Lowenstein's View: Thinking 'Beyond the Bars' on the phone

Mark Lowenstein

How often does this happen to you: Your phone is displaying five bars of 4G or four bars of Wi-Fi, but the data speeds are very slow. This "disconnect" between what a user thinks they should be experiencing and what they are actually experiencing is occurring with increasing frequency. There is any number of explanations in a given situation, but is often due to capacity constraints on the network.

It is interesting that nearly 30 years into the advent of cellular service, and 10-plus years since the rollout of 3G and 4G networks, the metaphor for conveying what one's network experience is likely to be at a given moment--"bars on the phone"--hasn't changed a lick. This is fine in the voice-centric area: Two bars or better means you're likely to be able make a phone call. But with data, I have found that, increasingly, there is less of a relationship between what the phone is displaying ("bars"), and the actual experience. The differences can be significant: my downlink speed with five bars of LTE has ranged from near zero to more than 20 Mbps.

Now, at any time, one can always conduct a "speed test" on a device to determine uplink/downlink speed, and latency. Ookla is the granddaddy of speed test apps. Root Metrics has an app that provides a detailed color-coded map of local coverage, a speed test feature, and allows a user to easily "report" about an experience. And an app called Open Signal provides a dashboard that tells you the location of the nearest cellular tower, and the quality of the data connection, such as "average" or "good." These are all effective, and fairly accurate. But these are apps that have to be downloaded and then launched by the user, and are generally either used by geeks who are into this stuff or downloaded when something isn't working right.

I think it's time for the carriers to take greater ownership of this one. In an era where there is so much competition around network quality, and rather liberal use of marketing terms such as "best," "fastest," "most reliable," and "largest" 4G network, why not be a little more transparent to users about the real-time quality of the connection they have, so they know whether or not to launch a data session or particular type of app? Here's how it could work. Stick with the "bars" or "dots" to convey coverage in an area. But come up with a way of measuring and communicating the quality of the data connection. Have a little applet on the device that periodically pings the network (cellular and/or Wi-Fi) for the quality of connection. This polling could be adjusted for context, such as whether one is moving or stationary, arrived at a new location, etc. The frequency/extent of this polling would have to be sensitive to power consumption.

Then, let's determine an easy and understandable way to display this information. It could be different color bars, or a light next to the bars--red for poor, yellow for average, or green for good. Or maybe a number, from 0-5, to convey data speed: "0" would mean no connection, "5" would be 10 Mbps or greater. Regardless of the metaphor used, each operator could come up with their own correlation between the index and the actual data. What translates into a "green" or "3" on a Verizon LTE phone might be something different on operator X's 3G phone.

By the way, the same principle applies to Wi-Fi, where the quality can be even more unpredictable. How many times have you been at a Starbucks or in a hotel recently where the connection looks good but the data speed is really slow?

I'd also like to see this translated into an improved feedback loop with customers. It is amazing to me that there is no easy way for a user to communicate network-related issues to their service provider. When Firefox or MS Word crashes, up pops a screen to "send" a report (where exactly it goes or what's done with it is a bit of a mystery). Citizen Connect type apps allow for real-time reporting of everything from a pothole to a broken meter, or communicating when the when the next bus is coming. Why not have a similar trigger with regards to the network--for example an easy way to for a customer to send info to their service provider when there's a problem, such as a poor data connection. Root Metrics has an easy "report" capability in their coverage app, but the user has no idea where that info goes or what is done with it. Plus, I think this is something the operator should take ownership of.

Now, I don't think users would take unfair advantage of an operator-provided reporting capability--really, it's meant for occasions when there's a wide gap between the expected and the actual experience. It would also allow the operator to communicate back to the subscriber: "yes, there was heavy congestion on the network at that location at 8 p.m. yesterday, we are deploying a new cell site near that location," etc. I think customers would be pleasantly surprised if they knew the proactive steps operators undertake, particularly in situations such as conventions and major sporting events, to provide a decent experience. There was 250 GB of data usage on AT&T's network from Fenway Park during Game 1 of the World Series. It took some work to pull that off.

Even better, in addition to call time and cellular data usage information found in "settings," why not have an "average connection speed" for a period of time, for example "in the past month, when using cellular data, you averaged 4.2 Mbps downlink speed." Imagine crowdsourcing that one into a marketing campaign about network quality.

In an era of crowd-sourced data, and real-time information about so many things in our daily lives, it's time for operators to "move beyond the bars." Don't let third-party app developers--or Apple or Google--take over this puppy. Involve your subscribers--let them be a greater source of data and, at the same time, provide them with more information. This level of transparency, and continuous feedback loops, is employed by best of breed companies in many industries. It's time for wireless to up the game. 

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.