Cell frustrations: 'Can you hear me now?'

By Vic Micolucci, General assignment reporter, vic@wjxt.com
Jodi Mohrmann, Managing editor of special projects, jmohrmann@wjxt.com
Published On: May 19 2014 06:10:00 PM EDT
Updated On: May 19 2014 06:30:24 PM EDT

Smart phones are designed to make our lives easier. Still, they can be a headache. From dropped calls to loss of internet service we hear complaints all the time about cell phone frustration. Channel 4's Vic Micolucci took a trip around Jacksonville to see where the best and worst cell phone reception is.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

Smartphones are supposed to make our lives easier, but let's face it, a lot of times they can be a big headache. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. So we wanted to find out which ones work the best in our area.

We found that different carriers have their strengths and weaknesses, but one stood out as the best. And one was the worst.

You pay the big bucks so that they work - all the time - but many here in the Jacksonville area complain the cellphone carriers don't hold up their end of the deal, with bad reception, dropped calls, and no Internet.

We put the four most used carriers to the test: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. Those in the experiment had both iPhone and Android phones.

Gathering a group of friendly folks to help with our experiment, we loaded onto what else, but a pink party bus, thanks to JaxPartyBus.com.

We hit the road, and tested reception, download and upload speeds around northeast Florida. Remember the "Can you hear me now?" commercials? It was a lot like that.

The first stop was downtown Jacksonville.

We tested the signals and speeds with an app, made by RootMetrics.

Sprint and AT&T had some problems.

"It failed," said participant Amanda Castillo, who has a Sprint Android phone.

Frustrating?

"Oh yes," said Kari Wells, who has an AT&T Android phone.

Everyone else was dandy.

On the Westside of Jacksonville, things were pretty good for everyone.

"My download speed and my upload speed were far better here," said Kelly Crawford, a Verizon Wireless iPhone user.

Mandarin was also a great spot for most carriers.

"My download speed increased four-fold," said Chris DiFiore, an AT&T iPhone user. "And my upload speed increased five-fold."

"Mine went up dramatically," said Nicole Lora, talking about her upload speed on her AT&T iPhone.

In this test, only Sprint lagged behind.

"It failed again!," said Castillo. "I know I have Sprint. It doesn't work anywhere around town."

We moved to Clay County, where Orange Park was good for everyone but our friends with AT&T.

"It's slower for me," said Jennifer Harmon, who has an AT&T Android phone.

"Sprint is holding up," Percina Infantino said as she tested her Sprint iPhone.

Interstate 95 at the World Golf Village exit was a bad spot for a lot of our volunteers.

"No phone, no text message, no Internet," said Wells, who has AT&T.

We found the tourist Mecca of St. Augustine brought mixed results.

"Mine is pretty good here," said Shakena Fagan, who has a T-Mobile Android phone.

Harmon and Lora both reported a poor signal with AT&T.

"My upload speed went to zero," said Lora. "Zero, done, I got nothing. I can't Instagram. I'm depressed, that beautiful picture I just took a San Augustine, I cannot."

Our 4-hour tour taught us that different cellphone carriers have good spots and bad spots in our area. The best performing of the four major carriers was Verizon Wireless. We couldn't find any problems anywhere on our route!

"That's why I pay them the big bucks," said Ted Whittle, who has a Verizon Android phone.

We found no significant difference between service in iPhones and Android devices.

AT&T and T-Mobile were the next best carriers and Sprint was the worst in our test.

"I'm probably not going to stay with Sprint," said Castillo, whose contract is up in a few months. "Because it just doesn't work in Jacksonville."

Just a few days ago, on May 16,  RootMetrics, a company that tests cellphones, released new findings in the Jacksonville area.  It's tests also found that Verizon was the most reliable and the fastest in North Florida. AT&T was a close second. All the carriers got high marks for text message performance, but overall, Sprint lagged behind the rest, just like in our test. (See RootMetrics test results in Jacksonville here.)

"I think some companies just aren't aware how bad the problem is in some areas," said study participant Crawford.

To find out why service can be so good for some and so bad for others, we went to Dr. Brian Kopp, an electrical engineer, communications consultant and University of North Florida adjunct professor.

"The peak times are in the mornings, the start of the business day and in the evening when people are using their phones in their homes maybe, you will see an increase in the number of users on the network and that generally means the per user speeds go down," Kopp explained.

So time of day is a big factor and so are towers. They're placed all over the area. In general, if you're closer to your cell company's tower, you should have better luck. There are also much smaller receivers on buildings that help boost your signal.

"If you are further away, if you are out in a rural location, you may only get the 2G or 3G service," Kopp said. "It is definitely slower then the LTE."

So then why do we sometimes get no reception in the center of the city?  Kopp says the carriers could be overloaded from too many people or the signals can bounce off buildings and cancel each other out.

"We call it multipath and it can raise havoc in some of the cell networks, particularly when you are moving."

Kopp says before you lock into your next cellphone contract, check coverage maps for your home, your work or your school. Ask which companies work best.

"Talk to your coworkers, talk to your friends, maybe even borrow one of their phones," Kopp told Channel 4.

Consumer Reports keeps close watch on who's the best, doing a satisfaction study this year that surveyed 58,000 people across the United States.

They say right now, the prize goes to Verizon but satisfaction and service are always changing as companies upgrade technology. Chief Electronics Editor Glen Derene says the trend now is going to pre-paid and no-contract. Some of the major carriers are trying it out and so are other subsidiaries like AiO, MetroPCS.

"What really resonates is that their plans are simple, they're straight-forward and people don't feel trapped by them."

A spokeswoman for Sprint responded to our not-so-great findings with this statement:

"Sprint is close to done with building our all-new wireless network and (we) have begun the next phase of deployment for Sprint Spark. Sprint Spark is an enhanced LTE service that's built for wireless broadband data and designed to deliver peak wireless speeds of 60Mbps today on capable devices, with the potential for speeds three times as fast by late next year."

Cellphone towers are listed by the FCC, but the companies for the most part keep their transmitters secret. You can ask the company and you can also go to independent websites that test the carriers for you. You can actually zoom into your exact street.

Helpful links:

cellreception.com
rootmetrics.com/us
antennasearch.com
opensignal.com

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