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July 29, 2006

Ubiquitous Cell Phone Coverage

Just got back from a week in New York (hence the blog silence). We had a van pick us up from the airport, and the driver talked on his cell phone the whole way from Newark to Times Square. He was mostly talking in Hebrew so I had no idea what he was saying, but the sense I got was that he wasn't talking about anything in particular, just chatting to pass the time, the way you would talk to a passenger in the front seat--but he was talking to someone on the other end of a phone line. He had a headset on and when he finished one call he would immediately speed-dial another.

In the way old days, a phone call was a rarity, reserved for when the dam burst or the jute mill exploded. After a while it became customary to call your parents to tell them, say, that they had a new grandchild. My parents inhabit the next wave, where a phone call is still an event, inspired by a key piece of information that needs to be communicated. My wife calls her sisters all the time just to talk; and this van driver had moved beyond that to a state where he was always on the phone with someone (I'll also point out that it was after midnight when this was going on, which didn't seem to impair his ability to find someone to reach out and touch).

And of course as phone technology and pricing has evolved, this trend has widened. In high school my wife would spend all afternoon (so she says) talking on the phone to her friends, but those were local calls, on a landline. Now she's making long-distance calls on her cell phone, since those are essentially free (editor's note: but NOT all afternoon).

Here's another data point: my sister-in-law is getting married, and when she and her fiance move in together they are planning to each keep their respective cell phones, but not bother getting a land line. And I know several other people who only have a cell phone. They are all younger than me, which I'm sure is not a coincidence. I still view cell phone reception as spotty and a good signal as semi-miraculous, but that attitude is changing as coverage improves. For example five years ago you couldn't get a signal in the elevator of a hotel in Las Vegas, but that has now been fixed. Similarly, the "Kirkland Dead Spot" that hovered over the general vicinity of the Starbucks on NE 85th was patched up in the last couple of years.

(As an only-vaguely-related aside, this reminds me of a fresh-scrubbed youngster who arrived at Microsoft in the fall of 1990. To preserve his anonymity we'll call him Jay. Jay decided that he wasn't going to get a phone in his apartment. Not because of a cell phone, of course (they were still mostly "car phones" back then); it was because he figured he would be at Microsoft so much that he would tell people to call him in his office, and he would use the voicemail there as a message drop. For emergencies in the rare moments when he was at home (like the time he locked himself out of his car and had to call me to pretend to AAA that it was my car, but I digress) he planned to use a pay phone on the street. I don't think Jay's plan lasted very long, however.)

The only time the van driver stopped yakking was in the Lincoln Tunnel. Although my brother said that at least one cell phone company does provide reception in the tunnels. And you can't get a signal in the NYC subway, but I'm sure that will get fixed soon also. Which brings me to my real thought here, which is at what point will cell phone coverage become completely ubiquitous? Meaning that anywhere there is enough oxygen to breathe, basically, you will get a strong signal. I know some people act as if this state has already been achieved, but of course it hasn't (top of the Empire State Building: another spotty signal). But it probably will happen at some point, and when it does...ummm...insert profound prediction here (and then find a VC to fund it).

Posted by AdamBa at July 29, 2006 02:53 PM

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People choose cell phones because there is a bit of choice, as opposed to the de facto monopoly instated by state and city authorities in landline and cable TV throughout most of the country. The coverage is a bit better in the area where tens of millions live, as opposed to the woods of, let's say, Indiana.

Posted by: Luci Sandor at July 29, 2006 05:36 PM

The last time I had a land-line was 2 years ago and the only calls I received on it was from telemarketers. Everyone else: my family, friends and even my boss chose to call me on my cell.

Posted by: D2 at July 30, 2006 02:30 AM

What is the return on investment for providing cell phone service where people are scarce?

The cost of repeaters is in the 5 digit range. It takes a lot of phone calls before you get a ROI on that.

I recently traveled 300 miles in the pacific northwest without a digital cell signal. 150 miles of that had no signal at all. A huge percentage of the mountainous rural areas of the country have no coverage. Even valleys that see thousands of vacationers per week are cell phone wastelands.

Pull up a nationwide cellular coverage map and filter out all but PCS coverage. Outside of that area, all of the newer, cheaper phones will not work.

Next, filter out all but the analog and PCS coverage. Outside of that area, you are SOL even with a dual/tri-mode phone.

Finally, look at a topographic contour map and ask youself how many new towers would be needed to cover even 20 square miles of those mountains.

Posted by: A bicyclist at July 30, 2006 09:26 AM

You bring up an interesting point, which is what is the incentive in general to provide better service in any area. I'm not sure how the economics of cell towers work. If Verizon puts in a tower in an area, can phones with other carriers also use it? I assume this must generally be true, or else you would get a ridiculous duplication of coverage. But then if Verizon does that, how are they paid when other carriers use the tower? Is there some complicated system of charging between carriers, or is it just assumed to even out in the wash?

In any case, I predict that someone will eventually put up all those towers to provide coverage in mountains and other remote areas, because people are going to become so dependent on coverage that they will be willing to pay for it, and those payments will eventually find there way to the companies that put in the towers.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at July 30, 2006 06:53 PM

I was in NY last winter and I noticed the Cab driver too. He kept talking and I got very angry. Not with him, mostly with the shuttle company who doesn't train them.
I guess it must be the same in Seattle. I have seen many drivers do that and I always get confused if they are talking to me or not. Luckily they don't speak English and it doesn't take a long time for me to figure what is going on.

Posted by: MJ at July 30, 2006 07:46 PM

Roaming in-network but out of area is all on your carrier.

Roaming out-of-network puts you on another carrier's towers and you can have much higher roaming fees.

Eventually, you will probably be right. That eventually might be a long time in coming. A news article in the last couple years pointed out a very rural Oregon town that had finally just gotten landline phone service. Before that, the residents were driving 20 miles to the nearest pay phone.

Posted by: A bicyclist at July 30, 2006 09:23 PM

Just an interesting thought, but just got back from travelling around the boondocks of Morocco, and everyone there has a cell phone, while many don't have landlines. While repeaters do cost money, they're a lot cheaper than laying out the last mile where it doesn't already exist.

Posted by: Anon at August 1, 2006 12:56 PM