Research Notes

Do you experience network problems with your iPhone, Nokia, Samsung or HTC phone?

– Your choice of phone determines the quality of mobile coverage you experience. Phone manufacturers are running away from their responsibility to tell you about it.
An independent study of phones was performed in Denmark at the end of 2012. The study focused on the top selling phones: various models of the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, the HTC Wildfire, and some Nokia phones. The study concludes that your choice of mobile phone determines the quality of mobile coverage you experience.

Separately, over the last two years, Strand Consult has analyzed and documented the conditions and the challenges that mobile operators face when it comes to creating good mobile coverage across a range of countries. In the report “How mobile operators can reduce the cost for mobile masts and improve mast regulation” we acknowledge that the phone has role in the quality of coverage, but this aspect is not well publicized or understood.

In most countries, telecom regulators, politicians, the media and consumers believe that good mobile coverage is simply a function of the network and is the sole responsibility of the mobile operator. However our research shows that good mobile coverage depends on six factors: (1) the ease of the approval process for mobile infrastructure (2) rental price for land and buildings to erect mobile masts/antennas (3) the regulatory regime for the mobile operators, (4) operators’ financial investment, (5) the network technology operators use, last but not least, the (6) quality of the phones customers buy and how they use them.

In the report we describe the entire process -from the time an operator gets a mobile license to when the customer gets a signal on his phone. We detail the requirements for good mobile coverage and what the political and regulatory system can do to ensure it. To date, the one factor that has been least understood or discussed is quality of the phone in relation to mobile coverage. To put it another way, just as there will be differences in how far a certain type of car can run on liter of petrol, a phone will vary in performance within a given network.

Strand Consult has access to measurements from operators around the world which demonstrate a big difference in the quality of the phones. Operators have not been able to share this information with consumers because of various rules and gag-orders from handset manufacturers. At last, an independent report measures how nine of the best-selling phones perform on the mobile network standards GSM 900, GSM 1800, UMTS 900 and UMTS 2100.

Professor Gert Frølund Pedersen of Aalborg University is the author of this study and head of a leading institute for the study of mobile phone performance. He and his research have studied this issue for years. Their recent study focused on how nine of the most popular phones perform when it comes to coverage. They have made painstaking efforts to measure the quality of the phones in relation to networks. To ensure fairness and uniformity, the measurements were conducted in a state of the art laboratory with the said phones, networking equipment, and head and hand mannequins which simulate how people make and receive calls. The results demonstrate definitively that the quality of phone plays a major role in the user’s experience of the network.

Here are the key findings from the study.

1. Phone quality varies by 10 fold. From the worst to best phone, there is factor 10 difference in how well the individual phones compete. The antennas inside the best phones are up to ten times better than those in the worst phones.

2. Older versions of phones perform better than newer phones. The newest and most popular phones, Samsung Galaxy SIII and iPhone 5, fare worse than their predecessors, the Samsung Galaxy SII and the iPhone 4 and 4S, when using the lower frequency band, GSM 900 and UMTS 900.

3. New phones are less optimized for the network. New phones do significantly worse than old phones. Buying a new and popular phone increases the likelihood of getting bad network coverage.

4. The way a user holds on the phone can have an impact on coverage. Sometimes a person holds a phone in such a way that it blocks the interior antenna’s connection to the network. Thus a person can unwittingly aggravate his coverage experience just by holding the phone in the wrong way. Users need to learn how to the hold the phone correctly and remember to do it.

5. iPhone performance varies especially depending on how it is held. The iPhone 4S performs well provided that it is held correctly. The iPhone is designed such that the spacing of the fingers optimizes the antenna signal from the phone. In practice, there is design feature on the frame of the iPhone, and the fingers need to cradle this point. Without this adjustment, the iPhone is one of the worst performing phones.

6. Phone design can be optimized for humans. Although there are differences in how people hold their phones, a major study shows that about 90% of users hold the phone in one of two ways (See “A Grip Study for Talk and Data Modes in Mobile Phones.” Pelosi, Mauro; Franek, Ondrej; Knudsen, Michael; Christensen, Morten; Pedersen, Gert Frølund. in IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation, Vol 57, No. 4, 2009, pp. 856-865). It is possible to design the phone so that the best antenna performance is achieved, for example by using tuning devices.

7. Standards matter. Phones and networks operate on shared standards. To improve chances of good coverage, choose a phone that it optimized for the network standards of your carrier.

The standards tested were GSM900, GSM 1800, UMTS 900, and UMTS 2100. Both the phones and the frequencies are global standards, so the results are relevant for other countries. Blackberry was not included in the study because it is not a top seller in Scandinavia.

