Years ago we heard AT&T's pitch: "more bars in more places". Their campaign was to let everyone know that they had the best signal around. Sure, that may have mattered then, but the definition of signal is even variable. Just a few years ago, Apple and AT&T changed how the iPhone displayed the signal bars to appear as though people had better service. Signal is just one of the indicators that the carriers give us to understand a device's connection to the network.
With Apple's update to iOS 5.1, the story gets even more confusing. If you're on an AT&T network and have an iPhone 4S, you might be seeing a "4G" symbol now where a "3G" symbol appeared before. But here's the kicker: the speeds are the same. AT&T claims that this is the right way to do it because they want to distinguish the speed of their network from what Verizon calls "3G". Add in one more level of confusion: AT&T's "4G" network is referring to their HSPA+ network, not their LTE network. That's going to be called "4G LTE". Following me still?
The last few days while I was at SXSW, my iPhone was indicating that it was on AT&T's "4G" network with a full five bar signal. Yet, when I tried to do anything at all it failed miserably. When I finally got SOME signal I did a speed test and that same network AT&T claims is "4G" gave me a 0.25Mbps downlink speed. Abysmal. Without a doubt it's not the brilliant future of crazy speeds everywhere that the mobile carriers promise us.
What Current Indicators Mean
It used to be that signal actually mattered when the network density was low. And sure, it still matters a bit in rural areas. But most of the time, I'm seeing at least 3 bars, which should be a decent enough network connection. Here's a couple definitions on what the indicators mean:
• Signal bars: These show how strong the signal is between the tower's broadcast and your device
• Network indicator: This shows which network band your connected to: this could mean you're connected to GRPS (1G), EDGE (2G), UTMS (3G), HSPA+ (3G but AT&T calls it 4G), or LTE (true 4G).
So even if you have a strong signal (signal bars) to the tower, and you're on one of the specific network bands (network indicator), it's still possible that you'll have degraded or no actual service. This happens when the network itself is overloaded (concerts, festivals, conferences, rush hour, etc.) with usage.
We Need a New Indicator
What we need is something that indicates network quality. This would be a third indicator (or replacing the two previous ones). It would indicate the level of service that one could expect while on a cellular band. This might account for data connectivity and speed, as well as voice and SMS connectivity.
These days, what network I'm connected to and how strong that signal is to that network means relatively nothing to me. I'd much rather see something that indicates simply what I'm going to expect when I want to use the network itself. Signal and network mean something far less important than just knowing how good the service will be.
It's going to matter even more in the coming years as the network density actually gets better (more towers in more places) and all the while data consumption will keep skyrocketing. Signal will always be high, and you'll always be connected to the "4G" network, so then the only thing that actually matters is how GOOD the network actually is.
I'm extremely hopeful that the Apple, other mobile device manufacturers and the carriers will wise up to this. It's unfortunately a shot in the dark because if carriers were to use actual network performance instead of bullshit marketing terms, then they might be held accountable. I'm of the mindset that something like this might need to be legislated for it to actually be put into place. That's unfortunate. Too bad the carriers can't be honest with us and give us the service that we're paying for. I'll still keep my fingers crossed.