PCS FAQ


28-Jun-2012 What's the big deal with LTE
29-Mar2009 Why Do You Only Seem to Review Nokia Phones?
07-Oct-2005 Do Fido users have access to the Rogers network?
09-Sep-2005 Will Rogers Eventually Get Rid of 1900 MHz in Favor of 850 MHz
02-Aug-2005 What has happened to the Fido Network?
18-Jul-2004 Why Does the Signal Meter on Mike and Nextel phones fluctuate so Much?
30-Jun-2004 Should I got completely Wireless?
17-Mar-2004 Will GSM850 provide markedly better urban coverage than GSM1900?
03-Oct-2003 Why is Service often weak in Residential Areas?
03-Oct-2003 Why is Service so bad in tall buildings?
29-Mar-2003 Can Cell Phones Cause Explosions at Gas Stations?
22-Oct-2002 When do I pay Long Distance Charges?
14-May-2002 How does paying by the minute compare to paying by the second?
08-Apr-2002 Do Those Stick-On Antenna Boosters Really Work?
14-Mar-2001 What is the System Access Fee, and is it Government Mandated?
19-Dec-2000 Why doesn't my phone get the predicted talk or standby times?
19-Dec-2000 How do I activate Field Test Mode on my Mitsubishi G310?
13-Nov-2000 What is the Range of a Single Cell Site?
04-Nov-1999 Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?
13-Sep-1999 Can I Use my Digital Phone on a Different Network
11-Nov-1998 What's the difference between a "Soft Handoff" and a "Hard Handoff"
15-Oct-1998 How should I Charge my Battery so I get the Longest Life Out Of it?
Will you be making maps for other cities in Canada?
I've heard people say that CDMA is superior to TDMA. Is this true?
Is in-building coverage about the same for all four technologies?

What's the Big Deal with LTE

Over the last 8 or 9 months Rogers, Bell Mobility, and Telus have launched LTE service in some markets in Canada. LTE is also available in numerous US markets via AT&T and Verizon (with other smaller providers following suit in the coming months). If you really don't know what LTE is, but have read a smattering of information about it you'll probably think that all it really does is provide faster transfer rates. Well, it does do that, but this isn't the big story with the new technology.

The really big news here is LATENCY, but what does this little-understood term refer to, and why is it so important to you? Latency refers to the time it takes for a request from your computer to reach the target server and for a response to come back from that server (specified in milliseconds).

If all of your interactions with the internet consisted of a single round trip conversation with the server, latency would be of little interest to anyone. However, interactions with servers, especially complex web pages with lots of small items on them, consists of HUNDREDS (sometimes THOUSANDS) of back and forth communications. The amount of time it takes to complete each request is cumulative and so poor latency could result in a very complex web page to take the better part of 30 second to a minute load NO MATTER HOW FAST RAW DATA CONNECTION WAS.

The importance of latency in web browsing is such that if you were to compare a connection with a blazing 100 Mbps transfer rate, but a poor 250 millisecond latency, it would seem to be much slower than a different connection with a seemingly-sluggish 1 Mbps raw transfer rate, but a latency of just 10 milliseconds.

What makes LTE so much better than HSPA is that it can provide markedly better latency (typically 35 to 50 milliseconds) compared to HSPA (80 to 200 milliseconds). But it doesn't end there. As the signal gets weaker, the already poorer latency on HSPA get markedly worse. As the signal get very weak the latency on HSPA can readily exceed 1000 milliseconds. On LTE however, latency is virtually unaffected by signal, and even when the service is almost completely gone, you'll still see latency in the 50 to 70 millisecond range (even as raw transfer rates drop below 1 Mbps).

Beyond web browsing, there are plenty of other connected applications where low latency is important. For example, when using any sort of voice-over-IP services, latency is the enemy. The longer the delays the more likely it is that your conversations will be less than ideal. Push-to-talk services (like Zello) start to take longer and longer to connect as latency goes up (once again, regardless of raw transfer rate).

So even if you had LTE and you were getting fairly lackluster transfer rates, your online experience would still be markedly superior (faster) than someone using HSPA at the same transfer rate.


Why Do You Only Seem to Review Nokia Phones

In the past year I've only reviewed 2 phones that are not Nokias, namely the iPhone 3G and the Blackberry Bold. So what gives? I really wish that I had access to any phone I wanted to review at any time, but I don't. I rely on the goodwill of others who lend me phones to review, and my most reliable lender of phones happens to be a dyed-in-wool Nokia fan. For that reason I end up getting quite a few Nokias for review and not much else.

If anyone out there can help out by proving me with a wider variety of models to test, I would be ever so appreciative. Until then I will review what I can get, which for the time being will mostly be Nokia models.

P.S. As of 2012 I now seem to only review Samsung phones, but the above reason generally applies there too. You'll probably not see many Nokia reviews in the future.


Do Fido users have access to the Rogers network

I deliberately worded this question like this because many people are asking something similar, but the answer to the question is actually not quite what most people expect.

The fact is there is no more Fido network. In Canada there is only one GSM network and that's Rogers. Phones from Fido and Rogers (as well as other virtual providers such as 7-11) access the same sites in the same ways all of the time. Fido is now nothing more than a virtual network with no sites of its own.

While Fido did have their own network at one time, back when they were part of the Microcell Telecom group of companies, that is no longer true. When Rogers purchased Microcell Telecom they took the existing Fido cell sites and integrated them into the Rogers GSM network, thus creating a single GMS entity. They kept the Fido name simply for marketing purposes.

The question is therefore a misnomer, since Fido users have access ONLY to the Rogers network. The source of much of the confusion may come from the billing practices put into place for Fido subscribers. Rogers has divided the network into 2 separate zones, known as the Basic Network and the Expanded Network. This choice of terminology gives the illusion that there are actually multiple networks, but what they've really done is simply create a billing scheme in which Fido subscribers can be billed differently depending upon where they are (just like you get billed long distance in some areas, but not in others).

