I've rarely heard anyone say they're happy with their cell service, myself included. If you're reading this story, it's possible you're dissatisfied, too.
It's not just you or your friends and family; the entire country isn't getting good cell service. US carriers don't rank too well against other carriers abroad. According to the MobiNEX research report conducted by Aptelligent published in October of last year, the US landed in 10th place out of 25 for overall carrier performance, including reliability and speeds. Ahead of the US, in order: Japan, France, the UK, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Australia.
Here's why your cell service still stinks in 2017, and how it'll improve over the next few years:
As someone who regularly commutes between downtown New York City and the suburbs of Connecticut, I've personally experienced plenty of frustration with my carrier's performance, especially during the peak commuter hours. I get a decent three to four bars of signal strength of LTE, but music streaming cuts out intermittently, web pages take a very long time to load, and I can totally forget about streaming video.
It's not like I live out in the boonies. My commuter route is one of the busiest in the country, so I'd expect my carrier would make sure daily commuters get the access they want — and pay for.
Why does cell service stink?
Joe Madden, the principal analyst at mobile consulting firm Mobile Experts, told me that carriers have "not built enough extra capacity into the network to deal with the kind of web traffic we have going on now."
It means that, if you're experiencing poor speeds and reliability, your carrier network can barely handle the sheer number of people using data-heavy apps, at least in the area you're in.
It's similar to your WiFi at home, where internet speeds drop as more and more people stream Netflix simultaneously over your WiFi network.
Congestion also helps explain why I get such poor performance during my train commute, where I can barely stream music even with good signal strength. Madden explained that the local cell towers in the towns along my route might not have much capacity left during peak hours for the 300,000 daily commuters to New York City. The majority of the local cell tower capacity is probably being used up by local users in those towns, especially during peak hours.
Indeed, congestion wasn't a problem back in 2011, when LTE first rolled out and there were relatively few people on the network. It was so fast and reliable that I could easily use my phone as a hotspot at home instead of using WiFi for streaming music, videos, and browsing the web and social media.
Back then, I could get 20+ megabits-per-second (Mbps) LTE speeds through my phone's hotspot. These days, I'm lucky to get 4 Mbps.
The speed hasn't changed, but more phones can now use the LTE network, which means there's more congestion.
And why is signal so low?
Your carrier simply might not have enough economic incentive to erect cell towers in areas with poor reception and performance. Madden told me carriers will cover highways pretty well, but if you're far away from a well-covered highway and none of the carriers have towers closer to your area, carriers might feel no pressure to install a tower there. It would take competition from a different carrier and enough upset customers to make economic sense for a carrier to install a tower in a poorly-covered area.
And if you're in a city, where there are several physical obstructions between you and cell towers, the radio technology and infrastructure we're currently using makes it difficult for carriers to deliver good performance. For example, radio waves have problems passing through concrete and metal walls, which are pretty common in cities. And efficient modern materials designed to reflect the sun's heat can also reflect radio waves from a cell tower.
Can't carriers just plop more cell towers?
Indeed, Madden says adding more towers would add more "spectrum," which is directly correlated to a network's capacity.
Alas, Madden told me "it's not so straightforward — in many ways, the need for capacity has grown faster than the ability to deploy new infrastructure."
It turns out it takes a long time to deploy towers, and carriers aren't able to keep up with the demand.
There's a mess of politics about where carriers can install a tower. For example, getting permissions to erect a new tower can be extremely expensive and can take years to get approval. Meanwhile, smartphone makers are releasing new phones with new features and capabilities on a yearly basis.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are several groups that protest against the installation of cell towers, fearing the effects of potentially harmful radiation, which is another hurdle for carriers. However, according to the FCC, there is little reason for concern about dangerous radiation exposure near cell towers. It states that the exposure limit is "many times greater than...levels typically found near the base of...cell site towers." To even get near the exposure limit, the FCC says someone would have to "remain in the main transmitting beam and within a few feet of the antenna for several minutes or longer," and that the chance of being harmed by exposure is "extremely remote." Still, the presence of this information doesn't always stop protesters.
Will it ever get better?
If the details I've heard about 5G are true, things could get much better for cell service.
Currently, in perfect, theoretical conditions, 4G LTE networks today can achieve gigabit-per-second (Gbps) speeds. 5G, on the other hand, will bring multiple gigabytes-per-second (Gbps) speeds, according to a conversation I had with Adam Koeppe, VP of network technology and planning at Verizon.
To be clear, those multiple gigabit-per-second 5G speeds Koeppe is referring to would also pertain to theoretical, perfect conditions. Still, it means data speeds have the potential to be much faster.
But that's just speed. What about congestion?
It looks like 5G could fix that, too. I also spoke with Gordon Mansfield, VP of radio access network (RAN) and device design at AT&T, who likened 4G LTE to small side streets. Mansfield said that 5G will be an evolution of 4G LTE, where it'll bring those side streets together to form a highway. "If you open up the lanes, you have more places for people to go, from an efficiency perspective."
How does 5G improve upon the congestion issues facing 4G LTE?
Mansfield says it's "not realistic" to think we'll never run into congestion with 5G. At the same time, he's also optimistic that we won't run into the same kind of congestion as rapidly.
I'll spare you the science, but 5G will include "millimeter wave" spectrum, which will deliver far, far more than enough capacity and bandwidth for our usual smartphone antics. In fact, the big plans for 5G will include more advanced applications and new types of connected devices, which Verizon's Koeppe says will get "into the billions." That includes things like augmented reality, virtual reality, connected driverless cars, smart home devices, smart city utilities, and even the WiFi at home.
According to Mansfield, even those more advanced applications listed above are "only touching the surface on what’s possible."
If 5G can mostly fix the congestion issues of 4G LTE, I might soon be able to reliably stream music — and maybe even HD video — during my commute. We could even potentially see some tech company pipe dreams become a reality, like app streaming, which lets you stream an app like a website rather than store the whole app in your phone. It would essentially end the storage woes that so many of us experience on our devices.
But lo, it looks like we'll have to wait until 2020 for 5G to become widely available in the US and devices are built with the necessary parts. Until then, I suppose I'll go find a good book for my commute.