It is important to remember the drivers of the results of this study:

• The mobile standard on which the phone and the network are running: The same phone can perform well or poorly depending on whether it and the network share the same standard. In practice, this will vary widely because both the phones and the network are running several standards. At present, handset manufacturers do not allow operators to publish data about which phones are optimal for their network, and handset manufacturers themselves are not required to disclose which network frequencies are optimal for their phones.
• The model of the phone
• How the user holds the phone

The data demonstrates that there are major differences between phones and quality of coverage depending on the model of the phone and the frequency. While a chart of the results is available in the study, conclusions should not be drawn about any particular carrier or network in another country unless all factors can be matched correctly (phone model, mobile standard etc). Needless to say, this speaks to the need for uniform global disclosure for phones that address the relevant factors for quality of coverage.

From a media perspective, it is tempting to prepare a list of the best and worst phones. However, without the proper context, such a list is not appropriate. It is not the intention of this study or Strand Consult to condemn or praise any particular phone. What is meaningful, however, is to explain that the phone itself has a role in coverage that a user experiences and to encourage handset manufacturers to disclose the strengths/weaknesses of their phones so that consumers can make more informed decisions.

Why does the quality of the phone matter?
Remember that this study measures just one aspect of a phone’s quality, the performance between the phone’s antenna to the network itself. There are other aspects of phone quality that should be considered, but that are not a part of this study. They include

• Hardware
• Software
• Number of applications installed on the phone (This creates signal noise for all users on the network.)
• Configuration of the phone to the network

A particular problem for quality coverage is that many phones are released on the market without adequate testing and optimization. Customers must install software updates on their phones after purchase. Without installing these updates, users can experience poor coverage. Phones come to market at such a fast pace and from so many manufacturers that it is challenging for independent testing, not to mention the testing that handset manufacturers fail to do themselves.

Background to the study
This study was performed in Denmark in autumn 2012. The four Danish network operators (TDC, Telenor, Telia and 3) were asked to provide a list of their top 10 selling phones from the past year. On the basis of the four lists, 9 phones were selected to ensure variety between manufacturer, type and technology. Professor Gert Frølund Pedersen and team used international standards to measure how the 9 phones compete on the GSM 900, GSM 1800, UMTS 900 and UMTS 2100 standards.

The state of the art laboratory where the study is conducted is radio-dead, meaning that outside radio signals cannot enter, and signals from inside the lab cannot get out. Measurements are made with an artificial head and hand, simulating how a human uses a mobile phone. A call is established and the signal transmitted from the phone. The signal received by the phone is recorded from each direction. The polarization around the phone is also noted. Measurements with the phone and each type of networking equipment are also conducted. The results are then summarized to the measured value, TIS (Total Isotropic Sensitivity), for the reception. This method is used internationally by 3GPP and CTIA.

When you look at how well the different phones perform, it is important to remember that the way the phone is held can greatly influence the quality of coverage experienced. There may also be a difference in how each phones work on GSM 900 GSM 1800, UMTS 900, and UMTS 2100.

What are handset makers’ responsibilities?
The point of this report and Strand Consult’s communication is not to discredit any phone or manufacturer, but rather to encourage handset makers to put more emphasis on building phones that work better with the network. We should ask phone makers why the old versions perform better than the new. Strand Consult believes that the debate about mobile coverage also needs to incorporate the role of the mobile phone and that handset manufacturers have a responsibility to make phones that are optimized to the network so that consumers get a good experience with mobile coverage.

Given the explosion of phones on the world market, some national or global standards for information of the quality of phones should be made available so that consumers can make more informed decisions.

It is also important to remember that these measurements reflect on part of the phone’s quality vis-à-vis the network. Phones pose other challenges to the quality of mobile coverage a user experiences by the hardware, software, as well as the number of apps installed on the phone. The modern smartphone is very complex and in Strand Consult’s estimation, may be responsible for up to 70% of the bad coverage that a user experiences.

There is fierce competition among handset manufacturers in the phone market today. In practice this means that the phones come to market with unfinished product development. Phone manufacturers only correct the errors through software updates once the customer has purchased the phone. This allows phone manufacturers lessen their development costs by putting the onus of product quality on operators and consumers. A good example is the iPhone 5 which was launched with a chipset that supposedly supports LTE “4G”. However, as millions of customers in various countries have experienced, the iOS software that supports LTE is not yet available. Thus ensuring that phones are optimized for the network takes a backseat to getting the phones to market. We believe that the lack of focus on quality means that phone manufacturers do not do enough to solve these challenges.

We believe that transparency in this area may eliminate some of the challenges that customers are experiencing on a daily basis. The ordinary consumer has little chance to investigate these things, and we can see how handset producers prohibit operators from publishing the measurements they have.

Strand Consult believes that consumers should have such information so that they can make more informed decisions. We support mobile coverage disclosures on phones to help customers determine which phones are right for them. There is a need for transparency and discussion about the role of the mobile handset in coverage quality.

If you want to learn more about how operators can improve mobile coverage or the mobile handset quality survey, you can order the report “How mobile operators can reduce cost for mobile masts and improve mast regulation“. You can also contact John Strand, CEO of Strand Consult on (+45) 20850444 or by filling in the form.

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