RIT develops cellular quality app

Students and professors at Rochester Institute of Technology have come up with a free mobile phone app that will allow you to determine the quality—speed and reliability—of your mobile phone signal at any location.

For individual consumers of the four major carriers, the information provided by the RIT Cellular Metrics app could be useful for deciding on whether to switch phone service carriers, or whether to wait to watch a movie on the device until the viewer is in a location with a higher-quality signal.

But the application has far-ranging additional uses, including the placement of emergency personnel and signal-boosting equipment during a crisis, such as a forest fire. Or, consumers may use the information to lobby carriers to expand services in some areas.

“We developed a custom app because we wanted to know exactly which carrier—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile—had the fastest connection speed at a given location, not just which had faster speed or better coverage on a regional level,” said Clark G. Hochgraf, associate professor of electrical engineering technology. “What we found was quite surprising. The download speeds for two carriers can be very different at one location. And the download speed for the same carrier can vary greatly when you move as little as a few hundred feet away.”

Businesses that are reliant on cellphone technology also may find this product particularly attractive as it can help guide cellphone usage or even location of setting up business. Just as a business needs decent roads and sidewalks to bring in customers, so it may need a good cellular highway.

“Your small business may not be able to do business because someone is cutting off your signal,” Hochgraf said.

And, as net neutrality lifts, consumers becoming knowledgeable about the strength of their signals will be even more important, said Joseph “Yossi” Nygate, associate professor of electrical, computer & telecommunications (ECT) engineering technology.

“Once net neutrality is removed, they need to know what is the bandwidth you’re able to get,” he said. Bandwidth can be affected by several factors, including the quality of the underlying network and the number of people using the cell you’re communicating on at the same time.

The app developers say this is the first time information on signal quality is available to consumers in such detail. Carriers have this information but it’s generally not available to the public. Said Mark J. Indelicato, associate professor of ECT engineering technology, “The metrics we have are more specific as far as a geographic location and more accurate as far as the up- and download speeds.”

This accuracy will be key for emergency responders who need both a clear signal and a fast upload and download speed to transmit visuals and other data while making decisions. “You don’t want to be blocked from doing that and you want it to happen very quickly,” Indelicato said.

The information could be even more fundamentally important in a crisis situation.

“The emergency responders aren’t going to be sent into an area unless they can communicate,” said William P. Johnson, professor and graduate program director of ECT Engineering Technology.

Coverage maps advertised by cellphone carriers “mean nothing,” said Indelicato said. He and his colleagues agreed the maps show that it’s possible to get a signal in those areas, but say nothing about quality and consistency of the signal. In short, you won’t know whether you can do more than carry on a phone conversation at those locations or whether the signal varies by time of day or usage. Using crowd-sourced information, RIT Cellular Metrics should be able to answer all those questions.

Green squares show higher quality cell signal on RIT Cellular Metrics app.
Green squares show higher quality cell signal on RIT Cellular Metrics app.

“Ours is not only location-based, it’s time based,” Nygate said. And it provides comparative information on the other major carriers. Besides Nygate, Johnson, Indelicato and Hochgraf, assistant professor Miguel Bazdresch also worked on developing the app.

RIT Cellular Metrics app is currently available for Android devices, but the team—with students doing much of the work in classes—is working on an iOS version that would work on Apple products, too. They’re also hoping to make the app more detailed as they gather more users.

The app gets its information by checking signal strength on users’ phones. The app is programmed to check at least twice a day, but users can allow it to check more often. The software is designed to provide the information to the network of app users without identifying individual users.

“Our app doesn’t collect any personal information such as SIM card identity or type of phone, unlike other apps on the market,” Hochgraf said. “We wanted people to be able to make their own measurements and see the coverage maps without having to worry about their privacy.”

Nygate said the app gives consumers some of the same information they have come to expect from landline phones or cable-provided internet service.

“When you get internet service at the house, they commit to bandwidth and quality of service.” With mobile service, Nygate said, “It’s a completely different world.”  Mobile customers have agreed “I’m willing to give up quality for mobility,” Nygate said. “I think that time has passed.”

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