So let's say there were two identical phones, but one had a Rogers SIM in it and the other had a Fido SIM in it. Would they work any differently if used at random locations throughout Canada? The answer is no, they would work exactly the same, using exactly the same cell sites in exactly the same way. The ONLY difference between being on Rogers and being on Fido is way you are billed for your usage.

The common variation on this question is whether or not Fido users have access to the 850 MHz channels on Rogers. Yes, all virtual networks that uses Rogers (which includes Fido and 7-11) access ALL of the Rogers network at ALL TIMES. There is no distinction made between 850 MHz and 1900 MHz channels. If your phone is capable of 850 MHz, then it will have access to the 850 MHz channels on the Rogers network regardless of which virtual provider you use.


Will Rogers Get Rid of its 1900 MHz Network in Favor of 850 MHz

Absolutely not, and here's why. To a cell phone provider the biggest issue facing them is network capacity, or the total number of users they can sustain on their network at one time in one location. The more channels a provider has, the more users they can support simultaneous. When it comes to available channels (or more accurately the total amount SPECTRUM) there is only a small amount of space available in the 850 MHz band. In fact, only 30% of Rogers total spectrum exists in the 850 MHz band. The remaining 70% is in the 1900 MHz band.

It would therefore be corporate suicide to get rid of 70% of their available capacity, because as many of you well know, they already having capacity issues in large urban areas as it is. In heavily populated areas, where 100% of the available spectrum will have to be effectively utilized, there is a snowball's chance in hell that Rogers would ever abandon their precious 1900 MHz spectrum.

But what about rural areas where the total number of users is very small? In some cases they COULD use only the small capacity they have at 850 MHz and get by with no trouble, but it doesn't make any sense to potentially cut off coverage to users who have phones that do not support 850 MHz, especially roamers from other parts of the world where their phones would likely have only 1900 MHz for North American roaming.

At present Rogers DOES NOT HAVE any cell sites that do not support at least 1900 MHz. In other words, there are no 850-only sites out there. If you have a phone that does not support 850 MHz you need not worry about being left out in the cold. However, if you are currently considering a Rogers or Fido phone I would strong recommend that you ensure that it does have 850 MHz on it. That way you won't be cutting yourself off from 30% of the spectrum in urban areas, and from the much better range you'll get from Class 4 (2-watt) phones in out-of-the-way rural places.


What has happened to the Fido Network

On Monday November 8th, 2004 Rogers purchased Microcell Telecom. On that day the company that originally spawned the Fido network ceased to exist. Nothing happened immediately, but over the following year Rogers performed what they called an "integration" of the two networks. In simple terms this means that Rogers took over the old Fido cell sites and kept the ones that would enhance their own network. Fido sites that were either co-located with an existing Rogers site, or those which were just so close as to make little difference, were dismantled.

The Fido name could have been a thing of the past by now, but Rogers decided to cash in on the image, especially to the youth market which they'd never really been able to crack. So the bottom line is that Fido is nothing more than a marketing term for Rogers. There is no Fido network and any phone that operates on what appears to be the Fido network is actually just using the Rogers network just like any Rogers phone would.

This concept of a Virtual Network is nothing new, as Microcell Telecom used to do it themselves. Providers such as Cityfone and SiMPRO were nothing more than virtual networks providing service from the very same Microcell Connexions sites as Fido subscribers used. Now Fido has become the virtual network, reselling Rogers service under their own name, just like 7-11.

The bottom line for the consumer is simple. When deciding if one should go with Fido or Rogers, there really isn't anything to think about on the technical side. Just choose the brand that provides the best phones and price plans for your needs and you'll get exactly the same level of service.

There are a few gotchas to beware of however. The Fido brand has deliberately been LIMITED to the areas originally covered by the old Microcell Connexions network unless you shell out an extra $5 per month to use the remainder of the Rogers network (though some price plans do include this at no extra charge). Factor this cost into your price comparisons unless you are certain that you will only be using your phone in major cities that originally had Fido coverage.


Why Does the Signal Meter on Mike and Nextel Phones Fluctuate so Much?

From reading the Telus Mike and Nextel forums it has become abundantly clear to me that people are mis-interpreting the meters on iDEN phones. People assume that these meter reflect Signal Strength, and subsequently do not understand why these readings can fluctuate so wildly, even while they are sitting in one place. The fact of the matter is that Motorola has never built an iDEN phone with a signal strength meter. What their meters tell you is a parameter called Signal Quality Estimate, or SQE for short. Signal strength does play a small role in the reading, but only when the signal gets very weak.

SQE is an estimate of how well the data stream is being received by the phone. It essentially represents the signal-to-noise-ratio of the incoming signal. Noise is anything that isn't part of the desired data stream, and be caused by unwanted reflected signals, interference from strong nearby alternate signals, electrical noise, or just plain background RF noise (to name just a few). In the real world noise sources can vary wildly, especially interference from out-of-phase reflected versions of the desired signal (known as multi-path). Because these noise sources can change, even when the phone itself doesn't move, SQE can also change for no apparent reason.

This is all very fine you say, but why do I want to know SQE and not signal strength? Well, in a digital network the bottom line is receiving and reconstructing the data stream. The more accurately the bits are reconstructed, the closer the audio will be to what is intended. Poor signal quality, even when the signal strength is quite high, will result in poor audio. Excellent signal quality, even when the signal strength is low, will result in excellent audio. Subsequently it is SQE that will determine how good the call will sound and not signal strength.

Since SQE is influenced by so many factors, and since those factors can change rapidly and be affected by things you cannot see or detect around you, SQE can fluctuate in mysterious ways. Depending upon the type of interference, a very radical change in SQE can be observed over a very short period of time. Signal strength, by comparison, is influenced only by a handful of factors, such as terrain or objects blocking the passage of the signal. As these types of things don't change rapidly over time (when you are stationary) signal strength remains quite stable over time.

