Ask Maggie: On smartphone battery life and rural wireless broadband

This week's Ask Maggie answers reader questions about how dual-core processors affect smartphone battery life, how to use an unlocked BlackBerry, and whether wireless broadband will ever come to rural America.

Have you ever noticed that your old flip phone held its charge for days, even weeks sometimes, but a half-hour spent surfing the Web or watching a video on your new smartphone and the battery is dead?

Ask Maggie

You aren't alone. As cell phones get more sophisticated, all those bells and whistles come at the cost of heavy power consumption. Sure, we all like the convenience of hitting Google on the go or getting turn-by-turn navigation on our smartphones, but when the battery life is drained almost instantaneously, those new features become a drag.

In this week's Ask Maggie I answer one reader's question about how the new speedy dual-core processors in smartphones will affect battery life. I also explain how to take an unlocked BlackBerry to a new carrier, and offer some thoughts on whether wireless broadband will ever come to rural America.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Battery Life

Hi Maggie,

Verizon Wireless just announced some cool new phones at the Consumer Electronics Show this week for its 4G network, including the Motorola Droid Bionic that has a dual-core processor. I would like to know how these new dual processors will affect battery life on the phone. All the power is good to have but ONLY if you have the battery life to support it. I think most people would rather have the cell phone function all day (and more) with less power than a highly powered device that gets only a couple of hours of battery life.

Thank you for your time,

Stan

Dear Stan,

The move to dual-core processors will make mobile devices significantly more powerful than they can be if they use a only single-core processor. But the challenge for chip manufacturers and device makers is balancing the more powerful hardware with battery life concerns.

Crappy battery life is a major issue for many smartphones already. Most users are lucky if they can get a full day's use out of a single charge on their smartphones. As so-called "super phones" become more sophisticated, they will require higher-power processors, which consume more power.

Unfortunately, battery technology has struggled to keep pace with demand for all the new features that are being added to smartphones. So it's very likely battery life will suffer on phones using more sophisticated dual-core processors, at least in the early days.

The problem is compounded for the Droid Bionic , because it also operates over Verizon's new 4G LTE network. This is a challenge for battery life because the phone's battery has to support several radios in a single device. In addition to supporting a Wi-Fi radio and a 3G radio, now it has to accommodate a 4G radio, too.

Chipmakers and phone manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to make power usage more efficient. Users can also help manage power consumption by adjusting settings, such as turning off multiple radios or applications that are running in the background, or using their phone in places where there is a strong cell phone signal.

Tony Melone, CTO of Verizon Wireless, acknowledges that managing battery power can be tricky. But he said he thinks device makers and chip vendors have worked through these issues for the new lineup of dual-core processor 4G phones that will eventually be introduced on Verizon's network. He also said there are things that the carrier can do to help alleviate the problem. For example, it can have devices scan less frequently for new cell towers. He said the new 4G phones that the company introduced at CES should have battery life that is comparable to the battery life on most of its other smartphones.

The new 4G phones were just announced this week at CES, so CNET hasn't yet reviewed them. But even after the reviews are out, you might want to wait until the phones are out in the market for a couple of months if battery life is a major concern for you. Early adopters using the phone day to day will discover shortcomings, such as poor battery life. Also, battery performance can vary greatly based on usage and other factors, such as signal strength. So getting more input from regular users might help you make a better decision on which phone is right for you.

Servicing an unlocked BlackBerry

Dear Maggie,

First of all I wanted to tell you what a fan I am of yours. I have an unlocked BlackBerry Bold, and I want to know what my best options are to get BlackBerry service. Also, once the phone is unlocked, can I use it on different carrier networks? How easy is it to switch carriers?

Thanks a million,

Mendy

Dear Mendy,

First, thanks for the compliment! I'm so happy someone is finding this column useful!

Now to answer your questions. If your BlackBerry has a SIM card in it that can be removed and inserted into another phone, switching providers will be very simple. Phones with SIM cards use GSM network technology. If you want to switch carriers, all you have to do is switch the SIM card and voila, you can hop amongst carriers.

