We Need A National Wireless Standard For Cell Phone Bars

Wireless phone network

Everyone does it when they need to make a call on a cell phone. Looking down at the signal bars or dots on the phone is such a habit forming function, that most people have come to (somewhat) trust the signal strength “bars” their carrier is displaying to them. That’s right, often your carrier displays the signal strength on your smartphone.

The truth is that the cell phone bars in the corner of your phone aren’t really correlated to much of anything, and those bars have changed over the years to match what operating system designers and carriers think is a good user experience. Apple’s iOS has its own criteria for how many bars to show, while Android’s bars depend on what carrier you are with, and they all mean very different things.

Having full bars does not necessarily mean you will be able to place a call or use data reliably, which can be misleading. That is why we need a signal measurement standard in the wireless industry. Bars are primarily a measure of the over-the-air signal. That means they’re a measure of “Signal to Interference Plus Noise Ratio” (SINR), “Reference Signal Received Quality” (RSRQ), and “Reference Signals Received Power” (RSRP).

Essentially, the bars on your phone indicate a mix of signal strength and signal quality.

Even if you have great signal strength and quality, there are still a host of other issues that might be happening that interfere with you making a call. For example, the tower might not have a fast enough connection to serve all of its users, throttling your data speeds. Even more granular types for interference might occur and can cause various problems: for example, download speeds might be fine, but upload speeds might be terrible.

The result of all of these types of issues are that signal bars are really confusing. They aren’t concertely tied to any objective measures. How could this be solved

Think about modern networks. Everything is about data rates, because that’s predominantly what people use and are concerned with. Even voice calls are transmitted as data – most calls today are “Voice over LTE” – using the same network that transmits data.

If the large majority of the traffic on a network is data, then an objective measure of data speed and latency would be a good way to measure bars.

The Measurement Lab, a partnership between New America’s Open Technology Institute, Google Open Source Research, and Pricenton’s PlanetLab has developed various tests for measuring the data connection rate of devices, and even an open source tool called MobilePerf.

Using MobilePerf’s standard or something like it to measure data rates to would serve as a great alternative standard for cell phone bars.

A new standard might have the following ratings for 4G LTE and 5G bars:

  • No connectivity = 0 bars
  • Bottom 10th percentile of data rates = 1 bar
  • 10th to 35th percentile of data rates = 2 bars
  • 35th to 65th percentile of data rates = 3 bars
  • 65th to 90th percentile of data rates = 4 bars
  • 90th+ percentile = 5 bars

Calibration is important here; bars need to change as wireless networks speed up. In order to recalibrate, results data could be aggregated and updated speeds published each year. Android and iOS could combine updates to recalibrate user’s bars as well.

Doing this would involve running a lot of speed tests, but mini-tests can be zero-rated,quite accurate, and use minimal bandwidth, adding only limited extra traffic to the macro networks. And they’d only need to be rerun if cell signal changes, not when users are in the same location.

Apple and Google should be motivated to move towards a signal bar standard because they want cell service for their customers to be as good possible. And pressure from them on carriers to improve their networks would be a strong incentive for a more competitive cellular marketplace.

A better standard for bars would be a huge win for consumers. For example, you’d know for sure if you’re getting 4 bars that you’d get a certain data rate. This would force carriers to either provide more distributed antenna systems in buildings where service is lacking, or to improve coverage and quality over all.

The FCC could also get involved in setting these rules. Doing so would help an industry that suffers from misinformation and inconsistency win consumer trust back. And it would stop carriers from manipulating the number of bars shown on devices in order to make it appear that their networks are better than they actually are.