Smile Politely

Cell phone towers undergoing changes

As many workin’ folks do, I commute quite a distance every morning to get to the office. I take a nice relaxing train ride into Chicago (don’t worry, I’ll be back in C-U this spring), and as much as I like to sneer at the loud and obnoxious cell phone-talkers in the surrounding seats, I tend to join in by dial-up more often than not. While participating in this fun-filled phone-talking extra-curricular, I’ve come to notice that whenever I’m on the phone, around the very same spot during the commute, my call is dropped.

We’ve all fallen victim to those infamous “can you hear me now?” moments, but when it happens everyday and in the same spot, it tends to get under the skin. I just can’t understand how we live in a country that can fly airplanes by pilots with remote controls on the ground, while cell phone service remains consistently inconsistent. With a furrowed brow, I decided to call someone to at least try to understand this inconvenience; I called my dad.

Since the moment I figured out how to sincerely seem like I was listening to someone when no sound waves were registering, my dad has been lecturing me about cell phones and the latest technologies available. He’s been a telecommunications tech since before I was born, throwing terms like “CDMA” and “GSM network” at me since I was about ten. Without a doubt, he values a good phone and a good service. My 8 year old sister has a blackberry; I really don’t know what to say about that.

I called and asked pops what the deal was with my phone cutting out, and he seemed way too excited that I was asking about his area of expertise. He ran over to the computer and e-mailed me links to maps of different cell phone service providers that show where each carrier’s weak and strong signal areas are. He sent me a map that locates all the cell phone towers in any area in the US that I would want to look up. Then he explained CDMA and GSM to me again — but this time, the connection was clear.

CDMA and GSM are the two competing cell phone network technologies for all the main carriers. Each network uses different technologies, so their features are different. CDMA phone in the US don’t use SIM cards (so Verizon uses CDMA technologies), while GSM network phones do use SIM cards (AT&T, T-Mobile). Phones on the CDMA network have proven to exchange data files faster than phones using the GSM network, reaching data transfer speeds close to that of DSL — but GSM phones have better overall coverage. GSM carriers can transfer calls to other GSM network carriers when a phone is roaming, which doesn’t cost the customer anything since it’s the same base network. CDMA carriers don’t offer this feature, but they can route calls through GSM carriers at a higher price to the customer.

When it comes down to it, there seem to be more GSM customers than CDMA here in the US, but CDMA is going to be coming out with a similar feature to the SIM card called the R-UIM. By improving the coverage issue, and maintaining the higher data transfer speed, this R-UIM feature may give CDMA the edge soon.

Either way, my phone cuts out in the same spot still, but as a loyal GSM customer, I now understand that there are over a billion other loyal GSM customers in the world (literally, check out, and that there’s no way the networks can avoid getting a little overwhelmed from time to time. Put in a perspective, there aren’t a billion people trying to fly remote-controlled airplanes at the same time; I’ll just have to just deal with that occasional dead-zone or dropped call.

More Articles