Hey! Why Do My Cell Calls Keep Dropping?

Hey! Why Do My Cell Calls Keep Dropping?


The phrase “lightning speed” is almost a cliché these days. We are constantly on the go, whether it’s getting the kids ready for school, rushing to work, or off running errands. Americans have been defining and redefining the term “mobile” for decades.

That need for mobility has seeped into the ways we communicate with each other. A growing number of us are cutting the phone lines at home and relying entirely on wireless technology. Smartphone, iPad, laptop, apps, and free Wi-Fi are such a part of the telecommunications lexicon that even our school children are familiar with them.

Referring to these devices as “phones” or even cell phones is becoming a misnomer if not straight-up archaic. Wireless devices, including cell phones, are basically mobile information access terminals. We spend as much time using the keyboards on these devices to access information as we do talking to our friends and family with them.

For some users of these devices, our “friends and family” today are much more extended than our real friends. Our extended friends’ lists are the result of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. We are re-tweeting, sharing, and liking links to information and news items, as well as posting our insights, comments, and opinions on news events, goods, services, and merchants. We conduct the majority of this social media or social networking activity with our wireless devices.

Driving the use of cellphones and smartphones are African and Hispanic American consumers. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 49% of African and Hispanic adults have smartphones, compared to the overall average of 46% of all American adults that have a smartphone. Twenty-five percent of smartphone owners use their phones as the main source of access to the Internet.

While 83% of all American adults own a cell phone or another kind of wireless device, the percentage of African and Hispanic Americans owning a wireless device is 87%.

There is a demand for wireless devices but with this demand comes a squeeze on the wireless industry’s most precious resource: spectrum.

Spectrum refers to the wave of electromagnetic frequencies necessary for carrying signals from your cell phone to your carrier’s tower and eventually to the person you are calling. Think of the communication pathway between your phone and the cell towers that transfer your call as containing a two lane road, with one lane sending your voice to a friend while the other lane sends your friend’s voice to you.

Suppose two-thousand of these conversations are occurring at once in one neighborhood. The problem is when the 2,001st conversation tries to happen. That call may be squeezed in if there is enough capacity. If there is not enough capacity, if we cannot make enough room for two more lanes, there may be slow connections; calls may drop; or there may be no connection at all.  This phenomenon is called “spectrum exhaust” and it coming to large, often majority-minority cities in 2013 or 2014.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the wireless industry acknowledge that the spectrum crunch is real and is coming. For example, AT&T determined that between 2007, the year it released its first iPhone, and 2010, data traffic on its network increased by 8,000%. AT&T estimated that by the first five to seven weeks of 2015, the amount of data traffic having traveled over its network will equal all the data traffic that traveled over its network in 2010.

This was the analysis that drove AT&T’s proposed takeover of T-Mobile USA, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom. AT&T hoped to integrate T-Mobile’s network into its network, thus speeding up consumer accessibility to additional capacity. Those hopes were dashed late last year when, as a result of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T withdrew its petition with the FCC to merge with T-Mobile.

The full impact on minority consumers has yet to be felt as wireless carriers, including AT&T, respond to spectrum exhaust in large markets by raising prices to mediate demand. Given the disproportionately higher rate of demand for wireless services versus demand by white consumers, one can expect price increases to change usage patterns among Blacks and Hispanics including reducing time on the Internet or changing wireless calling and data plans to fit tightened budgets.  Unless the FCC deploys more spectrum fast, minority consumers will face a challenge to the affordability and accessibility of the technology that holds the most promise for helping them achieve full access to all of society’s opportunities.


  1. Bandwidth in the U.S. is not yet at capacity. The factoids you've provided misrepresent 'wireless devices' as accessing the same part(s) of the spectrum by way of the same technology. An AM radio is a 'wireless device', but it works very differently than a cellphone, which itself may not be equipped with Bluetooth technology or a wi-fi chip.

    Regardless, the reasons for dropped cellular phone calls are largely explained by the laws of physics; the signals are sensitive to interference from physical structures, other radio signals, and similar phenomena. Reassigning a part of the spectrum from one usage, e.g.; TV, to another won't change that fact.

    • actually adding spectrum allows more frequeny types to open up and will allow more calls to go through as they should. Yes physics does play a role but the bigger role is played by the frequency type that the carrier uses. Reassigning certain spectrum frequencies would have a massive impact on call quality. Wm_Tucker should look into his own "facts", spectrum is not yet at capacity, I agree. But the rate of usage is exponential and the trend that it is currently following will surely put us at a spectrum deficit in the near future. Also 98% of TV doesn't use any spectrum as it is not broadcast over any network besides Verizon's new FioS system so that may be a poor example to use. Many TV providers own large amounts of Spectrum because of their future plans to have wireless capabilities but do not use that spectrum currently. That is why you see deals such as Verizon's deal with Comcast and Time Warner to buy their currently unused spectrum.

      • "… adding spectrum allows more frequency types to open up…"

        Not exactly. First, the total amount of spectrum is finite. Second, parts of the spectrum can be reallocated to be used differently. The number of channels ('frequencies') a given slice of spectrum can hold at a given time depends on various technological and scientific factors. Whether a portion of spectrum should be reallocated or reassigned should be determined empirically rather than politically.

        "… will allow more calls to go through as they should".

        In a contextual vacuum, this is accurate. But it assumes the portion of spectrum in question will be purchased by cellular network operators who'll develop it in a fashion consistent with those frequencies they already control. It does not address whether 1) reallocating spectrum in this manner is the most efficient solution or, 2) the same goals may be met through ongoing technological developments.

        The current rate of U.S. consumer 'wireless' broadband adoption measured in terms of new smartphone purchases *isn't* "exponential". IIRC, the .annual rate of growth is around 20%.

        "Also 98% of TV doesn't use any spectrum…"

        You don't understand how television works.