On the other hand, phones based on CDMA do not use SIM cards. So it is more difficult to get the phones unlocked and to use them on another carrier's network. I wrote about this topic in a previous Ask Maggie column .

That said, a reader pointed out to me in an e-mail that it is not impossible to unlock and use a CDMA phone on another carrier's network. But it does require some know-how. You have to "flash" the phone's radio so that it communicates over another CDMA carrier's network.

While swapping out SIM cards on an unlocked GSM phone is fairly simple, one thing you must check is that the phone you are using supports the GSM radio frequency in the country where you are using the phone. A quad-band world phone should cover all your bases.

In the U.S., your options for GSM mobile phone service are AT&T and T-Mobile USA. AT&T sells the BlackBerry Bold, so this is likely your best bet for service. The phone can also be used on T-Mobile, but the phone may not support the frequency band that T-Mobile uses for 3G service. (It's different from the frequency band that AT&T uses for 3G service.)

As for which carrier offers the best service, it really depends on where you are using the phone. AT&T has a much wider footprint than T-Mobile, so in some places, T-Mobile may not even be an option. But if it is available, it might offer a better deal than AT&T, depending on usage and the plan you select.

Rural wireless broadband

Dear Maggie,

I live in the country in Texas. I have wireless Internet service, but it is not very good. Most of the time, the speeds are barely above dialup. What's the outlook for us country people when it comes to high-speed Internet service.

Thank you for your consideration in responding.

Mike

Dear Mike,

It's difficult to say whether wireless broadband service will improve significantly for you anytime soon, because I don't know exactly where you live. I also don't know specific regional plans for upgrades for each carrier in the U.S. But I will try to answer your question more broadly, because I think this is an important topic that policy makers at the Federal Communications Commission and in other parts of the government are grappling with today.

Let's start with the good news. Getting broadband access to every American is a priority for President Obama and the FCC. And for the first time in the U.S. there is a comprehensive policy plan in place for achieving this goal over the next decade.

Last year, the FCC submitted a National Broadband Plan to Congress , which outlined a 10-year plan for getting broadband service to every American. Within that plan, the FCC highlighted wireless as a key technology for providing broadband service to rural communities.

As part of this plan and as part of the economic stimulus package passed by Congress in 2009, wireless operators have been given millions of dollars to invest in building networks in rural communities. The FCC has also taken measures to speed up the process for approving the construction of new cell phone towers and for freeing up more wireless spectrum, which should also help stimulate further infrastructure deployments.

Another piece of good news for rural wireless subscribers is that all four major U.S. wireless carriers are in the midst of major network upgrades to 4G wireless broadband, which provide average download speeds between 3Mbps and 12Mbps.

Two of the largest carriers, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, are using 700MHz spectrum to build their new networks using a technology called LTE or Long Term Evolution. The 700MHz spectrum they are using is ideal for serving rural communities because signals can travels long distances over this band. It was previously used to provide broadcast analog TV service. What this means for rural subscribers is that wireless carriers can reach more geographically dispersed subscribers with fewer cell towers.

The main reason that infrastructure of any kind is limited in some rural communities is because it's often difficult for private-sector companies to make a return on their investment. In some cases, there are simply too few subscribers to justify the upfront capital investment in the infrastructure.

This is where the bad news comes in. Even though the major wireless operators are upgrading their networks, they are still likely to concentrate most of their investments in densely populated regions, because that is where they can get the biggest returns.

This means that cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago are more likely to get 4G service quicker than a rural community in, say, west Texas. The federal grants from the stimulus package should help encourage investment in some regions of the country, but it won't be enough to encourage investment in every rural community.

That said, Verizon Wireless, which bought a nationwide swath of 700MHz spectrum, is striking deals with regional rural carriers to lease its 700MHz spectrum, so that these companies can roll out service more quickly to more people. Verizon Wireless CEO Daniel Mead said at the company's press conference at CES that Verizon is making progress with rural carriers interested in leasing its spectrum.

Hopefully, your community in Texas will be among those to benefit from either Verizon or AT&T's expansion or the expansion by a rural carrier.

 

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