Many CDMA phones use a similar reading (known as Ec/Io) for their signals meters, and so their readings can fluctuate too. GSM and TDMA phones seem to reflect only signal strength as a rule, or are driven mostly by signal strength. You normally wouldn't expect to see jumps from 4-bars to 0-bars on such phones, but it is completely possible for that to happen with a meter based on SQE, regardless of the underlying technology.


Should I go Completely Wireless

With the sale of Microcell Telecom to Rogers there now does not appear to be any flat-rate wireless plans available to the Canadian consumer. This makes the concept of going totally wireless somewhat less attractive. However, there are some plans (on all providers) that contain enough minutes that for most people they represent as many minutes as they can possibly use. The following discussion therefore covers all other issues that you should consider before taking the plunge.

The most important question you must ask yourself is: do I get strong coverage at my home? If you canít answer yes to this question, then right away you donít qualify as a candidate for going without a landline. Unless you only drop by home once and a while to brush your teeth and sleep, you can generally assume that youíll do quite a bit of your talking from there. Without decent coverage youíll be cursing your decision in no time. If you have strong coverage in your home, then move on to the next hurdle.

Secondly, but perhaps just as importantly, is do you live alone? If not, working out who gets to take the primary phone with them when they go out is likely to become a big issue. You could solve the problem by having each member of the household sign up with their own flat-rate cellular service, but that would likely be more costly than keeping the landline. Itís possible that a two-person household could work this out economically, but any more people than that would probably NOT be justifiable.

Beyond these two primary concerns most of the remaining problems are relatively minor, but they are worth considering. I will discuss each of these potential issues, but in no particular order.

Letís begin with what type of Internet service you have. There is really only one commonly-used type of service that will let you get away with dumping your landline, and thatís cable (though in some areas there are Fixed-Wireless alternatives). If you have DSL you MAY REQUIRE a landline to support the service. Check with your landline provider to make sure they allow a DSL-only connection to your home. Before canceling the landline, make sure you arenít cutting yourself off from the Internet. Either that, or change your service to one that does not require a landline.

Do you have a FAX machine? Donít forget that FAX machines need a phone line to work (even FAX modems in computers). Unless you can find a way to hook up the FAX through your cellphone (and at this time it seems to be impossible on virtually all wireless services in Canada, so be careful) you simply have no choice but to keep your landline service.

How important is fast and accurate 911 service to you? When you call 911 from your landline phone the operator knows exactly where you are calling from, and so you donít need to tell them how to get to you. Cell phones donít give the 911 operators enough information to dispatch help accurately, and so it is up to you to ensure that they know your address and that they donít misunderstand you. For many people this isnít a big issue, but if you have elderly folks living with you who may one day need to rely on speedy rescue, a cell phone might not be a great way to get it, especially if you are frantic when you call them.

How comfortable is your cell phone to use for extended periods? While many of us prefer small, light phones to carry around with us, we donít realize just how much of a pain that phone is when used in our day-to-day lives. We take it for granted that we can prop landline phones on our shoulders to take notes and free our hands when necessary, but tiny cell phones simply must be held to our ears at all times. It might be necessary to re-evaluate your priorities in choosing a cellphone. Models with a speakerphone feature, or those that are big enough to handle in ways we already take for granted at home, might be necessary.

How will you deal with a cellphone breakage or theft? Most of us have probably never broken a landline phone (or had theirs stolen), and even if we did we probably had spares around. If your sole connection to the outside world was a single cellphone, what would happen if it broke one night when you really needed it? It might be necessary to have a spare phone, which would alter the economics of having a cellphone as a landline replacement. With services such as Fido, Rogers, or Telus Mike the concept is at least workable, since you need only swap your SIM into a different phone. With Telus PCS and Bell Mobility even having a spare on hand isnít going to help, as youíd have to wait until customer service opens the next day to have your service changed to the second phone (unless online methods of swapping phones worked 24-hours per day, and were completely automated).

What about the failure of your battery? You should never rely on a single battery, just in case you run it down on an especially long conversation, or because the battery fails due to age or damage. Not only must you keep a spare battery around, but you must also have a charger that is capable of charging that battery independently of your cellphone. The second battery must be kept charged at all times, unless you donít mind being without a phone until you can get to the nearest dealer to buy a replacement.

As you can see, this isnít so cut-and-dried, and you should make sure you consider all of the issues Iíve raised. Iím sure Iíve missed a few as well, so think carefully about all of the variables involved in your situation. There will be plenty of people who will find that living without a landline is both possible and desirable. Just make sure you really are one of them before you take the plunge and disconnect your landline.


Will GSM850 provide markedly better urban coverage than GSM1900

Note that the original answer to this question was posted just over a year ago, and it was based solely upon my knowledge of RF propagation. At the time I had no way to test 850 MHz GSM in real life, but that has since changed. The answer does not change however, but I can now back it up with real field trials (which I've outlined at the end of this answer).

This is perhaps one of the most widely believed urban myths of the cell phone world. It's based on various facts that are true in isolation, but it ignores certain realities of urban coverage. The myth is mostly supported by the belief that 850 MHz signals travel further and penetrates walls better than 1900 MHz. There is truth to this statement, but it's only an advantage when sites are pushed to operate to their maximum range (as we would often see in rural coverage).

Sites that operate inside urban areas never operate at maximum range. They are deliberately detuned, using either attenuators, antenna down-sloping, or low-gain antennas (or a combination of the three) to restrict their range. This is done to prevent co-channel interference (more than one signal on the same frequency appearing at any given location). If a 1900 MHz site operating at a given location had to be restricted to 2 km, then an 850 MHz site operating at the same location would also need to be restricted to 2 km.

In terms of wall penetration, neither 850 MHz nor 1900 MHz signals do this very well. There is a slight advantage to using 850 MHz, but not enough to make a particularly large difference. Both benefit from windows, but since the wavelengths are so small, virtually any window will allow both signals in equally.

