[Editor's Note: This is the second piece of a two-part series on AT&T coverage in Albany. See Part I here. See our interactive .]
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CELL EXPERTS WEIGH IN
As mentioned Monday, I was perplexed at the excellent AT&T cell coverge I found in the remote high Sierra last summer, compared to the lousy service on my Albany block.
To help me understand this black hole, which extends to parts of North Berkeley, I turned to Anant Sahai, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley, and John Britton, a spokesman for AT&T, for answers.
First up, Professor Sahai, as excerpted from phone and email exchanges.
Q: I understand, from what you say, the quality of cell coverage in any given neighborhood is determined by how many cell sites or towers exist for the various carriers, how many people are using those sites at any given time, and how the carrier designates broadband, between talking and data. Right?
Sahai: Yes. The technology used, the total bandwidth available, and the number of antennas basically determine the total capacity of a given cell. This capacity is then divided across voice and data by the carrier.
If there is too much demand for the available supply (people calling and requesting data), then you have problems such as being unable to make a call, having your call dropped (especially as you try to cross from one cell area to another), and not being able to receive calls.
Every cell has a given number of calls they can support at any time. It varies by technology. They're counting on the fact that all people won’t use their phones at the same time.
With hilly terrain or where there are large buildings, sometimes the signal just gets blocked. This requires more towers to reach those blind spots.
Q: So, the growing popularity of "smart" technology really has changed the cell phone terrain?
Sahai: In the old days all they had was voice calls. Now they have all of these data devices. The network operators choose how much of their resource, or bandwidth, to give to data and how much to voice. As their data demands are rising, they have to reallocate bandwidth from voice to data.
Technologically people have worked out how to make this work but the carriers haven’t deployed it yet. They optimize it as they can go. They're always upgrading to try to make everything better. They want to make sure they can sell enough of the higher priced data plans and they know their voice users won’t leave.
Q: Given the above, why do you think AT&T has black holes in Albany or North Berkeley? (Side note: Sahai uses an AT&T iPhone mostly for data, and has dropped calls near his North Berkeley house.)
Sahai: I have no informed opinion about this because I haven't seen . It is probably some combination of having too many customers for the number of towers that they have deployed, and having a few blind spots because of the hilly terrain.
Q: Why did I get such clear coverage in the Sierra wilderness?
Sahai: There’s nobody out there in the wilderness. As long as they have a tower you’re not going to have the problem of too many people using the cell.
Q: What do you think of the health concerns about cell towers (not cell phones)?
I don't really understand this issue that well. All I can say is that more towers means that on average, there will be less power emitted into the air for the same amount of wireless use.
Of course, the reason that carriers deploy more towers is to increase the amount of wireless use so the net story is less clear. Of course, for the people next to the new towers, they are likely going to face more wireless signal power in their vicinity.
To properly evaluate the health impact (both on average and for individual locations), we would have to know the relationship between wireless power and health. At least I do not know this and I'm not sure this is completely understood by anyone.
And now, from AT&T’s John Britton, as excerpted for brevity from a longer message.
Q: Why is AT&T coverage so poor in Albany and parts of Berkeley?
Britton: AT&T is focused on providing the best possible network experience for customers. In Albany and Berkeley, right now we are , and many are being delayed due to opposition from a small number of vocal people.
Wireless technology is not magic. Mobile connectivity requires solid infrastructure, and when companies are not allowed to make important upgrades it means that entire communities can suffer the consequences. It’s a fact that we have been working on some new cell site locations in Berkeley for years. In some areas, needed approvals come in months, and people in those communities do not see delays that stretch into years.
Residents who want better connectivity, faster speeds and overall improved mobile experience should contact their local government officials and let their voices be heard. We are pursuing many paths to keep customers connected; we’re working hard.
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If there's something in this article you think , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.