May 10, 2013

VZW giveth, taketh away

When we watch British detective shows on TV, I regularly marvel at the quality of cell phone coverage available to all. They can be in the catacombs of some office building, out in the barrens and moors, or on the North Sea coast. The cell phone rings. They talk.
Around here, and certainly at the cove, an unaided phone struggles to gain one bar of 1G service. Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint all have the same reception. Other folks in the lake may fare better, given the variability of terrain and the amount of granite between their locations and their carrier’s towers.
With a MiFi gadget from Verizon, we could get passable Internet connections, provided that the receiver was set in the proper location, high on a north-facing wall.
Last year, we tried something different, a network extender from Verizon. The device sits on a window sill and fetches the faint signal from the tower over the hill, just enough to make the connection. The rest of the call is routed through our cable Internet service (Comcast).

It works well. All calls are clear and steady. Occasionally, we’ll miss a call and it will go straight to voicemail.   Sometimes, the GPS setting is way off. My phone may report that I’m in  Gloucester. (When we use it in Holden, the location can show up as Cambridge.) Overall, though, we’ve been pleased with the performance. It’s more than paid for itself.
That we need it at all is a point left for another discussion, having to do with the way that our national telecommunications policies have built an expensive, inefficient, and unreliable wireless system. (Imagine if you could drive your car only on certain highways; to drive on others, you’d have to change cars.)
Mark Gibbs writes in Forbes about several dubious features in the way that Verizon has implemented this much-needed product:

  • Even though calls are routed through my Internet service from Comcast, Verizon charges me for the minutes and/or data that I use over the extender. The data shouldn’t be an issue (I hope), because I use WiFi connections on my phone. 
  • Any Verizon Wireless customer can connect to the network extender.It would be more of a concern if we lived in a more densely-populated area. The nearest neighbor is more than 150m away.  In theory, someone fishing just offshore might be able to connect and make calls.
    It’s possible to give priority to selected numbers, but there’s no way to whitelist just the phones in the household. 
AT&T. and Sprint have network extenders You can restrict access to certain phones to use them. Verizon has delivered a product that makes their bad coverage better, but manages to dent that outcome with bad policies.