Our Degrading Cellular Networks

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve noticed a lot of degradation in the cellular voice network over the last year or two, and the situation is noticeably worsening over time. For a decade or more the cellular network has been a bastion of strength and reliability. I rely heavily on my cellphone all day for work and for years I haven’t given the cellular network a thought because calls worked. Occasionally I’d get a bad voice connection that could be easily remedied by reinitiating a call. But that happened so infrequently that I barely noticed it – it was never something I considered as a problem.

Over the last year, this all changed. I’ve often had a problem making a call and have had to try the same number a half a dozen times to make a connection. Calls mysteriously drop in mid-call, or even stranger, half of the call goes silent and only one party can be heard. Possibly the worse problem is that there are a lot more calls with poor voice quality – something that I thought was a decade behind us.

I happen to work in a small city and it’s not hard to understand why my cell site would be stressed. Half of the homes in my neighborhood have at least one person working from home, and most spend a lot of time on the phone. Our street is only one block from a busy traffic corridor and is also full of businesses. We also have a significant number of teenagers. I would not be surprised to find that the busy hour on our local cellular network is during the afternoon.

However, this is not just a problem with urban cell sites. I’ve lately been asking others about their cellular calling and at least half of people I’ve asked tell me that the quality of the cellular networks in their own neighborhoods has gotten worse. Many of these folks live in small rural towns.

It’s not hard to understand why this is happening. The cellular companies have embraced the ‘unlimited’ data plans, which while not truly unlimited, have encouraged folks to use their cellular data plans. According to Cisco and OpenVault, the amount of data on cellular networks is now doubling every two years – a scorching growth rate that will accumulate to a 60-fold increase in data usage on the cellular networks in a decade. No network can sustain that kind of traffic growth for very long without first becoming congested and eventually collapsing under the load.

The cellular companies don’t want to openly talk about this crisis. I guess that the first cellular company to use the word ‘crisis’ will see their stock tank, so none of them are talking about why cellular performance is degrading. Instead, the cellular carriers have taken the tactic of saying that we need to remove barriers to 5G and that we need to win the 5G race – but what they want is to find solutions to fix the 4G networks before they crash.

The cellular companies have a 3-prong approach to fix the problem. First, they are deploying small cell sites to relieve the pressure from the big cellular towers. One small cell site in my neighborhood would likely eliminate most of the problems I’ve been having, at least for a little while. Unfortunately, in a network where traffic is doubling every two years, this is a temporary solution.

The cellular companies also have been screaming for new mid-range spectrum, because adding spectrum to cell sites and cellphones expands the data capability at each cell site. Unfortunately, working new spectrum into the cellular networks take time. The FCC continues to slog through the approval process for new cellular spectrum, with the best example being the mess happening with C-Band spectrum. Even when new spectrum is approved there is a significant market delay from the time of approval until a new spectrum has been installed in cell sites and phones.

Finally, the cellular carriers are counting on 5G. There a few aspects of 5G that will significantly improve cellular service. The most important is frequency slicing that will right-size the data path to each customer and will get rid of today’s network that provides a full channel to a customer who is doing some minor broadband task. 5G will also allow for a customer to be connected to a different cell site if their closest site is full. Finally, the 5G specifications call for a major expansion of the number of customers that can be served simultaneously from a cell site. Unfortunately for the cellular carriers, most of the major 5G improvements are still five years into the future. And like with new spectrum, there will be a market delay with each 5G breakthrough as updates make it into enough smartphones to make a difference.

There is a fourth issue that is a likely component of the degrading cellular networks. It’s likely with expanding broadband needs that the backhaul links to cell sites are overloaded at peak times and under stress. It doesn’t matter if all of the above changes are implemented if the backhaul is inadequate – because poor backhaul will degrade any broadband network. The big cellular carriers have been working furiously to build fiber to cell sites to eliminate leased backhaul. But much of the backhaul to cell sites is still leased, and the lease costs are one of the major expenses for cellular companies. The cellular companies are reluctant to pay a lot more for bandwidth, and so it’s likely that at the busiest times of the day that many backhaul routes are now overloaded.

The cellular companies need all of these fixes just to keep up with cellular demand growth. They need many more small cell sites, more frequency, 5G upgrades, and robust backhaul. What I find scary is that all of these fixes might not be enough to solve the problem if cellular demand continues to grow at the same torrid pace. I’ve been thinking about buying a landline for my office – something I got rid of 20 years ago – I don’t know if I can wait for the cellular companies to solve their crisis.

5 thoughts on “Our Degrading Cellular Networks

  1. Seems like the fix is landline service. A very cheap solution to a problem that is obviously very frustrating – in addition to unproductive.

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  2. Not for me. I’ve had Verizon for about 2 years now here in the Raleigh metro area and phone call quality is fine, no dropped calls or really any issues at all.

    (By the way, I am an ex-Cellular One switch engineer who was part of the team that brought up the initial cell non-wireline cell phone service in the south Florida area back in the early 80’s)

    I am writing this as a totally unbiased consumer because I have no special love for Verizon but I’m just telling you the truth that it’s been fine; no problems, no issues. I recommend you switch carriers or switch Telephones because your issues could be related to those. I use iPhones by the way. 8+ currently.

    All the best and I enjoy immensely your posts!

    Bill Bass

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    • I’m not surprised – you live in one of the most fiber-rich markets in the country. However, if the cellular carriers don’t implement the needed fixes in a reasonable amount of time this will hit even markets like yours in a few years. It’s nearly impossible to future-proof any network against a compounded growth of traffic doubling every two years. As the blog mentioned, about half of the folks I’ve asked don’t see a problem. It’s definitely a market by market phenomenon.

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  3. Doug,
    You may have a voice over Wi-Fi solution that may not be transparent to the end user.Some suggestions:
    1. a VoWi-Fi app for use in your office or when you are stationary in a Wi-Fi zone
    2. IoS and Android for some carriers will look for a strong Wi-Fi signal and put your call there over a 3G/4G connection
    3. GoogleFi combines Sprint/T-Mobile and US Cellular as well as Wi-Fi using multiple SIMs/eSIMS and radios to determine the strongest signal (disclosure: I’m considering a move to them) and place the call on that strongest signal
    I agree with your point about deteriorating infrastructure. 3G still uses circuit switching and is hitting switches that are 40+ years old. The cell towers may still be serviced by T1s (1.54 Mbps) which can in no way meet the demands placed on them.

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  4. Hi Doug,

    I have been compiling information on the LEO satellites that are planing to bring the internet to customer around the globe, starting mid 2020 with full service in 2012. One of the services mention in LEO marketing plans is rural cellphone backhaul. The LEO companies, OneWeb, SpaceX, TeleSat, and even Amazon are promising “fiber like speeds and latency”. If these network function as planed, they can serve the increasing demand and help unclog the aging fiber networks.

    https://ruraleconomytechnology.com/2019/11/08/fast-company-oneweb-wants-to-blanket-the-planet-in-high-speed-satellite-broadband/

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