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CNET to add phone service data to handset reviews

With one in four CNET users saying they've returned a phone due to poor service, CNET is breaking into the coverage map business.

Thanks to the hard work of Kent German, Bonnie Cha, and Nicole Lee, CNET's reviews of mobile handsets are unparalleled: we are the place on the Web to get in-depth evaluations of nearly every handset offered by the major carriers.

But we're not satisfied because we know you're not.

Judging a phone by its features, design, and quality is just half the story when determining whether it is worth purchasing. The other half of the equation is the quality of service provided by the carrier--and that's a factor we have not yet provided. After failing to find a solution for many years, we've finally arrived at one that I expect will rattle the market.

We've partnered with a company called Root Wireless, which is led by some cellular-industry veterans, to provide consumers with detailed, real-world coverage of major U.S. cities.

Root Wireless

With Root, we're now collecting data in eight major metropolitan markets: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, Dallas, and California's Orange County. Once enough data is sampled, the information will be available on CNET for cell phone buyers to determine the quality of service around their home, on their way to work, and at the office.

The information, being collected for the four major wireless carriers--AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless--covers three key service concerns:

  1. Average signal strength and the number of signal bars for the selected carrier in a specified area
  2. Data connectivity and throughput
  3. Network issues such as drop calls or failed data connections

This is no small effort. It entails installing software on a variety of phones and collecting real data on those key metrics. The information--which includes time of day, terrain, and number of users in an area--is transmitted to a database and made available via a Web interface. Users can drill down to see how the big carriers perform in their neighborhood or zoom out to view the coverage on their commute route.

We're doing this because we know there's a huge need. We recently conducted an online poll of our users in which 26 percent of you said you had returned a cell phone due to poor service, and nearly half of you feel that there is not enough information available on service quality.

It may be premature to write about this now, but I couldn't wait. I've seen the working prototypes, and I know that this is going to be big hit for our users. Rather than rely on anecdotal evidence from friends or user reviews, or even from CNET's editors, you will have empirical data on which to base your purchasing decisions.

We have collected data in those eight markets so far, and we'll be beta-testing for the remainder of 2009, with a general release as early as January 2010. And don't fret, if your city wasn't listed in the first batch of eight because we'll be adding many more areas in the next year.