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How do local cell phone companies compare?

Published 12:00am Sunday, February 26, 2012

NATCHEZ — Whether it’s to gripe or brag, cell phone service is a topic that tends to get people talking, unless they’re in a dead spot.

And with many switching to smart phones in recent years — sometimes using their cell phones for tasks previously reserved for a computer — the quality of the connections to an iPhone, Android, Blackberry or a number of other devices has become even more critical to resident’s daily routines.

A test conducted by the staff of The Democrat put cell service providers to the test, and some clear results prevailed.

The results reflect the number of service bars displayed on three cell phones using the three main service providers in the area — AT&T, Verizon and C Spire.

If this were the Olympics, C Spire would win the gold, Verizon would take the silver and AT&T would go home with the bronze.

The number of bars was recorded in various spots around Adams County and Concordia Parish, including the Vidalia Walmart parking lot, the intersection of Main and Commerce streets, the Kingston Volunteer Fire Station, the city limits sign near Trinity Episcopal Day School, the intersection of Liberty and Dunbarton roads and the Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Station.

Sue Sperry, the AT&T public relations manager for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, said there’s two components — coverage and capacity — that affect the quality of cell phone signals and contribute to dropped calls.

Coverage depends on the location of the call in relation to cell phone towers.

“Natchez is a little bit unique (when it comes to coverage),” Sperry said.

Because Natchez contains a historic district and a variety of different terrains, installing a tower — whether it’s on public or private land — can be complicated.

The provider companies must go through the Federal Communication Commission and get approval from organizations like the Natchez Preservation Commission.

“If you want to build a tower or system to increase coverage, you can’t always do it,” Sperry said.

Silvia Bunch, the receptionist at the Adams County Road Department, is familiar with the ins and outs of Adams County and cell coverage areas because of her constant contact with road department employees scouring the county for downed limbs and road maintenance.

In addition to distance from cell phone towers, Bunch said road department employees find that foliage and terrain affect their call quality.

And while C Spire, which the road foreman use, offers decent service “way out in the county,” there are a few dead spots.

“When you go to Jackson Point, it doesn’t matter who the carrier is — (cell phones) don’t have coverage,” she said. Anna’s Bottom is another with a bad track record of cell service, Bunch said.

“It’s just going to vary in areas (depending on) which terrain you’re in,” Bunch said.

Spring and summer foliage can even affect service, she said.

Sperry said the other aspect that affects the clarity of a phone call is capacity, which refers to the amount of traffic the coverage area can handle.

“A cell tower by its nature is designed to handle certain amount of traffic at any given time,” Sperry said.

For example, cell phone users may have noticed that when crossing the Mississippi River Bridge while talking on a cell phone — an activity law enforcement and mothers might not condone — sometimes their phone calls get dropped, and other times the conversation survives the state line.

Sperry said there are a few AT&T antennas on the bridge, but they can only handle a certain amount of traffic.

“If it’s bumper-to-bumper (car traffic) and everybody is calling home saying ‘I’ll be late,’” there’s too much (cell phone) traffic,” Sperry said.

Thus, the call will drop or words will get scrabbled because too many cell phones are competing for a connection.

Additionally, smart phone tools take up more capacity. If a cell phone user streams a live video in high definition, it requires more bandwidth than talking or texting, Sperry said.

Until last year, AT&T was the only provider to offer iPhones, which could suggest AT&T customers use more bandwidth on their smartphones than other providers’ customers, she said.

“We’ve sold over 9 million iPhones in our company,” Sperry said.

On all cell phones, in areas with one or two bars, call quality suffers, because callers are too far from a tower or there is congestion on the tower, Sperry said. Three bars or more indicates full service, she said.

District 2 Supervisor David Carter, who lives on Kingston Road near Hutchins Landing Road, said he switched from AT&T to Verizon approximately a year ago because of service problems.

While he said he misses the customer service AT&T provided, he now gets Internet access on his phone with Verizon.

His county-paid cell phone uses C Spire, which also works well in the Kingston area, Carter said.

“The best overall phone coverage seems to be C Spire, Verizon is a close second and AT&T is a distant third,” Carter said.

But no provider can make it down the length of Kingston Road, Carter said.

