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Everything You Need to Know About Network Coverage

a group of people holding cell phones

Today we’re constantly connected; whether it’s walking and talking, working on the train, or shopping while we wait in line.  To say cell phones have revolutionized the way we go about our lives would be a serious understatement. With over 5 billion unique mobile subscriptions out there, that’s 67% of the world’s population!

Whether you're looking to switch carriers, moving to a new neighborhood, or relocating across the country, knowing who has the best 4G and 5G cell phone coverage in your area is pretty critical. It can be confusing, though, trying to figure out which network has the best cell service, especially when they all seem to be pretty much the same.

But what goes into the network coverage your phone relies on? More importantly, how do you know what to look for when finding the right network coverage for you?

Read on as we explain all the ins and outs of network coverage!

How Do Cellular Networks Work?

Before we get into the finer details of finding the best network for you, it’ll help to have a basic understanding of how cell phone networks do their thing.

When you make a call, send a text message, tag your friends on social media, etc., your phone takes that data and transmits it using electromagnetic waves at various frequencies. If these frequencies can find their way to your friend’s phone, their device translates that data into whatever form you sent.

Sounds simple right? Well… here’s the problem. The electromagnetic waves your phone uses to transmit data are picky. They can’t transmit over long distances and lose strength quickly.

Because mobile phones can’t transmit across large distances, carriers have to group a collection of towers to pick up electromagnetic waves together. These collections of towers are called cells (hence the term, cellular network), with each tower connected through fiber-optic cables that link each cell together to form a national or even international cell network, as shown below.

The electromagnetic waves produced by your phone are picked up by a phone tower in your specific cell, processed, and rerouted toward the closest tower in your area. From there, the tower radiates the same electromagnetic waves to your friend and their phone receives the data.

So What Determines Whether Your Coverage is Good or Bad?  

Now that you’ve understood how cell networks operate and how those cell networks work together to provide you with your network coverage, let’s dive into what really matters… the factors that influence network coverage (and ultimately influence the quality of your experience).

At a high level, three key factors affect your cell phone experience in general:

Download Speed: Download speed is the speed at which your cell connection can retrieve data. The faster your download speed, the faster you can listen to Spotify, download emails, watch Netflix, etc. When it comes to your data speeds, the biggest factor is your signal strength.

Call Quality: Call quality is pretty straightforward to define… whether or not you can consistently send and receive clear, uninterrupted calls.

Dead Zones: Dead zones are the areas where cell phone service is severely impacted because the signal between your phone and the cell tower (told you that knowledge would come in handy!) is blocked or reduced.

While these factors determine if you’re going to experience issues while using your phone, let’s take a quick look at what influences download speed, call quality, and dead zones.

Signal Strength: Signal strength, which is measured in decibels (dBs), ranges from -30 dBm (great signal strength) to -110 dBm (virtually zero signal strength). Things like your proximity to a cell tower, the building you’re in, and even the weather influence the quality of your network coverage.

Network Congestion: Much like your internet router at home, the more people use a specific cell tower, the slower it takes to send data back and forth. If you live in a city where there are a lot of people per tower or a more suburban/rural area where there are fewer towers, network congestion may be the reason your phone’s performance seems to slow down all of a sudden.

Carrier Frequency: There is a limited amount of data in the air. Data is transmitted from towers to your device via electromagnetic spectrum waves. These waves operate at different frequencies: low-frequency waves travel far but are weak at penetrating surfaces. In contrast, higher frequency waves are good at penetrating surfaces but unable to travel long distances.

Cell Location: As we mentioned earlier, your phone must rely on the towers within your carrier’s cell network to send and receive data. However, these towers also need to understand where you are and which tower your data should transmit to. If you’re on what’s called a “cell edge,” meaning you’re between two cell towers, carriers may have a hard time guessing which tower you’re on. This can lead to slower data transmission and a generally poorer quality experience.  

Putting It All Together

Ok. So now you know the ins and outs of coverage, but why does that matter? More importantly, what does this information have to do with helping you make the best choice on your next plan or carrier? Well, it comes down to two things.

First, the way cell networks operate helps explain why you may get terrible coverage on one carrier, while a friend on a different carrier in the same spot gets great coverage. This is why traditional coverage maps can be a bit misleading. Sure, the national cell network is great, but what about the local cells you’ll rely on at home, work, etc.?

Second, the bars you see on your phone don’t necessarily mean the same thing across carriers. One network’s 4 bars may be the same level of coverage as another carrier’s 3 bars. Each carrier measures its own network coverage independently, which unfortunately means that checking the bars on your friend’s phone and comparing them to your own won’t be that helpful to you.

So How Can You Figure Out Which Carrier Has the Best Coverage for You?

Overall, Verizon has the best cell phone coverage in the country (70%), followed by AT&T (68%) and T-Mobile (62%). But as we’ve just explained, national coverage hardly solves the problem of understanding what coverage looks like for you.

Currently, there isn’t a dependable way to test coverage before you choose a carrier. Why? Well, think about all of the factors we mentioned above that can impact coverage.  With so many factors constantly changing network quality, one measurement really doesn’t tell you much. To really understand coverage, you need to track coverage over time constantly.

But if you’re looking to buy a new phone or switch carriers, these tips can help give you a general idea of the network coverage you’ll get from different carriers:

  • Compare services with friends and family that have different carriers.
  • Check out the big three’s local coverage maps:
  • AT&T
  • T-Mobile
  • Verizon
  • Check out blogs and forums in your area to find out what other people are experiencing on different carriers.


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