Unpredictable 3G Coverage from T-Mobile on Nexus One

Update #5: Slashdot poster jtownatjunk.net made an interesting point in this comment, stating that cell phones are designed to constantly search for and lock into the strongest signal, not the fastest signal. Which was sensible logic up until about 2005 when high speed data networks started getting rolled out en-mass. Would be interesting if that is what was still going on. Maybe we need an app in the Android Market that sets priorities on data-connections for you during data-intensive operations like Video or Web Browsing, then re-prioritizing to “strongest signal” when out of those data apps?

Update #3: Looks like Google’s investigation has put a fire under T-Mobile with them issuing internal memos to support technicians on exactly how to address “Nexus One 3G Issues”.

Update #2: It seems you can force the phone to behave better on T-Mobile’s 3G network by putting it into “WCDMA Only” mode — effectively forcing it into “3G or Die!” mode. Thanks to our friend Anton Spaans for the tip!

Update #1: Looks like Google is investigating what is going on after 626 replies to the thread.

Started reading the article on Mashable about Google’s Nexus One phone creating a Customer Support black hole right now — with Google/HTC and T-Mobile all scampering to redirect customers with issues around between the three companies with no clear support channel. I can’t even imagine how frustrating that is for customers given that an average customer-service phone call experience with any big company is at least 20mins of your day waiting.

What I found even more interesting was the Nexus One support thread on 3G coverage from T-Mobile – it’s long… REAL long. If you start at the top and read your way through it you’ll see the same pattern reiterated over and over again:

  • I rarely (if ever) have a strong 3G signal on my Nexus One
  • If I put it down on my desk and stare at it, I can watch the signal strength fluctuate between EDGE and 3G networks both weak and strong… without moving it.
  • If I have TWO phones, like a Black Berry and the Nexus One, side by side on the desk, the Black Berry always holds the stronger and more consistent signal.

I’m on T-Mobile, and I can attest that their 3G coverage is “bearable” at best — where I live (Tucson, AZ) I see a 3G coverage on my Google Ion about 15% of the time and spend the mass majority on their EDGE. I can sit and watch my EDGE signal in my house bounce between 1 and 4 bars during the day sitting at my desk all day long.

I suppose the signal strength might have more to do with the capacity of the tower hosting you than the actual “signal strength” in the radio-tower-signal sense of the word. I also wouldn’t be that surprised to find out that T-Mobile is fairly underpowered when it came to the 3G-capacity game given how skimpy their data network is.

T-Mobile data experience is basically this:

  • In Major US Cities == Good/Great
  • In Minor US Cities == OK (Mostly EDGE)
  • In Rural Areas == LOL, have fun with that.

It’s too bad seeing that T-Mobile just finished their 3.6 Mbps -> 7.2 Mbps HSPA 3G network upgrade and these phones with these higher performance smartphones aren’t reaping any benefits from it. I’d love to see T-Mobile’s data coverage expanded as well, but I realize the money for them (if they had to target where to spend it) is to blanket the big cities with more customers more effectively. I just can’t help but notice that a lot of those folks notice as soon as they head home or effectively transit out of the city that their signal quality and speed drops to garbage.

Update #4: A screenshot of the troubleshooting guidelines distributed inside of T-Mobile customer support team for the Nexus One 3G issue:

Update #5: Looking at the T-Mobile data coverage map makes me think there is nothing wrong with the Nexus One and everyone just underestimated how underdeveloped the T-Mobile cell data network is:

I guess you are lucky if you live along major highways as that seems to be where EDGE tracks, as for 3G… Oakland, Long Beach, Phoenix, Dallas/San Antonio, and for some reason really solid in… what is that, Kentucky? Awesome… “T-Mobile: Kentucky’s premier cell provider!”

You can pop open the Verizon data map coverage comparison and yep… that looks about right:

Now I’m starting to wonder what exactly T-Mobile was upgrading to HSPA 7.2 Mbps when they upgrade their 3G network

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6 Responses to Unpredictable 3G Coverage from T-Mobile on Nexus One

  1. omri January 13, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    This is something that happens on all 3G phones to the best of my knowledge. I have a BB Bold with AT&T in NYC. 3G comes and goes all the time even when staying in one spot. The problem is much worse since I can’t disable 2G and if on a call when the phone switches to EDGE the call is dropped. I have switched the handsets and I have this problem all the time (not just one location).

  2. Riyad Kalla January 13, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    omri — when you switched the handset, did you go to the same model of BlackBerry or to a totally different type of phone that had 3G on it? I do see some fluctuation in T-Mobile’s signal on EDGE during my workday in Arizona, but the few times I am on 3G, I *rarely* stay on 3G and it seems to bounce back to EDGE.

    I’ve even sat in Phoenix Sky Harbor before and seen a full-bars 3G connection, drop down to a 3-bar EDGE connection over the period of a 15min browsing session.

    I don’t know the engineering behind the 3G cell towers and if the indicators on the phone are showing you signal strength or tower capacity that you are currently connected to, which might indicate the wobbling nature of the signal.

    Very odd…


  1. Nexus One Owners Report Spotty 3G Signals On T-Mobile | JetLib News - January 13, 2010

    […] is the ‘Spotty 3G?‘ thread with almost 700 posts of users complaining about their 3G signal coverage fluctuating up, down, and between EDGE/3G with the phone just sitting on the desk or compared to other 3G […]

  2. NYT Tech Talk - January 13, 2010

    Reports of spotty 3G coverage on the Google's Nexus One "superphone". And so it begins… http://bit.ly/6FS8YD

  3. Paul Carlson - January 13, 2010

    Problems with Nexus One on the T-Mobile 3G network: http://bit.ly/7M9642

  4. Nexus One ‘Poor T-Mobile 3G Signal’ Issue Discovered | The "Break it Down" Blog - January 26, 2010

    […] covered the huge number of “poor Nexus One 3G coverage/performance/signal” reports from T-Mobile customers coming in a few weeks […]

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