How and why does a cell phone call drop and why in this epicenter of technology can’t we make uninterrupted calls?
Sarah Wert stood in front of the Apple store on University Avenue talking on her cell phone with her daughter less than two miles away on the Stanford campus. The two could hear only every 10th word. It took four calls to work out this simple exchange: “Can you pick me up at 3?” “Yes I can.”
Sarah, program director at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, isn’t alone. I live in Munger, the dorm near the Law School, and I have heard other residents call the building “The Bunker.” One resident bought a micro-cell, exhausted from taking calls outside in her pajamas. My experience has been similar. I can’t keep a call active walking the five steps from my window to my kitchen. I feel their pain.
There are a slew of emotional domino effects to a dropped call. Have you ever noticed when a call is interrupted how frustrated you or the other person becomes? And don’t get residents started on the subject of walking the Dish trail above campus, treading the same path as the great minds who lead and led the technology companies that develop devices.
True this is a first-world problem, but why does it happen? Why in Silicon Valley, this epicenter of technology, can’t we do something as simple as make consistently uninterrupted calls?
I started with Mainak Chowdhury, he’s a fifth year PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He studies wireless communications and explained how cell phone calls work and why they get disrupted. The quick answer: there aren’t enough antennas on campus, in part because the carriers haven’t installed them.
When we make a call it’s connecting to a base station, imagine a tower. Picture sine waves rolling between your phone and this tower acting as the link connecting your device to your closest base station. There are a number of reasons why this link might break and result in a dropped call. Your connection could be disrupted if an obstruction like a person, car or wall comes between you and the base station. You could move from one side of your room to the other and the thickness of the walls around you could weaken your signal. Have you ever had this happen: “Wait I can’t hear you. Hello? Wait a second. Oh there you are.” That’s when your signal gets disrupted but is able to recover and reconnect. There can also be network issues, like congestion from too many calls happening at once.
But in spite of all those reasons, the most likely culprit for an interrupted call is your proximity to a tower or antenna. So why don’t we just install more antennas around campus and solve this problem once and for all?
Enter Tony Holland, director of digital solutions for the Graduate School of Business, and Erich Snow, director of facilities operations for IT services on campus. One of Tony and Erich’s jobs has been to get better cellular reception on campus. Tony explained that telecommunications companies (telcos) don’t have an incentive to install antennas on campus because most Stanford students arrive with existing cell phone plans and leave after a few years, meaning we don’t represent new revenue to capture. As a result, they found, the telcos don’t jump to invest in infrastructure to make reception stronger around campus. When I tried to confirm this twice with the telcos, I did not hear back.
But the challenge is complex. When it comes to antennas on campus, Stanford controls placement. Telcos can’t install new antenna stations without the university’s permission. Tony, Erich and the university IT group have spent six years working with the telcos and Stanford to install antennas on the campus, which is why I consider them local heroes. Now, we have antennas built, out of sight, in the basements of the North, Bass and Patterson buildings.
Erich provided some good news. “We have a macro antenna, which sends a signal for about a mile and a half, on the Beckman Building and we are building a new ‘neutral host’ macro on Porter Drive, where Junipero Serra meets Page Mill Road.” This could be great news for Sarah’s family and other off-campus folks nearby. Erich explains, “Neutral host systems are designed to handle multiple carriers under one umbrella. This saves us from having to negotiate deals with each carrier separately.”
I exchanged emails with AT&T and Verizon. Both companies said that they plan to expand coverage (although no timeline was provided) and that the reasons calls drop can range from weather and terrain to the type of phone and amount of users accessing a cell site at the same time.
Indeed, the situation should improve, the phone companies say. For coverage inside buildings, we can now make calls over WiFi networks. All four major carriers, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, offer this service, and this is the future for outdoor service as well.
And the fifth generation of wireless technology, 5G, is on the way, Erich explained. It’ll give our devices more bandwidth, and with the ability to make calls and stream over WiFi we can make those calls and watch those videos with more ease. There are also initiatives like Google’s Project Fi, where the tech giant is partnering with Sprint and T-Mobile to create more seamless WiFi connections across the country.
Regardless of what carrier we use, we can start to imagine a world where we’ll walk and talk with our cell phones seamlessly latching onto the strongest local network — whether that’s cellular or WiFi. Good news for Sarah, Mainak, Tony, Erich — and all the rest of us here in the technology capital of the world.