Why Bernal Heights iPhone Owners May Cheer AT&T Oligopoly

While perusing the City’s online Library of Cartography recently — don’t ask! — I discovered a new map that does a lot to explain why my iPhone gets such crappy reception inside my home, and why AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile might actually go a long way toward making it better.

But before we get to that, please allow me a few minutes of cathartic iPhone ranting. Oh. My. God. It’s bad: I can’t make wireless calls at all from the garage or ground-floor office of my North Bernal home. On the second floor, the phone only works in the front of the house or in my back yard. It’s so bad that even my text messages fail to send about 75 percent of the time. The phone works great on the top floor of the house, but… seriously?!?

Calling My City Supervisor

Now, back to that map I found. It’s an Aprill 2011 visualization that shows the location of every wireless cellphone tower in the City, categorized by mobile provider. When I looked at it closely, I suddenly understood why my iPhone is mostly useless unless I’m on the upper floor of my house: The AT&T cell tower closest to me isn’t that close at all.

AT&T’s antenna coverage of Bernal Heights is sparse, and as much as I’d like to demonize the company, NIMBY obstructionism is partially to blame as well. Truth is, it ain’t easy to erect new cell towers in San Francisco. But when you look at the wireless facilities map of Bernalwood, one thing becomes clear: All those pink dots mean that T-Mobile already has our neighborhood pretty well covered.

And that’s why AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T Mobile might be a godsend for long-suffering Bernalwood iPhone owners. If the deal closes as planned early next year, AT&T will gain access to T-Mobile’s existing network of wireless towers. (Arguably, that’s actually AT&T’s primary motivation for pursuing the merger.) And since T-Mobile’s towers are strategically positioned around Bernal Heights, the net result may be substantially better wireless service for local iPhoneers.

So fingers crossed, and here’s to a self-interested reason to cheer for oligopoly!

15 thoughts on “Why Bernal Heights iPhone Owners May Cheer AT&T Oligopoly

  1. Are there really no Verizon towers near Bernal? There also seems to be a ton of t-mobile antennas in the mission and the inner sunset. If this is because the t-mobile antennas are lower power, then I wonder if this means that this map does not tell all that there is to know.

  2. The AT&T/T-Mobile merger will help if it’s approved, although approval is far from a done deal. Sprint is actively opposing the merger and I’m sure other companies will speak up.

    Even if the merger is approved you’ll still have to wait a while before you see much of an improvement unfortunately. There are two actively used cell standards, 2G and 3Gs. AT&T and T-Mobile use the same frequencies for 2G, so that could be supported fairly quickly with a simple software setting in the T-Mobile towers, but it’s godawful slow. Think the iPhone version 1; it’s nowhere near good enough for browsing modern websites. You would get better SMS coverage, and calls could go through, but the calls would be analog and could be scratchy.

    3G is what’s used on current iPhones, but T-Mobile uses a different frequency that AT&T and the iPhone. This means there needs to be a hardware upgrade at each T-Mobile tower before iPhones can use the tower. AT&T has said they will perform this upgrade, but it’s going to take some time. To make matters worse, in some cases they’ll have to apply for new permits and in San Francisco that means a plethora of NIMBY folks complaining about growing a third arm. In SF it takes as long as three years to get permission to install or upgrade a tower, in Texas it takes about three months. Not all towers will require a new permit, but those that do won’t be getting an upgrade until 2014 or so.

    Finally, both AT&T and T-Mobile are slowly rolling out a new 4G network that will be much faster than 3G. Much of this work will be done after the merger (although T-Mobile has already started) and the frequencies used will be coordinated. Presumable a 4G capable iPhone will be compatible with this new network, although deployment in San Francisco would also face some of the same regulatory/complaint hurdles if the tower needs to be upgraded beyond what the existing permit allows.

  3. And as a south slope T Mobile customer, I have to report that it’s ok, not spectacular as the map would imply. When my master checks in on Foursquare from Bernal Hill he is oft-times in the hill shadow and ends up picked up by one of the more distant cell towers. Arf.

  4. On the topic of poor reception within your home, I’ve had unreliable reception within the basement and front half of my house since moving in (near Florida St and Precita St). In March, out of the blue I received a notice indicating that I was eligible for a few ATT Microcell, and true to their word I took the letter into a store and they gave me one. The device itself is a little buggy and has to be power cycled occasionally, but when its working I have fine reception throughout the property.

    We suspect that the reason we got this is that my fiance would had routinely been using ATT’s “Mark the Spot” app to complain about the service in our house.

  5. There’s also an implication in that map as to why NOT to go Verizon if you live in Bernal. Unless I am misreading it, there appears to not be a single Verizon tower anywhere in Bernal. That’s too bad, as I would love to give AT&T the heave-ho when I’m ready to upgrade from my 3GS.

  6. There must be another variable, some deal with the location or power of these towers, since Verizon works fine (I switched from Verizon to Tmobile and service is about the same).
    Does anyone have MetroPCS? Very few towers – does it work?

  7. It’s not always reception or proximity to towers that is the problem. I recently started working in SOMA near 2nd and Folsom and even though I usually had 4-5 bars of reception on my AT&T iPhone 3GS, I could not make or receive any phone calls during the day, every day.

    I believe this has to do with their network being completely overloaded and them being cheap and or not competent enough to fix it and nothing to do with proximity to towers. Luckily my 2 year contract was up on Monday so I bought a new Verizon iPhone4 on Tuesday and it works great at work and at my house in south Bernal.

    For what it’s worth, my AT&T iPhone worked fine at my house in Bernal (near Ellsworth/Cortland) for 2 years, it was really only a problem downtown. Perhaps north Bernal has a problem because of its proximity to the Mission which no doubt is full of AT&T/iPhone owners?

    • Ha! Had a conversation — actually, a conversation after a dropped conversation — yesterday with a friend who said, “Well, 5 bars on AT&T is only worth 2 bars on Verizon.”

  8. My big idea is that American Tower turns half of their property on the top of the hill into a picnic area in exchange for building whatever they want to build up there. Even NIMBY’s love picnics!

    • I don’t think NIMBYs love picnics next to transmission towers, although I’m all for the idea. Unfortunately FCC regulations require restricted access around active antennas. It’s not so much because of some freaky cancer risk (there isn’t any), but there’s still energy in the transmission beam and getting too close can result in burns.

      Many years ago a colleague was working at McMurdo Station in the arctic and wondered why their microwave dishes, which were similar to the ones on the hill, kept getting knocked out of alignment. They eventually setup cameras and found polar bears were sleeping next to the dishes because they were nice and warm. There’s also been cases of security guards sitting in the beam to stay warm when on night shifts. No radiation or cancer risk, but still not good to get close.

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