Another factor that drives this belief is that in the case of Rogers TDMA/analog vs Rogers GSM there seems to be a marked difference in the coverage of the two systems. Since we can't infer that tuning for the two networks is identical, it is impossible to derive any truths concerning 850 MHz vs 1900 MHz from a comparison of apples and oranges.

Others assume that since Rogers seems to be implementing GSM850 in some urban areas that they do so because it will give them better coverage. This ignores one very good reason for implementing GSM850 that has nothing to do with coverage. Rogers has only a fixed amount of spectrum available at 1900 MHz (which varies by location), and in areas where usage is excessively high it makes good sense to give some of its 850 MHz spectrum over to GSM along side of 1900 MHz. 850 MHz only makes up about 30% of Rogers total capacity, but that's still a fair chunk.

The argument is often moot anyway, especially if you have a phone capable of 850 MHz. If you are using your phone in a fringe area where 1900 MHz doesn't provide a good signal, but 850 MHz does, your phone will be handed off to 850 MHz and you'll never know the difference. The issue is only of concern to someone using (or thinking of using) a phone that does not support 850 MHz. While you'll hear plenty of passionately-held views on this matter, the bottom line is that in URBAN areas a phone without 850 MHz is only at a slight disadvantage signal-wise. There is still the issue of channel availability, but if Rogers has done their load-balancing properly, it shouldn't be a big issue either.


Why is Service Often Weak in Residential Areas?

Among the most common complaints heard from cell phone owners is that they get weak service at their house. Why is it that so many people have trouble in their homes with weak cellular signals? Sometimes it's simply because the provider doesn't have a site nearby, as residential areas are not priority coverage areas. More often however it is because of public enemy number one of high frequency RF; the tree. Or more specifically, the leafy tree.

At the frequencies used by cellular service in North America (850 MHz and 1900 MHz) there is a very real problem with RF absorption by leaves (especially wet ones). A small forest only 1/4 km in width can reduce a signal by as much as 30 dB, which can mean the difference between a fairly good signal and no signal at all. 850 MHz is affected slightly less by this than 1900 MHz, and so the FAQ question above notwithstanding, you would get slightly better service from an 850 MHz network than from a 1900 MHz, all else being equal.

Because it is the leaves that cause the problem, you will very likely find that service at your house is much better during the winter months than during the summer. Short of building way more sites, there is very little that a provider can do to help some people with weak coverage at their house (though these customers could try cutting down all the trees in their neighborhoods).


Why is service so bad in tall buildings?

Most people experience very poor service when using phones in tall buildings (like apartments and office towers). There usually isn't too much of an issue below the 10th floor, but above that elevation it is rare that you will get decent service on any provider. The problem is different for CDMA phones and for TDMA/GSM/iDEN phones, but the end result is identical.

Let's start with TDMA/GSM/iDEN phones and see why being up high is such a problem. All of these technologies work on the principle of channel reuse, which means that any given channel is reused as frequently as possible throughout a geographic area. However, the closer these sites of the same channel are, the greater the chance that interference will occur. We call this co-channel interference because the problem comes from an unwanted signal on the same channel. Network engineers are very cognizant of co-channel problems, and so they tune their networks so that sites working on the same sets of channels don't carry far enough to cause interference to one another.

Once you go up in a building however, you are getting above all of the geographic and manmade obstacles that limit the range of a site. Once you are up high enough you can potentially receive signals from every single site in the city. You could pick up 5 or 6 sites on the same channel, and the level of interference may even get high enough that little or none of the desired signal can be picked out from the mess.

With CDMA the problem of co-channel interference isn't a direct issue, since CDMA is one huge co-channel network. All phones and all sites work at the same frequencies. Individual users are selected from this hodge-podge of signals based on their encoding (thus the term CODE Division Multiple Access). At first glance it would seem that CDMA would be immune to such problems. However, CDMA cannot support an infinite number of calls on the same frequency. As the number of calls increases, so the overall background noise goes up, until it reaches a point where none of the signals can be discerned.

This type of interference in CDMA is known as channel pollution, and moving up in a building simply exposes your phone to more and more of the sites in the city. The more sites you get exposed to, the higher the pollution level, and thus the greater the damage to the audio.

For both CDMA and TDMA/GSM/iDEN phones however, there is one way that a phone can work in a tall building. It must be close to a site, which would then provide a dominant signal that can rise above any possible interference from distant (and much weaker) sites. However, this close site would need to be at approximately the same elevation as you were. If it is too high above you, or too far below you, the signal strength of that site will be insufficient to be dominant. An indoor repeater would certainly serve this purpose, and some office buildings may indeed employ indoor repeaters to provide good coverage, even at high elevations.


Can Cell Phones Cause Explosions at Gas Stations?

This is another urban myth that is given credence by its apparent official support by the British government, and an episode of "CSI". The theory is that sparks caused by the phone will ignite fuel vapors in the atmosphere. While this seems perfectly reasonable, there has never been a single documented case of it ever happening. Furthermore, if sparks were that likely to start fires then we'd all be dead already. Cars are powder kegs of sparks, and not just from their electrical systems. High-energy static sparks that occur between the car and its occupants are all too common when people get in and out of cars.

And when was the last time you saw a cell phone emit sparks? Even when removing or inserting the battery, sparks are highly unlikely. There is nothing on a cell phone that can emit sparks, and most modern cell phones operate at only 3 volts. It has been suggested that someone read about the old mechanical ringers on landline phones needing upwards of 100 volts to work, and they applied that to cell phone ringers. Ringers on cell phones are nothing more than noise-makers that also work at 3 volts and do not have contacts that continually make and break.

As for the support of the theory by the British government, even that isn't really true. What is apparently the case is that the British require a warning on all battery operated equipment stating that it is possible for a spark to ignite fuel vapors. Cell phones are battery-operated, and subsequently require this label. Most cell phone manufacturers add the warning to their manuals to meet British requirements and they leave it there for all other markets simply because it isn't worth maintaining two copies of the same manual. It is also rumored that Shell Oil issued a statement to its gasoline retailers to post warnings about cell phones, but Shell officials have denied that such a statement had ever been issued.

