How I Find Sites

Last Updated: 15-Apr-2004

Many people have asked me how I got into this strange hobby, and how I go about finding all the sites in the first place. Let's begin with a little history, and find out how I got started.

Back in 1989 I had my first cellular phone. This was a Radio Shack CT-100 in-car unit. This phone did not have a signal strength indicator, nor could it display command channels. For the first little while I did what most people did and used it strictly as a phone. There seemed to be nothing more I could do.

One day I was over at Terminal 1 of Pearson Airport in Toronto and I noticed some rather fascinating antennas bolted to the side of the multi-level parking garage. I don't know why I thought they might be cellular, but this was my assumption. After getting home I started thinking about ways of proving if I had indeed found a site. After much head-scratching I came up with the idea of removing the antenna from the phone.

Many of you are probably wondering what possible good that did, since unscrewing the antenna cable from an in-car phone just results in the phone showing NO SVC. This is true, UNLESS you are within approximately 1/2 kilometer of a site. At that distance the signals from the site were so strong that they creep into the radio to be detected without an antenna.

My next problem was determining which service the antennas belonged to. I solved that by changing the phone to "Prefer Home System", which would lock into my home service, but scan the alternate system if no signal was present. Now when I got close to a home system site the NO SVC light went out, and the ROAM light stayed off. When I got close to a site of the alternate service, NO SVC light went out, and the ROAM light came on.

Armed with this ability I could now drive around the city and know when I was getting close to a site. After doing this for a while I began to recognize the unique signature of a cell site, and I could see the clearly visible differences between the antennas used by Rogers and those used by Bell Mobility. It was now possible to scan the horizon and spot sites at a much greater distance. I would still use the unscrewed antenna technique to verify my finds.

In the early days there weren't all that many sites to find, and it didn't take long to build up an initial map of their locations. With the map I could look for potential site locations by identifying areas that didn't have them. By driving to these areas I could find sites I hadn't already seen from my normal day-to-day travels throughout the city.

In 1990 I bought my first handheld phone, which was a Novatel PTR-800. I initially assumed that this phone couldn't show me command channels either, but it did have a signal strength indicator, and I could now move around the city and see how close I was to a site. It also allowed me to combine this new hobby with another passion of mine; cycling.

I do between 4,000 and 5,000 kilometers of cycling each year, and what better time to check for sites than while riding around the city. The hunt for sites defined my riding routes, which would have previously been chosen for completely different reasons, such as where I felt like going that day. Combining the two passions meant that site finding did not consume much time beyond that I already dedicated to other hobbies.

The next breakthrough occurred when I called Novatel to report a problem I had encountered with their phone. When I got within a short distance of a site on the alternate service signals from that site would "swamp" the phone and make it unusable. I figured this was a flaw in my phone, and I hoped the guy I spoke with could find a solution for me. He said that their engineers had never encountered such a thing before, but they would look into it.

A few days later he phoned me back to say that they had managed to duplicate the problem, but it couldn't be fixed in this particular model. They were working on a new model however, and my input on it would be greatly appreciated. This started my long association with Novatel doing Beta Tests of their new phones before they came out. It also got me a very handy piece of information; how to put their phones into Field Test Mode.

In this mode, the phone displayed the physical channel it was either using for voice, or camped on while idling, along with the signal strength given as a numeric value. This value had far greater "resolution" than the 5 segment bar graph on the phone. Armed with this new information I found the command channels used on all the known sites and I could now see if new command channels showed up on the phone. This greatly improved my chances of finding a site, even at distances beyond that which I could see.

Life went on like that until the summer of 1997 when the first of the 1.9 GHz PCS providers came online. I immediately bought myself a Fido phone and I began the task of locating their sites. The Nokia 2190 did not have a Field Test Mode, and so I couldn't check channels, but I was now pretty good at spotting sites, and I knew what to look for.

Rogers had yet to begin construction of their 1.9 GHz system, and all Bell Mobility's 1.9 GHz antennas were located with their existing 800 MHz analog cellular sites. If I found any sites containing only 1.9 GHz antennas, then I had most likely found a Fido site. I could then use the 2190 to verify the strength of the signal. Looking for Fido sites contributed to quite a bit of the cycling I did during that summer.

A couple of months after Fido had their system up and running, Clearnet (now Telus) began installing their 1.9 GHz CDMA system. Their sites were similar to Fido's, but the antenna design was different. Not only that, but Clearnet was deliberately choosing low antenna heights, while Fido put theirs up rather high. Until I got my Clearnet phone in October of 1997 however, I could only look for their sites by eye. By then however I had become extremely good at spotting them, and I actually found over 70% of all their sites prior to getting my phone.

A sensitivity to the appearance of sites, and a knowledge of their most likely locations, goes a long way to finding new sites. Contacts at the cellular and PCS service providers don't hurt either, and I have learned of many a planned site by simply calling up customer service departments and asking them directly for expansion plans. You may be surprised how forthcoming they can be when you ask about this, but don't expect a positive response each and every time. Some reps aren't aware that they can give out this information, while some networks make a point of never giving out such information.

If you think you might like to go site hunting, you can start by checking out my photo gallery to have a look at what real sites look like. Once you have a general idea of what to look for, you can begin scouring the landscape for structures that look similar.