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EVDOinfo Tip of the Week #29: Locating Cell Towers (It's Tough...)

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Thursday, 19 November 2009

tip of the week by evdoinfo.com

 

EVDOinfo.com has long been your source for tips, tricks, hacks and suggestions for getting the most out of your EVDO service, and each week we will be highlighting a particularly interesting or popular topic in the "Tip of the Week" feature. To suggest future Tips of the Week, contact us at suggestions@evdoinfo.com or post your suggestions in the EVDO Forums.

 


Locating Cell Towers - a "Non-Tip" Tip of the Week

Since the inception of our Tip of the Week series back in April, we have been wanting to post a tip that would help users locate the cellular towers serving them. Knowing where the cell tower is located is very important for users considering using directional antennas (like Yagis and grid antennas, or amps that come with directional receiving antennas like the Wilson SignalBoost DT) as those antennas must be pointed accurately in the direction of the tower to be effective. It's a question we hear often at 3Gstore and on the EVDOForums: "how do I find out where the tower is?" Many customers are surprised that there is NOT an easy answer to that question! There is no publicly available database, no magical mapping tool - it's not even as simple as asking the provider themselves. Unfortunately, while we would love to offer a simple solution, this Tip of the Week is to help you save time and frustration and explain why locating a cell tower is NOT an easy process.

The Usual Suggestions and Why They Aren't Reliable: If you do a Google search for something like "locate my cell tower" or post something similar on a forum, you're likely to get one of a few common suggestions. Here's a quick list of the most common "tower locating tips", and why they DON'T work reliably:

  • "Just ask your provider!" Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately, for some reason, providers do NOT typically give out this information, even when pressed. Some users have had success in getting tower location information from their provider, but the information given by one rep is likely to be different from the information another rep gives if you call back ten minutes later. We have found that even if a representative gives you a location of a tower, that doesn't necessarily mean it is the closest tower to you - which is what you're looking for, of course! The "ask the provider" tactic simply does not produce consistently reliable results.
  • "I can SEE a tower (or a friend/google search/etc pointed one out to me) - that must be my tower!" Nope. Even if you can see a cell tower, that does NOT mean that YOUR carrier broadcasts from that tower - or, again, if it's the closest tower to you.
  • "Use a tool like antennasearch.com to see a map of the towers in your area!" This is one that SOUNDS like a perfect solution - tools like antennasearch.com allow you to enter you address, and then a map is displayed with all the towers in your neighborhood. Perfect, right? If you've ever tried using this tool, you'd know why this method doesn't work well. Yes, you'll get a list of all the towers in your area, but that doesn't tell you much! A search for towers near a randomly chosen semi-rural address turned up 116 tower locations and 503 antenna locations in a 4-mile radius - what is a person supposed to do with that?! And reading the list of the locations isn't any help, as only a few are registered to the provider themselves - most of the towers are registered to companies with names like "Tower Co", and there is no way of knowing whether your provider broadcasts from that location or not.
Believe us when we say that we wish those seemingly obvious tips DID work - but there simply isn't an easy way to find your tower.

So what DOES work? How can I find my tower? Obviously, if you considering a directional antenna solution, you DO need to find your tower. Unfortunately, it's not going to be easy... the only way to really locate your tower is to invest some time, hit the bricks, and turn yourself into a signal-strength detective for the day. First, find out where to view your RSSI for your cell phone or aircard (see this article for more info on RSSI), then take your cell phone or laptop with datacard and start walking or driving. Remember that for RSSI, closer to zero is better - as you get closer to the tower, your RSSI will go down (for example, if the RSSI at your house is -98dbm, you'll know you're getting closer to the tower when it goes to -90, then -85, then -80, etc etc). If you're completely clueless about which direction the tower may be in, try searching for your address on your carrier's coverage map (http://3gstore.com/coverage); the map should at least help you see the general direction of where stronger coverage is. Sprint users can try this trick: search for your address at the coverage map, and select the "voice" option (even if you're looking for data coverage) - the dark green areas are likely to be the location of the towers.

If you've already got a directional antenna, then good old fashioned trial-and-error may be your best bet: connect the antenna to your aircard and note the RSSI; then tweak the antenna a few degrees at a time, noting the RSSI each time (keep in mind that to get a good RSSI reading, your device should actually be moving data when the reading is taken. We recommend doing a speedtest at http://speedtest.net and recording those speeds with the corresponding RSSI value for your comparisons.)

Is driving all over town looking for cell towers or tweaking a Yagi antenna for an hour pleasant? No - but it's a lot more reliable than begging your provider for information or using a tool like antennasearch.com, and if you're using a directional antenna, you want reliable results - not easy ones.


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Last Updated ( Thursday, 04 March 2010 )
 
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