Mixed signals in debate over DC metro cell phone service

Is the Washington, D.C., area really the worst? Readers weigh in.

How good is cell phone service in the Washington Metro area? It seems to depend on who you talk to. Or maybe where you are when you're talking to them.

GCN Lab Director John Breeden II recently called into question J.D. Power’s methodology in a study that ranked the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area last among 27 metro areas for cell phone coverage. His main points: 1. He had tested cell phone service around the D.C. area for years and found it to be pretty good; and 2. J.D. Power ranked the areas based, not on measuring service, but on measuring complaints about the service.


Original article:

D.C.’s ‘worst’ cell phone ranking smells like hot air


Some readers who commented on the story backed up Breeden’s assertions concerning performance.

“I have had mobile phones, early-on cell phones and the current array of smart phones over the last 25 years,” wrote a reader in Metro DC. “I have never had difficulty with mobile/cellular telephone systems while living in the DC Metro area and I have been utilizing AT&T exclusively during that period. With the exception of NYC and Phoenix, I have never had difficulty during my extensive traveling over the aforementioned 25 years.”

Kevin Bruce from Frederick, Md., echoed those comments: “I find the DC area to be wonderful for cell coverage. Most other cities (and especially rural areas) have spotty coverage at best. Now, I'm on AT&T, which is notorious for spotty coverage, so take that into consideration when I say I rarely encounter dead zones in and around DC.”

Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post, for whom Breeden did his testing, also agreed, writing: “Good rebuttal, John. I find coverage pretty good around here too — and the fact that we have service in subway stations at all, and have had it for over a decade, puts us ahead of a lot of other places. (Note: I'm the guy who used to send him on those phone-testing treks for the Post.) – RP”

But not everyone has had a great experience. Several writers told of spotty service, and particularly singled out AT&T.

“AT&T has the absolute worst coverage of all the cell phone carriers, and it's especially bad throughout Virginia and around DC,” wrote one anonymous reader. “It's also very bad around Philadelphia. AT&T wireless will never initiate a Trouble Ticket because they always assume the problem is in your handset. AT&T does minimal maintenance and has no quality controls.”

Another reader wrote: “Used Sprint two years ago in College Park area before switching to AT&T. Could stay on a call, and even make a call, from an elevator. AT&T won't even hold up the call in that elevator, much less initiate one. Sprint had much better coverage in my area, but lousy customer service that very routinely dropped calls. I think that call dropping was their contact center's call completion strategy. AT&T, on the other hand, has lousy cell service (in my area), but great customer service.”

Others suggested that it’s a matter of location.

“The key to the report is the word AREA,” wrote Errol of Engleside, Va., “I live and work between 5 and 20 miles outside of the D.C. limits, and cell phone (AT&T and Verizon) coverage is very spotty. One just has to drive down Route 1 from the Pentagon to Quantico and there are plenty dark spots. Seems live Va. residents will not allow a cell tower near their homes for fear the radiation will damage their roofs. I have to maintain a copper telephone line to my home for coverage and I am only a mile from Mt Vernon. Sad deal!”

“There are places in this city where coverage is suspect,” wrote Mark of Washington, D.C. “There are a lot of ‘government’ locations where you will lose service (depending on carrier) when near them. I'm the telecom specialist for my department and we use three of the big carriers and ALL drop calls in certain areas. The coverage is worse east of the river in DC. Maybe once the new [Homeland Security] complex is completed there will be better service."

Of course, any area can have dropped calls; the point of a survey is to see how one area matches up to others. For at least two readers, the D.C. metro area compares well.

“I think the coverage here is really great compared to Southeastern, Va.,” wrote Peter of Maryland. “To this day there are people standing at the ends of their driveways because they get bad reception indoors.”

Kevin of the Midwest wrote: “I have been to Washington several times over the last couple of years and did not have any problems with cell phone coverage. The last trip we had a group of six people and we often split up and would use cell phones when we wanted to get back together. This worked very well for us.”

Breeden did see some agreement on his contention that Washington might have more complaints about cell service because people here complain more.

“.....suffering in silence isn’t often on the agenda... Truer words have never been spoken!,” wrote Dennis of Northern Virginia. “But, in fairness, I travel to NYC, Philly, and the Midwest routinely, and hear much less whining about cell phones than I do in the District. One thing I've noted that never gets discussed is the lack of spectrum management in DC, compared to other phones. I've done wireless camera installations for government agencies in the District after advising them NOT to do it, and seen the poor results. With diplomatic immunity, the embassies downtown use a variety of frequencies to communicate home, and that causes some real havoc with anything using a radio.”

And maybe it's just that D.C. is a target.

“Cell phone service depends as much on which carrier you have as it does for your location,” wrote Paul of Washington. “For instance, my personal cell phone is with one carrier and my government cell phone is with another. I get service in the Washington and Northern Virginia areas on my government cell, but not on my personal one. I don't think much of most surveys anyway because they are too easily skewed toward a specific result. And of course, everyone loves to bash Washington, D.C.”

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 Metro DC Area

It appears that a majority of the problems that we have heard about bad service and more specifically, with AT&T have surfaced after the initial introduction of the Apple iPhone. The most notable complaint being dropped calls. I think that it has been proven that there have been antenna problems with the iPhone and many of those same problems seem to exist when the iPhone was introduced on the Verizon network. Did the J.D. Powers study include what type of cellular phone was being utilized by the contributors to the survey?

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