Is there any possibility that a cell phone might cause a fire? Maybe, but it is so improbable, and so far below the likelihood that something else on your car might start the fire first, that worrying about it is a ridiculous waste of time. However, I don't wish to put myself in a sticky legal position, and like most people involved in this argument my advice is to go with your own instincts. If you feel at all unsafe using your cell phone at a gas station, then by all means turn it off before you get there. My statements on the matter are based purely upon probability, and not absolute fact.

Many gas stations now post no cellphone stickers on their pumps, and despite what I've said above you should note the owners of private property are entitled under the law to post whatever restrictions they please, regardless of how ill-advised they may be. Subsequently, if you insist on using a cellphone at a gas station where such behavior is banned, the owners and operators of the station have the right to kick you off of their property and deny you service.

P.S. Since originally posting this message the Discovery Channel TV show "Myth Busters" tackled this question. They attempt to prove a myth is real by doing whatever was necessary to reproduce the results. When the original myth could not be reproduced as stated, they escalate their efforts until they get something to happen. In the case of gas fumes they tried all sorts of oxygen/fuel mixtures and they even resorted to generating sparks to try and ignite the fuel. Only fairly large sparks ever got fuel to ignite and so their conclusion was that cell phones igniting fuel vapors at gas stations was a MYTH.


When Do I Pay Long Distance Charges?

I've often seen messages from people asking under what circumstances they would pay long distance. This is obviously a poorly understood concept, but it's really not that hard to master. The first thing you must realize is that the answer is completely different for incoming calls and outgoing calls.

The easiest of the two to understand is outgoing calls. On all wireless networks in Canada your phone takes on the local dialing pattern of the area it is in. That means that you can dial numbers locally just like anyone living in that area. Similarly, you pay long distance for calling any numbers that a person living in that area would pay.

Incoming calls are a completely different matter, and this is where the confusion sets in. However, once you see your cell phone as having two distinct identities you should find this easy to understand. The first identity is its phone number, which like a landline phone has a fixed location. If you own a cell phone with a Toronto number, then that number is literally fixed in the city of Toronto. This is important to know, since anyone phoning you will be calling this fixed number.

No matter where you are, the caller sees no difference in way in which he or she dials you. If it would be long distance for them to call you while you are at home, then it will continue to be long distance call for them to phone you when you are visiting their house, or when you are half way around the world in Australia. If it would be local for them to contact you, then it will always be local, no matter where you go.

The second identity is the phone itself, which moves around with you. After a caller places a call to you the wireless network must make contact with you. So long as you are within the local calling area of the fixed number, you don't pay long distance to receive the call. If you are far away from home, then you pay long distance for the call to be completed between your fixed number, and your current location.

So as you can see, wireless calls actually consist of two components. The first connects your caller with the fixed number that represents your phone. The callers pay any necessary long distance for this phase of the call only. The second component is between your fixed number and your present location. It is only this phase for which you personally pay long distance charges, if they are applicable.

So now it should be clear to you who pays what. It should also explain why visiting an out-of-town friend would cause you both to pay long distance if that friend were to call you. They would need to place a call to your fixed number back home, which would be a long distance call for them. You would then have to pay long distance charges to have the call routed your current location, even though that might be a few feet from your friend.

Many people refer to this as "double long distance", and they don't understand why it occurs. Now that you know why it applies, is there any way to avoid it? One way is to note on your Caller ID that the call has come from your friend. Don't answer the call, but instead phone him or her back right afterwards. This does not incur long distance charges because we now apply the rules of an outgoing call, which I discussed above. You take on the on local calling pattern of the area you are in, and so you friend is just as much a local call as it would be if you lived around there in the first place.

There used to be a thing called Roamer Access Numbers, but these have slowly been going the way of the dinosaur. These are like "ports" into the network that exist in various cities. They allow your friend to call a phone number in his own city, and then from there he or she dials you. This circumvents both long distance charges because: A) he has called a local number, and not a long distance number, and B) the network is only routing the call from a point that is local to your phone. Your fixed number back home was never involved. At this time, only Bell Mobility has Roamer Access Numbers, and there is no guarantee that they will continue to operate them. Like the other providers, Bell may decide they aren't economical.


How Does Paying by the Minute Compare to Paying by the Second

Paying by the minute is obviously more expensive than paying by the second, but exactly how does this impact upon your monthly bill? To begin, we need to look at the statistical average overpayment that rounding-up incurs. On the low end, the overpayment is 0 seconds since you might make a call that is exactly 3 minutes for example. At the high end the overpayment is 59 seconds, since you could conceivable go 1 second over the boundary. If we assume that your call times are randomly distributed, then the long-term average overpayment is 30 seconds per call.

Based on that average, we can easily determine how much more airtime you incurred by simply counting the number of individual calls you made during a given month. If you made 150 calls for example, that would use up (on average) an extra 75 minutes of airtime than if you'd been paying by the second.

However, just because you consumed an extra 75 minutes doesn't mean it will actually cost you anything. That depends upon whether you were going over your "bucket of minutes". Say for example your service came with 300 included minutes, but you routinely used about 200 of those minutes. If that were the case, then those extra 75 minutes wouldn't have any impact on your bill at all.

On the other hand, if you routinely used almost all of your minutes (or sometimes went slightly over), then virtually all of those 75 minutes are going to count against you. You'd either have to pay for them at the cost of overage, or you would need to move up to the next highest rate package.

Of course, any calls made during unlimited periods wouldn't matter, as free is free (no matter how it is "billed").

The only way to know for sure if charging by the minute is bad or neutral (because it certainly isn't good), you have to examine your bills and multiply the total number of billable calls by 30 seconds. Use that figure to see how much extra it would cost you, if anything.

