Wireless customers from Norterra to New River are struggling with poor cell phone reception, garbled and dropped calls, inability to send text messages and what many describe as a recent, rapid decline in wireless coverage. In an informal survey by In&Out Publications, Verizon Wireless got particularly bad marks, but no major carrier escaped criticism.
Via Facebook and newsletters, residents were asked to name their carrier, describe performance and note locations. As of this writing, 130 people have responded.
- 23 percent called coverage awful, terrible or horrible.
- 27 percent told of poor coverage inside their homes.
Spots cited for poor service by multiple respondents included Fireside at Norterra, Arroyo Norte subdivision at the northern fringe of Phoenix, Anthem Country Club and a big swath of Anthem’s west side from Walmart to the Post Office. By far the most-cited problem area: a broad region around the Daisy Mountain Drive exit off I-17 over to the Fry’s grocery store in Anthem.
“I sometimes feel like I need to stand on one leg, one arm up holding a metal rod while facing North by Southwest with my head at a certain angle just to get two bars.”
—Verizon customer Leland Scott Marboe
What’s Going On?
Several people echoed the theme raised by Amber Hinderliter:
Verizon coverage “was great up here until a few months ago,” the Anthem resident said. “Now we can’t even use [it] at our house or driving around most of our normal routine areas.” Verizon suggested she use Wi-Fi for calling from home. “Why am I paying for cell service?” she wondered, “and how about when I am driving around?”
Some caveats: It is not known to what extent the number of comments on a carrier reflect, in part, its volume of customers. Nor is the intensity of wireless activity for each respondent known. It’s also possible a model of phone may play a role in each person’s experience.
But the decline in service coincides with an explosion of demand for wireless data—up 238 percent from 2014 to 2016 in the United States, according to the industry analyst CTIA. In that period, the average time spent using apps or the web (including watching video) nearly doubled to 2.3 hours per person, per day. Data demand is expected to double again this year versus 2016.
“If you have the same amount of cell towers and you’re now doubling the usage, everyone is going to slow down,” said James Nguyen, a spokesperson for Wilson Amplifiers, which makes products that amplify cell signals inside a home or office.
We Hear You Now
As one example of outdated infrastructure, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint each have antennas atop ball-field light poles in Anthem Community Park, under agreements that date back to when the town was under construction.
In 2011, Anthem Community Council considered a proposal to install wireless antennas at St. Rose Church in Anthem. “But too many pitched a fit,” resident Sheri Metoyer pointed out. “You can’t have what you want without accepting what is required.”
Verizon last year acknowledged service problems in the area, and said it planned to have a new tower operational in early 2018 at EPCOR’s water treatment facility on Anthem east side [See “New Verizon Cell Tower,” In&Out, March 9, 2017].
“The tower is still on our schedule,” said Jeannine Brew, a spokesperson at Verizon’s regional office in Irving, Texas. But the company has no time estimate for completion.
“Verizon has been working diligently to add new sites and technologies which will provide more capacity and improve coverage in Northern Phoenix,” Brew told In&Out. “This process includes working with building owners, property managers and government entities, all of whom are interested in ensuring the best experience for residents. We’re working as quickly as the process will allow.”
AT&T has invested $425 million in its Phoenix wireless and wired networks the past three years, said Scott Huscher, spokesperson for the company’s Southwest region. “This year, we plan to make additional upgrades in the area, including adding capacity to cell sites,” Huscher said. He encouraged any customer with issues to call customer service.
Sprint plans to “densify” its network nationwide “to keep pace with the growing demand for data and provide customers with more capacity and faster data speeds particularly in high-traffic locations,” said company spokesperson John Votava. Sprint also plans infrastructure upgrades, including new towers in North Phoenix, but details are confidential, Votava said.
T-Mobile made upgrades in Anthem in late 2017 to make signals travel farther, through buildings better, and to improve voice quality, the company said in a statement provided to In&Out. Similar improvements are planned “along I-17 from Carefree Highway toward New River.” The company plans to “improve coverage and capacity to the Happy Valley shopping district and the Norterra community this year.”
Options: Switch or Move
Frustrated with Verizon and having ditched his landline, Roger Yensen moved a few months ago from Anthem to Desert Hills, and things got better. “One of the most important factors in finding a new home was the cell coverage,” he said. “The best feature in our new home is LTE coverage.”
Indeed, carrier performance varies notably by location.
PC Magazine found Verizon has the fastest upload and download speeds in the Valley, but the tests were done in Chandler, Mesa and Scottsdale. In tests in six cities (not including Phoenix) the review site Tom’s Guide named Verizon the overall winner. But Verizon’s download speeds varied from 19 Megabits per second in Los Angeles to 85 in Chicago.
Interestingly, three of four respondents had glowing praise for Cricket Wireless, which runs on AT&T’s network. “Cricket has been great,” said Kala Basham, who lives in Sonoran Foothills and said she uses her phone frequently in Prescott, downtown Phoenix and other Valley cities.
Cricket is pitched as a cheaper alternative but it throttles data download speeds.
Thomas Ott, an Anthem resident, said his Cricket service had become spotty over the past two years. “Cricket’s service is not the same as AT&T,” he said. “But, at $35/month, including all taxes, a reduction in the quality of service is not a surprise.”
Other stories in this Special Report
What to Do? A Mix of Fixes
There are solutions short of switching carriers or moving to a new home, including adjusting phone settings or installing in-home signal boosters. But customers report mixed results and shortcomings with the methods.
5G to the Rescue? What it is and When We’ll Get Some
While 5G promises to be up to 100 times faster than 4G, and Arizona leads the way on preparing for it, there are significant hurdles to deployment.
See what residents all along the I-17 corridor in North Phoenix say about their wireless coverage, and join the conversation on Facebook.