D.C.'s 'worst' cell phone ranking smells like hot air

J.D. Power survey measured complaints, not service; Washington is good at both

The Washington, D.C., area gets onto a lot of those “worst” lists that newspapers and magazines love to create, and deservedly so for the most part. The area often is listed second behind Los Angeles for bad traffic, and somewhere around fifth for violent crime behind places like Detroit.

And don’t get me started on cost of living. We may not be New York or Hong Kong, but we give them a run for their (increasingly less valuable) money.

But this week we learned that, according to a J.D. Power and Associates survey, the Washington-Baltimore metro area is dead last among the nation’s top 27 metropolitan areas in cell phone service across all carriers.


The results of the survey were reported in The Washington Examiner newspaper and, though I don’t fault the paper for printing the news, I find the survey to be completely ridiculous.

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Years ago, I used to run around to a bunch of locations inside and way outside Washington, toting cell phones from every network. I did this every year for The Washington Post, back when it actually had a robust technology section. So I know a thing or two about networks and coverage.

And based on my years of tests, the D.C. area has really good cell phone coverage, and that is true across almost every network. The landscape of the area has a lot to do with this, actually. It’s very flat around here and, even in the heart of the city, there are no super-tall skyscraper buildings to block out signals. When the trees are filled with leaves, it can decrease the quality of the service, but no more than anywhere else.

Couple all that with a lot of cell towers and you have pretty good coverage wherever you are around D.C. In fact, when I’ve traveled to other cities such as Chicago, Boston or L.A., the level of coverage decreases.

I think the biggest problem with the Power survey is that it relied on customers to file complaints about their service, and then recorded how many people complained over a six-month period. In D.C., there were 813 participants, and 16 out of every 100 complained about some aspect of their cellular service.

But that does not really say anything, other than the fact that people in this area like to complain about stuff. Perhaps J.D. Power should have said that D.C. has the loudest complainers, something those of you who live here would probably agree with. In a town full of lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, media members and other People Who Know People, suffering in silence isn’t often on the agenda.

The other thing about the survey is that it didn’t even attempt to explain why the coverage around D.C. was allegedly so poor. In fact, when the Examiner asked J.D. Power's representatives about it, they had no answer. How could they if they were relying on nonprofessional reviewers to complain about their service?

The paper talked to one person who said he had trouble making calls from inside buildings in D.C., and it is true that some buildings in town are hard to call to or from. So what does that mean, that buildings in Chicago or L.A. don’t block signals, too?

It sounds like most of the complaints about service were based on user error as much as anything else. You can’t use your cell phone from the middle of your office in D.C.? Well, guess what, if you took that same building and plopped it down in the middle of Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, which the survey said had the best service, your call still wouldn’t go through. My guess is that the cities with fewer complaints simply have less whiny people.

J.D. Power did the best it could using an army of nontechnical, nonprofessional reviewers. But the results are questionable at best. To do real testing takes a very long time and a very tight testing methodology and requires every cell phone service to go through the same battery of tests in each city.

And having done just that for many years in just one city, I don’t envy the people who have to do it across the country. But that’s the only way you can really crown an area as the best or worst when it comes to cellular service.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Thu, Apr 28, 2011

Like in real estate, it's location, location, location. Didn't anyone read the 3rd paragraph of the article? "...the Washington-__Baltimore__ metro area is dead last ... ." That covers a lot more area than DC itself or DC even plus Arlington and Alexandria. I someteimes have problems on the Baltimore Beltway in Woodlawn at rush hour getting Google Maps on my Crackberry (for traffic info) because it can't find a data connection on ATT. At home, between Annapolis and Odenton, I'm at the bottom of a hill next to a river. All cell service cuts out in places in the shadow of the hill. Before my new neighbor moved in, I had better connection at home with ATT (personal phone) than Verizon (work phone). My new neighbor works for Verizon, installng FiOS, and because his Verizon cell service was so bad he bought a femto cell and hooked it up to his FiOS Internet connection. Now my Verizon phone will pickup on his femto cell and get through. At work the OpDiv uses Verizon and so has repeaters throughout the building. People with Verizon phones have service everywhere, but ATT only comes through on the top floors or in the links between the buildings of the complex.

Tue, Apr 26, 2011 Richard Ordowich Princeton NJ

There are two measures to quality of service; technical and perceptual. I am sure that an extensive studies measuring signal strength, frequency use etc. could be done which would measure the technical quality but if consumers perceive that the quality of service is inadequate, that is what companies need to address. A cell phone maybe be technically superior for making calls but if I don’t like the color or the feel of the phone, that is my perception of quality. I may consider my cell phone a fashion accessory!
Not sure how you measure whininess?

Wed, Apr 6, 2011 Hazelnut Macchiato

It's all of those AT&T users gripping which are dragging the DC metro scores down... :)

Tue, Mar 29, 2011

well said RayW! I was one of the 24/7 that woke up to realize if I had to be available 24/7 then I really needed to hire someone better than me to manage the work.

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 DP Silver Spring, MD

John, I am afraid your "testing" was likely less scientific and less statistically significant than the JD Powers approach (no slouch in such work). Using user complaints is a time-tested method, so I assume you think Consumer Reports is a rag. What makes your "tests" worse is that they are only for DC. JD Powers COMPARED results from 27 cities. You had, at best, some comparative data for DC (but insufficient), anecdotal evidence from other places, and unsubstantiated declarations (eg., DC building in Cincy). Clean up your own act first before you complain about others.

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