However, being charged by the minute has a psychological impact that isn't obvious from simply working out whether it truly affects your bottom line. Knowing that you will be charged for a full extra minute if you go over a minute boundary makes you far more likely to become a clock-watcher during your calls (utilizing the minute minders that many phones provide). You then start to rush your calls when those beeps sound, and using the phone becomes a less enjoyable experience.


Do Those Sick-On Antenna Boosters Really Work?

Absolutely NOT. Even if such a concept could actually work, each antenna would have to be specifically designed for each phone model, in order to properly interact with the existing antennas and shielding. Since these devices are the same for all phones, we know they are pulling our legs even before we apply simple antenna design theory to them. Your best bet is to save your money, and use it for something more worthwhile (like buying a delicious candy bar).


What is the System Access Fee and is it Government Mandated?

Many people are confused about the "System Access Fee" charged by Canadian cellular and PCS providers. Some of them call it a "License Fee", but it's the same thing. Rather than answering this question myself, I am including an Industry Canada document on the subject:

Last Revised: 2/5/2001
Document Number: LDUD-4K5LWL
Document Status: External
Annual Service Fees for Cellular Telephones - Spectrum Management

Who sets the annual service fees for cellular telephones?

Cellular and personal communications services (PCS) carriers are subject to federal license fees prescribed by regulation. Certain cellular and PCS carriers have decided to pass this cost on to their subscribers along with other costs in the form of an annual or monthly fee. Representatives of the carriers, when asked by their subscribers what this fee is, have referred to it as a "system access fee," "government tax" or "license fee."

Company representatives may incorrectly explain that this is a license fee collected on behalf of the federal government and that it is paid to either Industry Canada or the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Industry Canada has very little control over the methods carriers choose to distribute their costs for billing purposes. It is quite conceivable that the cost elements that make up this fee go beyond the fees the CRTC and Industry Canada charge and include such additional costs as radio equipment and site acquisitions and amortization.

For its part, Industry Canada has licensed four competitive carriers to provide mobile radiotelephone services. Subscribers should, as with any other consumer purchase, seek to obtain the best value, as the market will ultimately dictate what carriers can charge.


Why doesn't my phone get the Predicted Talk and Standby Times?

Predicting talk and standby times on a phone is a tricky business, and it's rather akin to predicting the mileage you'll get on your brand new car. Did you ever notice how the mileage stickers have disclaimers that say something like "you mileage may vary"? This is because the way you drive your car has a strong influence on mileage. Hard driving will result in lower gas mileage.

In the case of a cell phone, it isn't so much how you use it, but where you use it. Let's examine the effects of battery life on talk time and standby time individually, beginning with standby time.

Digital phones have markedly better standby times than their older analog brothers because the manufacturers employ a technique called "sleep mode", where the phone literally shuts down almost everything for the vast majority of the time, including its receiver. However, in order to receive a phone call, it still needs to turn the receiver on occasionally to check. It does so by powering up the receiver only about 5% of the time, at carefully timed intervals.

However, the phone must sometimes talk with the network to tell it that it has moved. When a phone remains stationary it may never have to transmit information to the network. A phone that moves around a lot will probably be re-registering with the network quite frequently. All those short transmissions to the network take their toll on the battery life. So, a moving phone will get markedly less standby time than a stationary phone. Most manufacturers' claims of standby time are based on a stationary reference.

When it comes to talk time however, there is only one criteria that matters: transmit power. Fortunately, all modern cell phone technologies adjust the power output of your phone so that it only puts out the minimum amount of power necessary. In CDMA systems, this is absolutely necessary for the smooth operation of the network. The lower your output power, the less energy is consumed from the battery.

A phone that is used in a stationary location very close to a site might even be able to get talk times that exceed the manufacturers claims by a factor of 2 or 3! A phone that is used constantly at the fringes of coverage (or in a weak signal area inside a building) will be transmitting at full power, and it might not even get close to the manufacturer's claims. For talk times most manufacturers test based on relatively low transmitter outputs, but rarely with the phone transmitting at it absolute minimum.

So, with all these variables involved it is a fairly good bet that your talk and standby times will not match the claims made by manufactures. In fact, they might not even match your friends with the same phone, or even your own times from one week to the next. It depends upon where the phone is used, how much it moves around, and how close the nearest sites are (on average) during conversations.


How do I activated Field Test Mode on my Mitsubishi G310

Unlike the Nokia GSM models, you do not need any special hardware to do this. Just press and hold the asterisk key, and then press 4, 3, 2, and 9. To turn the mode off, repeat this operation. Unfortunately, the Field Test Mode on the G310 is rather disruptive, and it's difficult to use the phone to make calls or read text messages. You can receive calls without any difficulty, but you probably won't be able to see the ID of the caller before you answer. You also won't be able to adjust the volume.


What is the Range of a Single Cell Site?

Many people have looked at my maps and wondered how far a single site is able to operate. The answer to this question is more complex than I suspect they were imagining. However, the short answer is "it depends". In an area where there are many sites, the range of a single one is usually limited by the distance to the next. Providers don't want too much overlap between sites, otherwise they will suffer from high levels of interference.

This is rather like the age-old question "how long should a man's leg be?" The answer is simple: it should be long enough to reach from his body to the floor. In a similar way, the range of a cell site should be great enough to extend to the area covered by the next site. When sites are closely-spaced, the range of a site is short. When sites are far a field, the range of a site is rather long.

That brings us to the obvious question: what is the maximum range of a site? This too will vary upon circumstances, such as the height of the site, the terrain surrounding the site, and the weather. Some technologies, such as GSM, have a fixed maximum range of 35 km, which is imposed by technical limitations. CDMA and iDEN have no built-in limit, but the real limiting factor is really the ability for your feeble little cellphone to transmit back to the site. As a gross estimate, based on a tall site and flat terrain, it is possible to get between 50 and 70 kilometers. When the terrain is hilly, the maximum distance can vary from as little as 5 to 10 km to about 40 km.


Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

I strongly considered leaving this question off the list, since I can't honestly give you a straight answer. Much research has been done to investigate possible links between RF and cancer, but no studies have yet found one. Many people choose to ignore these studies, because most of them are funded by cell phone companies. They obviously have a vested interest in keeping people happy with their phones, but to suggest that they would deliberately lie to cover up the truth is a classic conspiracy theory if I ever heard one.

About the only thing we know for sure about RF exposure is that it can cause localized heating. However, if slight heating of body tissue was dangerous, then we would be putting ourselves at risk any time we exerted ourselves physically, or stood around outside in the summer. To some sensitive individuals it possible that localized heating does cause headaches and other transient maladies, but that doesn't mean they are going to die prematurely of brain cancer.

I personally have not scaled down my use of cell phones as a result of these warnings. Until such time as research can prove a positive link between RF and cancer, I do not plan to change my behavior, and you shouldn't either. If we jumped every time someone comes up with a scare that research has yet to disprove, then we would spend our entire miserable lives cowering in fear.


Can I Use my Digital Phone on a Different Network?

The short answer to this question is No. First of all, there are 4 different technologies in use, and on 3 different sets of frequencies. For one phone to physically work on a different network that network must operate with the correct technology and on the correct frequency. However, this does occur in some instances. Both Bell Mobility PCS and Telus PCS use 1900 MHz CDMA, and both Fido and Rogers use 1900 MHz GSM. Even in these cases however, you cannot use your phone on the other network (usually).

Why is this so? Cell phone companies sell phones for extremely low prices to attract customers. They cover the difference in the cost to the consumer, and what they pay the manufacturer, by means of a subsidy. Since they foot for the bill for a large chunk of the phone's cost they certainly don't want you running off to the competition with it. After all, they aren't about to subsidize the cost of a phone for which someone else is making all the money.

In some instances, you can get your hands on unlocked phones. Fido sold quite a few Nokia 6190 phones back in 1997 that did not have SIM Locks on them. This made it possible to use those phones on any GSM provider in North America. At first, this didn't really matter much to Fido, since they were the only GSM provider in Canada. However, it now has competition from Rogers, and the likelihood of people "jumping ship" is much higher.

It is possible to get GSM phones unlocked. Once they are unlocked you can simply pop in a SIM from any provider that works on a frequency band supported by the phone. In the case of CDMA phones however, both Canadian CDMA providers have strict policies not to activate any phone they didn't sell. In the case of CDMA phones therefore, there is virtually no hope that you'll ever be able to bring a phone from off-network.

Some people feel cheated by this arrangement, but it is highly unlikely this will change in the near future. People simply do not want to pay $500 to $800 for a cellular phone, and so long as the providers subsidize these prices to the tune of hundreds of dollar per subscriber, there is just no incentive to change. Are you willing to pay an extra $300 or $400 for your next phone just so you can switch carriers later? I thought not. Besides, isn't that more than the cost of a new subsidized phone from the competition?


What's the difference between a "Soft Handoff" and a "Hard Handoff"?

Let's begin by defining the term "Handoff" first. In any mobile phone conversation your call is passed from one cell to another in order to keep the signal strong. This process of handing the call from one cell to another is called a handoff (or handover in some countries). It is how this transfer takes place that defines the difference between soft and hard.

In all non-CDMA systems, including analog, IS-136, GSM, and iDEN, the handoff process is an all-or-nothing affair. At some point in time the switch instructs the phone to change from one cell to another. The phone does this by terminating its connection with the old cell and then establishing a connection with the new cell. The term "hard" comes from the sharp-edged nature of this process.

In a CDMA system, all cells and all callers operate on the same frequency. Each conversation is distinguished from the next by the encoding sequence used to modulate the bits onto the wide carrier. The receiver in each CDMA phone has the ability to demodulate multiple code sequences at the same time. These receiver elements are likened to the tines of a fork, and the unit is called a Rake Receiver.

The CDMA switch chooses multiple cells in your general vicinity and it broadcasts a copy of your conversation on each. Your phone assigns each of these cells to one of the tines in its Rake Receiver. The phone may now choose any of these tines, and it may also combine the output of two or more tines to smooth the transition from one cell to another. Because contact with a cell is never broken at any time during this process, the handoff is considered "Soft".

CDMA supporters will tell you that this soft approach has three primary advantages over the hard approach. The first is a much lower incidence of dropped calls during the handoff process. However, considering the low number of dropped calls reported by GSM users, one has to question if this advantage truly exists in practice.

The second advantage is that soft handoffs do not have a detectable impact on the audio. When you use a phone near a cell boundary, handoffs can rapidly occur between one cell and the other. This phenomenon is known as "Thrashing". When trashing occurs on a hard handoff system, the call quality can be severely compromised. In practice, this does seem to work.

The third advantage is that soft handoffs allow a phone to combine the signals from two sites simultaneously. Under very weak signal conditions this can translate to more error-free data recovery than either of the two sites could yield on their own. It's hard to say if this actually works in practice or not. If it does, I would tend to think that the number of cases where it might be advantageous to you are very small.


How Should I Charge my Battery so I get the Longest Life Out of it?

There are three battery technologies in common use these days. Each of these battery technologies has its own unique properties and its own peculiar charging requirements. Here is a summary of those available technologies:

Nickel-Cadmium (NiCad)

This is the oldest of the three technologies, but you will still find quite a few batteries of this type still around. Cadmium is extremely toxic, and so this type of battery has been slated for extinction in the near future. If you have a NiCad batteries, you can expect fairly long service life from them if you treat them with respect. NiCad batteries suffer from a phenomenon known as "The Memory Effect". It received this name because over time the battery seemed to "remember" how long you used it between charges and then wouldn't hold a charge much longer than that. This effect is cause by the build-up of bubbles in the electrolyte as a result of "topping up" the battery.

