Mobility

New Android feature could trick users into thinking they have better cellular signal than they do

When Android P comes out, it will decouple the signal bar display from dBm strength, leaving carriers to decide how to define signal strength.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Code commits for Android P have revealed that Google is decoupling signal strength dBm from the onscreen bar display, leaving it to carriers to define signal strength.
  • A second change is also eliminating the ability for Android users to see the dBm strength on their device, making it easier to obfuscate signal strength statistics.

Commits found in the code for Android P by the team at XDA developers indicate Google is giving control over signal strength displays to carriers, formally decoupling them from the actual decibel-milliwatts (dBm) strength received by the device antenna.

It's unknown why the Android team has made the change, but it will give carriers the ability to define how signal strength is displayed, regardless of how well an Android device is connected to the carrier's cellular network.

Until the changes noticed in the latest commits to the Android Open Source Project, which will affect the upcoming Android P (9.00), the signal bar display was tied directly to the signal strength being received by the device using the "config_lteDbmThresholds" Android framework value.

As the image below indicates, the upcoming release of Android explicitly changes signal display so that carriers have the right to tie it to any value they care to.

screen-shot-2018-02-09-at-11-20-24-am.png

Android commits showing changes to signal display

Image: Brandon Vigliarolo/TechRepublic

Not necessarily nefarious

It's easy to jump to conclusions, especially considering that XDA Developers also reported another feature in Android P that will allow carriers to completely hide the dBm value from device users.

As XDA Developers said, it seems both changes were requested by carriers and Google is simply obliging their requests. The signal display change commits reference Verizon, Netherlands-based Vodafone Libertel, and Australian Telstra Corp., making those three at the very least the parties interested in the change.

It's important to note, said XDA Developers' Arol Wright, that dBm strength thresholds can vary per country, so if an Android device's signal strength display is tied to a US-based standard it can be misleading in a country where dBm strength is lower on average.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

Accepting that argument can explain the change—a five-bar signal could be downright impossible in some places if the standard isn't localized, which isn't fair for Android users in those countries since it doesn't reflect the actual strength of their signal.

Alternatively, it could be that carriers simply want to mislead consumers into thinking their network connection is stronger than a competitor's. Carriers may even be able to fudge the numbers based on locality, making it appear that a poor connection in a rural area is stronger than it is.

Without confirmation from Google or the carriers involved it's impossible to know why the change is being included.

A possible workaround

If you're concerned about the strength-to-bars ratio displayed in a future release of Android P you can avoid the confusion, at least for now: None of the APIs that relate to signal strength or getting a reading on the signal dBm is changed, so third-party apps will be able to display them.

Whether that remains unchanged, however, is yet to be seen. There's no official release date, or even a name, for Android 9.0 yet—anything could be modified in the meantime.

Also see

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Image: iStock/Patrisyu/Anja W.

About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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