Wireless network quality problems worse in urban and rural areas

Residents of urban and rural communities experienced the highest number of network quality issues, according to a new J.D. Power study.

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We all tend to complain about problems with the cellular service on our mobile phones–spotty connections, dead spots, slow performance.

Despite the way the mobile carriers have built up their 4G infrastructure over the years, you inevitably bump into hiccups, sometimes occasionally and sometimes frequently. And that typically depends on where live or you use your phone. A study released Thursday by analytics firm J.D. Power found differences in network performance based on location.

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Residents living in urban areas were hit by the highest number of overall network quality problems, according to the J.D. Power 2020 U.S. Wireless Network Quality Performance Study —Volume 1

People in rural areas experienced the second-highest number of network problems. With 5G being rolled out, the results open the door for regional challenges for the major carriers, J.D. Power said.

"The network quality problems wireless customers are experiencing in urban, suburban, and rural areas each require different solutions, given the unique nature of their environments," Ian Greenblatt, managing director at J.D. Power, said in a press release.

"Managing customer expectations for speed and reliability will be critical across these different tiers because the user perception of speed on a high-band frequency vs. a low-band frequency will be very different, driving dissimilar experiences," Greenblatt stated.

Most wireless users are likely expecting a significant improvement in network speed and performance with 5G networks and devices. But given the disparity of network reliability across the country, carriers may have to temper those expectations.

"The continued rollout of multitier 5G strategies, delivering shorter-range, high-band frequencies in densely populated urban settings and longer-range, low-band frequencies in rural settings has the power to address these challenges, but only if providers properly set those expectations against the reality of the real-world speeds of 5G," Greenblatt said.

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Of course, your cellular performance and reliability also depend greatly on your carrier. Among the major carriers, Verizon Wireless came out on top across all six regions of the US with the lowest number of network quality problems per 100 connections. Specifically, Verizon was tops for call quality, messaging quality, and data quality.

Beyond Verizon, the results varied by region.

In the Mid-Atlantic, T-Mobile took second place behind Verizon, followed by AT&T and Sprint. In the North Central Region, US Cellular took the second spot, followed by AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. In the Northeast, AT&T was behind Verizon, with T-Mobile and Sprint following.

In the Southeast, T-Mobile took the No. 2 spot, with AT&T and Sprint behind. In the Southwest, AT&T was in second, followed by Sprint and T-Mobile. And in the West, T-Mobile took second place, followed by AT&T and Sprint.

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J.D. Power

In an email exchange with TechRepublic, Ian Greenblatt, managing director of Technology, Media, and Telecom Intelligence at J.D. Power, responded to questions about the study.

1) Why do you think urban and rural areas are seeing a higher number of cellular network quality problems than other areas?

I believe there are different causes for each. Rural areas typically see higher actual levels of network quality problems due to the more sparse deployment/increase distance to network infrastructure like towers. This is driven by the ROI (return on investment) economics of network deployment, and necessarily more of that infrastructure spend occurs in dense, urban metros. However, where one might expect the reported network quality to be higher in those metros, the population of those areas tend to have higher expectations of their carriers, and so recall and report a higher incidence of problems than their rural counterparts. For this reason, it's critical for carriers to set expectations for upcoming 5G connectivity against real-world performance, else expect to see negative perceptions of network performance.

2) Verizon Wireless consistently comes out on top in most studies. What do you think Verizon is doing to achieve more reliable quality that the other carriers?

Verizon invests a truly impressive amount of capital into infrastructure (2020 will see $17 to $18 billion in capital expenditures from Verizon, a 2-8% increase year-over-year) and spectrum, and installs more than 1,400 route miles of fiber each month. This level of both near-term improvement and preparation for future traffic needs highlights Verizon's commitment to the quality and reliability of their network for their residential, business, and state/local/educational customers.

3) How do you think these results bode for the coming rollout of 5G? Do you think 5G will help or hurt these types of network quality issues vs 4G?

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg is a fixture in trade press discussing the importance of 5G and Verizon's commitment to being a leader in the space. This is evidenced by the level of resource deployment committed to the densification of the network, and will necessarily enhance the performance of the overall network, both by enabling 5G services (offloading some of the traffic from 4G and vice versa) as well as reducing distance to available towers, increasing the reliability and quality of network connections.

4) Finally, if the Sprint/T-Mobile merger comes to pass, how do you think the new combined company would fare as far as cellular network performance issues?

Both have excellent engineering organizations and a dedication to the customer experience. As far as that experience using the physical network goes, if successful, the combination will truly shine as 5G rolls out, where the union of the two will see a very complete offering as far as spectrum is concerned given T-Mobile's already-in-market 600MHz infrastructure and Sprint's mid-band spectrum arsenal. This combination of infrastructure may indeed result in enhanced reliability and 5G speeds available to the aggregated customer set. 

J.D. Powers' 2020 U.S. Wireless Network Quality Performance Study — Volume 1 is based on responses from 33,750 wireless customers. Carrier performance was examined in six regions: Mid-Atlantic, North Central, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and West. 

Beyond evaluating the network quality experienced by customers with wireless phones, the study also measured the network performance of tablets and mobile broadband devices. This latest study was conducted from July through December 2019.

This article was updated on January 27, 2020.

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