District 3 Supervisor Calvin Butler said he’s had minor problems with AT&T service, but it’s not enough to make the switch.

Tate Road, near the Jefferson-Adams county line tends to give him problems, as well as some other areas. But his service works crystal clear inside his house in a rural area off of Steam Plant Road.

A few recent updates by AT&T in the Miss-Lou include a new cell tower built at the intersection of U.S. 61 and the Natchez Trace Parkway, and a new mobile broadband capability to cell towers in Vidalia, Ridgecrest and Ferriday. The company is currently working to provide 4G service to Adams County customers.

Sperry said while AT&T has specific plans for upgrades, when those are completed, the improvments won’t stop.

“There’s always investments to be made,” Sperry said. “The industry keeps changing.”

  • Anonymous

    Glad to finally see a report like this.  Needs to be repeated and updated once per quarter.  Have been with AT&T for many years but it has been an effort to stay with them at times due to their sorry sorry coverage locally. 

    I get the distinct feeling that most of the carriers, in their deepest darkest back rooms, would rather not even bother providing service to the rough terrain rural low population areas like ours, but they have to so that their “big city” customers don’t lose service.  It is likely that the three carriers highlighted in the article each have more subscribers in the metro Jackson area than we have total population in Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin counties combined.  It costs the companies significant sums of money, I have been told $250,000-$350,000 minimum each, to erect a single tower even without having to jump through all the hoops that “the powers that be” here in Natchez have erected to impede growth and expansion in our precious “downtown” area.  Tower height is a major factor the coverage equation so hanging antennas on water towers works great in the Pensacola, Ft. Walton, Destin, FL area with their flat topography it severely limits the coverage area those antennas will provide in Natchez when compared to the same antennas on a full height 350 foot tall tower. 

    I noticed the AT&T spokeswoman was quoted touting the new antenna at the Hwy 61N/Natchez Trace intersection, what a laugh, that tower is almost 2 miles away from the physical intersection and was only built to a paltry 195 feet on a monopole tower like the one in town at Highland Blvd/Hwy 61 South so the coverage is nothing to brag about.  I live just a hair over 2 miles from the tower on the south side of the Trace and we had great hopes for service when we learned the tower was going to be built, however it is worthless on this side of the Trace and several of us have had to buy MicroCell units to get service.  Thankfully DSL is available here since the MicroCell coverts to VoIP.  

    One thing the spokeswoman/spin meister for AT&T might not have mentioned, since it is not referenced in the article, is the differences in the radio technology of the different carriers as well as the directional characteristics of the individual elements that make up a tower antenna array (think about aiming the old TV antennas) whereas we consumers tend to think of them as non directional like our auto radio antenna or an auto CB antenna.  On the cell towers each antenna element only has an effective coverage arc (picture the way a leaf rake is made) so if you happen to be off angle to the zone of coverage of the element pointing in your general direction you get poor or no signal whereas if they aimed the element a few degrees left or right you would be in the sweet spot if you are within the approximate 3 mile radius of effective range.  If you will notice and study the antennas sometime you will see they have what looks like layers of elements on the three sided mounts and you might also notice that each group is twisted so the flat sides face somewhat different directions so as to aim those elements to cover a different zone. 

    Back to the different radio technologies, I believe C-Spire and Verizon use CDMA which from all I have read seems to have more ability to punch through obstructions such as vegetation and walls but supposedly does not have the ability to split the signal allowing you to surf and talk at the same time whereas the GSM system AT&T uses gives up some of the punch and splits the signal for increased capacity as far as number of simultaneous calls as well as talking and surfing at the same time.  If you are using the phone as a phone it would seem the punch is the most important thing.

  • Anonymous

    How about AT&T doing something about their coverage in the Natchez Super Wal-Mart…. No coverage on my IPhone!!! Works fine in the Vidalia Wal Mart… If you get in the store and need to call someone to see if they need anything from there, you have to walk out of the store!  I have a friend on Lower Woodville Rd. near Elks Lodge, and the coverage @ her house varies from 1 dot to 0 resulting in dropped calls all the time!  I have been with AT&T for years, but am looking into Verizon….. Are any of you readers out there happy with your Verizon service????

  • Anonymous

    Went to CSpire after waiting 2 years for ATT to improve. No regrets and should have changed sooner.