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Testing cell networks across America: Part One

Our wireless testing road warrior, OpenSignal's Gabe Scelta, is taking the measure of America's major cellular networks in 20 cities.

Why am I over-caffeinated you might ask? Because I'm working with OpenSignal and TechHive to collect some standardized data across the U.S. of A. Part of that data collection is finding out how well different carriers work in all the places you might use your phone, including inside buildings.

And what better place to pop inside to run some tests for a minute than your local coffee shop? I just started collecting data a few days ago, but so far, it's taken me to at least ten different Starbucks locations in San Francisco (as you may have suspected, they all look the same, with the fascinating exception of the large-unstealable-item-that-the-restroom-key-is-attached-to).

I'm taking along eight phones, four iphones and four android devices, each with service from one of the four major US carriers.

I've already found out that standing around downtown with a bunch of phones in a portfolio will invariably be met with generous and not-so-generous offers of cash. I'm guessing that if you've ever had a phone lost or stolen, this is probably how it found its next home. I won't single out a specific city for this, because it has happened literally in every downtown stop of every city so far. I've also come across a few shop owners who wanted to be reassured that I was not there to do some kind of strangely conspicuous surveillance. I can only wonder about what is there to be surveilled.

At each testing location I'm using a modified OpenSignal app to collect all the data we can about things like signal strength, tower location, and upload and download speeds.

Aside from the fact that I find this raw data totally fascinating, it's important for OpenSignal to have a baseline for the kind of data we're crowdsourcing as well. Because I'm using the same devices in each area and tightly restricting any other variables, we can get the kind of unbiased scientific information that can be used to check the crowdsourced information as well as truly quantify claims like "best nationwide network" and "best 4G coverage" that marketing departments tend to toss around. We'll also be comparing it to similar data collected in previous years to see what has changed.

In the coming weeks I will be in about 18 more cities, and many, many more coffee shops. As much as I appreciate the amazingly consistent Starbucks atmosphere, I appreciate a bit of variation. This week I'll be in San DiegoLos Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Are there local cafes you like? Tell me, dear reader, where I should go.

You can also see where I am by following me on Facebook (OpenSignal Gabe), FourSquare (OpenSignal) where I'll be checking in periodically.


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