Signal is a mysterious beast. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you can be texting on top of a mountain and sometimes you have to recreate the opening scene of the Lion King just to get a single bar. So how do you explain all those little quirks and frustrations? You ask Vodafone’s signal expert Dr Rob to explain all. Here are ten of the most fascinating things we learned.
1. It’s all about frequency
Carriers all have their own bandwidth that they use to carry signal. A carrier such as EE operates a high frequency, resulting in stronger signal outdoors as the wavelengths are bunched a lot closer together. However, once it passes through materials such as brick higher wavelengths get absorbed by the brick and scattered, making signal indoors much weaker and sometimes non-existent. The reverse is true for lower frequency bandwidths so this is something to consider when choosing a network provider.
Mobile phone masts are not popular with communities, partly due to health concerns but also due to the look of the masts. In order to continue expanding their network coverage, carriers are now getting smarter. Mobile signal antennae can now be found hiding inside flagpoles, fake trees and even fake chimney pots. Carriers will often have to come to some financial arrangement with both private and public building owners to add a mast to the top of their building.
3. Water is the enemy
Signal arrives at your phone in the form of wavelengths and nothing disrupts them quite like moving water. As the wave enters the water it will get refracted in all different directions. It is estimated that you’ll get no phone signal at all at a depth of just five centimetres underwater. This might be academic anyway as hearing a ringtone or a person’s voice relies on vibrations that would also struggle underwater as they would get absorbed by the liquid and scattered.
4. Portable masts exist
For the majority of the year, farms and rural sites don’t need a lot of mobile signal. However, during festival season when thousands of bandwidth-hungry music lovers descend on the area there is a much greater demand on the masts. To combat this, carriers will bring temporary masts mounted on vans to the site. Vodafone, for example, took four such vans to last year’s Glastonbury to ensure its users got the best possible signal strength.
Sites at which thousands of people regularly gather, such as sports stadiums and theatres, will need to be able to cope with huge numbers of phones trying to access the network at the same time. Carriers will install hubs, which can look like fire alarms on the ceiling, in the building that adds many more channels to the area. The signal won’t be particularly strong or quick, but it will make it more likely that you can actually get on your network.
6. 4G isn’t always best
Even though 4G is generally considered the holy grail of mobile signal, in some scenarios 3G can actually be faster. A weak 4G signal on one carrier, maybe if a mast is a long way away or there are objects obscuring it, will give you slower upload and download speeds than a good 3G signal. Signal strength will always be the most important factor in your mobile speeds so don’t feel you absolutely have to get a 4G phone to keep up.
If your phone is capable of getting 4G it will try to use it wherever possible as it has the potential to be the fastest way of uploading and downloading data. However, modern phones are capable of realising if using a 3G connection might be faster, due to a stronger signal. If it detects that is the case it will automatically drop down to use the 3G signal instead, improving the user experience without them having to do a thing.
8. Sharing is caring
The majority of masts belong to just one carrier, which is why you might have rubbish signal but someone sitting next to you has five bars. Individual firms are responsible for building and maintaining their towers and they will decide where they want to place them. However, some carriers, such as Vodafone and O2, share masts while still competing for customers. This increases the network coverage for both so they can claim better coverage than other rivals.
9. VoLTE is coming
Vodafone is introducing VoLTE in the coming months. VoLTE stands for Voice over LTE, where you can make voice calls using your phone’s LTE signal, rather than the usual voice channels. This will be handy for times you don’t have any normal phone signal but can get online through 3G, 4G or Wi-Fi. This could make travelling to rural destinations much easier if you have some kind of mobile Wi-Fi device that you can plug in to create that Wi-Fi signal.
Mobile signal radiates outward so you can comfortably get signal at the top of a mountain as long as you’re within sight of a mast. Built up areas or towns where there are lots of hills struggle to send signal over a wide area because objects get in the way. However, signal can happily travel for a good couple of miles in uninhibited. Indeed, climbers of Mount Everest can get 4G 5,200m up at Base Camp.