier here in Australia, that is known as “drive testing”. What that consists of, is pretty much what you describe, except that the gear used fills the rear of a station wagon and probably costs as much as a house…

    It had 4 phones from memory, 3 of them were assigned to carriers and just tried to make a phone call and keep it open for as long as possible, while transferring data that was checked for accuracy back at base. The other constantly scanned signal strength for the 3 carriers in the area we were testing.

  42. One thing you did not mention was the “quality” of a phone call! After all, isn’t that the purpose of a phone? All of the apps and other bells and whistles are just that.

  43. What’s next after cell phones? It seems like this industry is ready for a paradigm shift. This sounds stupid, but I’ve always wondered why simple phone operations weren’t integrated into something that we wear or have with us at all times anyway like our watch. I’m not looking for a PDA watch, just a simple dial and answer. I’m ready for my Rolex G-watch now.

  44. Well, having worked in a network operators network planning and optimization team I can tell you that there are some tools out there, but most of them cost a fortune.

    http://www.anite.com/nemo-networkmeasurement.html?Itemid=436 and
    http://www.ascom.com/en/index/group/company/divisions/network-testing-home.htm

    The phones with the measurement software are in the $20k-$30k range + the computer software to analyze the data.

    Drive testing to benchmark networks is loads of fun, but to really understand which network is better (there are also several ways of defining that btw) you need to understand much more then signal strength for example (w)cdma networks like 3G (AT&T and T-Mobile) and evdo (Verizon) signal quality (ec/no) is much more important than signal strength (rxlev) and very strong signal but lots of interference (due to too many cells overlapping for example) can make the network unusable.

  45. In the Android Market there is an app called “No Signal Alert” that notifies you and logs every time you lose signal. I don’t think it sends the log to a database on the internet, but if something like this was tied to a internet database (where it was optional to upload your data, of course), all sorts of interesting aggregate data would emerge, such as where the dead zones are and which provider has more of them.

  46. Thanks for the updates on the apps. I’m getting the 4G EVO when it’s finally released with Sprint. Haven’t been this excited about a phone in a long time. I also use Clear 4g here in Vegas with my laptop. (I also have a computer with a few screens in my mini-van ….kids can play games while we’re traveling around from the back seat, stream movies, watch live TV, etc via the high speed connection. Clear works traveling around as well).

    My only fear with the EVO is jerks will try and drive while wring e-mails, etc. I wish the cell phone companies that make this high speed technology could create software that could figure out when someone is texting or writing an email once 4G hits while driving vs sitting down in the back seat. If the communications are on – off in a manner that suggests the person is driving, it could automatically turn the device off or make the person type a one minute message that couldn’t be accomplished unless they stopped or pulled over, then ask them again if they started the on-off typing. Now that would be technology that could save lives!

  47. dave

    This app would have to come from a full-service retailer offering calling plans from a majority of the major carriers. And they won’t do something like this unless there’s a competitive force driving them to do so.

    Maybe from Best Buy? Or ?

  48. Juan Fernandez

    The best phone I have ever had is the Intercept from Sprint. We had t mobile and some of their phones like the G-1 and blackberry pearls but nothing compares to that phone! Also t mobile is more expensive than sprint. Me and my wife became brokers for different phone carriers and cable services and we save so much money! We can compare prices of different phone plans and cable plans and pick the best one that works for us and our family and saves us money. If you interested in saving some money or having us do some research for you let me know.

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