Time and again, we get asked which cellular network is the best. The answer is: it depends completely on you and on varying factors outside of your control. Location, other network users in your area, and activities on the network at a given time all impact the experience. In the past, I’ve seen customized Google Maps where users can report local coverage conditions. But after speaking to the Root Wireless team at last week’s CES, I think there’s a better way to research and report cellular coverage data.
The company’s beta product is a small background application that runs on BlackBerry, Android and Windows Mobile devices for now. While so many of us focus on throughput, it’s only part of the equation — equally as important is the signal strength, dropped calls, and failed data connections. Combined with throughput, these factors help equate the experience.
With so many possible data points, how then is the information useful to consumers? That’s where the crowdsourcing concept enters in. Root Wireless aggregates data from the reporting handset clients to create detailed, low-level coverage maps. All data is self-reported, so there’s no input or other steps required from the participants, although users can “record” coverage in areas to help report dead zones. Root Wireless currently reports this data with all four major U.S. carriers in 16 different metro area maps, found here. The Root Coverage maps are interactive, so it’s easy to compare coverage by carrier or by signal, data or voice in a given location:
As part of the Consumer Electronics Show, Root Wireless used their own product near the Las Vegas Convention Center for six hours a day throughout the show. With just limited data, the company was able to create a useful graph of each carrier’s data performance. In fact, it verified something we repeatedly said throughout the show as our iPhones became useless bricks. Here’s the summary report from Root Wireless:
- Over the four days tested, AT&T’s rank fell from first to last.
- The first two days, Sprint’s data service provided faster service than recorded in greater Las Vegas in December. Then its download speeds slowed each of the following two days. Nonetheless, its service was among the fastest recorded Wednesday – Friday.
- T-Mobile’s service never recorded the fastest download speeds, but it provided consistent performance day-to-day.
- With the exception of Wednesday, Verizon Wireless outperformed its results recorded in December, and Verizon provided the fastest downloads on Thursday and Friday, presumably the show’s most congested days.
I think an automated crowdsourcing approach such as this is far more valuable that the various ambitious attempts to manually test the networks. There’s simply no way one person or one organization can test enough data points. But when you open the doors for millions of devices to test them for you, you really begin to gain some meaningful and useful data.