Topping up the charge on a battery seems to be the way we prefer to treat our rechargeable batteries, but NiCad technology is not particularly happy with this practice. In order to prevent the memory effect from killing your batteries prematurely, you should make a habit of running your battery down COMPLETELY at least once a week. This can be done by leaving the phone on overnight. NiCads thrive on full discharge/recharge cycles.

Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH)

This technology replaced NiCad as the battery-of-choice about 4 or 5 years ago. It provided similar capacity to NiCad, but it did not contain the toxic Cadmium. This new technology promised improved performance and less memory effect. Unfortunately, it did not do away with the memory effect completely. NiMH batteries can withstand many top-ups without suffering from such pronounced memory effect, but in the end they will suffer the same fate as NiCads. For that reason, you should also run NiMH batteries through the occasional full discharge/recharge cycle, but you only have to do this once every 2 or 3 weeks.

Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion)

This is the newest battery technology, which finally does away with the memory effect once-and-for-all. In fact, Li-Ion batteries prefer to be topped up, and their life expectancy will be diminished if you fully discharge them. They also offer more power per unit of weight, so Li-Ion batteries usually lead to smaller and/or lighter cell phones. Their preference for topping up fits well with most people's usage patterns, which makes them an ideal choice.

As I understand it, the downside to Li-Ion technology is a shorter life cycle. However, given how most people treat their batteries, chances are very good that a Li-Ion battery would give longer service life than either of the other technologies. For those of you who treat batteries with respect, and go to the trouble of charging them in a manner that is in keeping with their "needs", then Li-Ion batteries will probably need replacing sooner than NiCad or NiMH batteries.

Li-Ion batteries also have the longest "shelf life". This refers to the length of time the battery will retain its charge without being used. All three of these rechargeable technologies have poor shelf life compared to dry cell batteries, so care should be exercised when putting a phone in a glove compartment for emergency-only use. This is especially true if you do so in the winter, since extremely cold temperatures will severely shorten the shelf life of the battery. If this is how you intend to use your phone, I would strongly recommend keeping a car adapter in the glove compartment with it. Charge the battery every couple of months to ensure it has plenty of usable power when it's needed.


Will you be making maps for other cities in Canada?

Unless someone in these other cities goes out and finds the sites for me, there is nothing I can do. The information used on this site is NOT provided by the carriers, and must be found in person. Unless I can make frequent trips to the cities in question, I can't personally locate sites there. So far, no one has offered to do the necessary footwork in locations such as Montreal, Ottawa, or Vancouver, so it is highly unlike you'll see site maps for these places.


I've heard people say that CDMA is superior to TDMA. Is this true?

First off, you have to stop listening to rhetoric coming from both sides on this issue and look more closely at the claims these people are making. As a subscriber, you care only about which technology delivers the best service possible. Unfortunately, many of the staunch CDMA or TDMA supporters can't see the forest for the trees, and tend to forget this.

Just about all of the claimed superiority of CDMA is at the engineering end of things, and matters only to the service provider. While the sound quality on CDMA differs from the two competing TDMA systems (IS-136 and GSM), there really are no winners or losers here. The most recent updates to the two older TDMA-based technologies provide audio quality that puts them all in a tie for first place. Older versions of TDMA (IS-136 especially) were inferior in sound quality to CDMA, but by-and-large that is a thing of the past.

The real differences in the four technologies lie in their feature sets. In this regard, GSM does have the upper hand, since it provides more features than either IS-136, iDEN, or CDMA. This may change in the future. CDMA, on the other hand, has a slight advantage if interference is a big concern with you. Due to the manner in which the data is spread onto a wide band channel, CDMA phones produce very little interference (even to poorly shielded electronic equipment).

But don't the engineering issues eventually affect the consumer? Yes they do, up to a point. CDMA has the greatest "spectral efficiency", which means it can accommodate more users per Mhz or bandwidth. CDMA providers try to paint a picture of the future where their networks will continue to work as if nothing has happened, while all the TDMA networks will crumble under the sheer weight of their subscriber base. Well yes and no. The capacity of digital systems is extremely high, and whether we ever do get to a stage where the number of subscribers increases to a point where ONLY CDMA can survive is both questionable, and far off in the future. You are buying a PCS phone for use NOW, not 3 or 4 years down the line. My suggestion is to ignore the doomsayers and take comfort in knowing that you can always switch service providers in the future if you become dissatisfied with your original choice.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see CDMA vs TDMA.


Is in-building coverage about the same for all four technologies?

Theoretically, CDMA has the best in-building coverage due to a greater tolerance of weak signals. In practice, you will probably be able to use a CDMA phone A LITTLE DEEPER inside a building than with GSM, IS-136, or iDEN, but there is a far more important factor at work here.

Networks can provide excellent in-building coverage by means of indoor picocells (or enhancers). Most of the Toronto PCS providers have coverage in Toronto's underground concourses (known as the PATH system) using these picocells. In the absence of such cells however, the ability to penetrate a building is highly dependent upon the proximity of the closest site. You can check my maps to see how close a site is to the building you wish to use your phone in.

Statistically speaking, Rogers (who has the most sites) should provide in-building coverage in more places than Mike (who has the least). However, a secondary factor plays a part here too. Because of the huge number of sites Rogers have, they must greatly reduce the range of each site to avoid interference. This means you must be much closer to one of their sites to get descent in-building signals. Mike can keep the output of their sites relatively high, and you can be further away and still get good in-building coverage.

CDMA systems have one peculiarity that does not affect GSM, IS-136, or iDEN. As the number of subscribers using a particular site goes up, the range of that site goes down. This is difficult to explain without getting into the technical details of CDMA systems. The upshot of this is that what seemed like good in-building coverage one day, may not be so good the next. In-building coverage would suffer the most during rush hour.

The bottom line is: All service providers have their good buildings and their bad buildings. The closer the site is to the building, the better the coverage. No one technology is inherently much better than another, so don't let misinformed souls lead down the garden path on this one.


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