Santa Rosa area fares poorly in cellphone network tests

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Sarah Doyle lives in Sonoma County’s third-largest city. But she might as well be in the desert when it comes to getting a consistently strong cellphone signal.

The Rohnert Park woman paid Verizon an extra $100 for a device to boost reception inside her condominium. But many calls are still marred by static, and the signal fades completely once she reaches her carport.

“It’s really annoying and frustrating,” the financial services worker said.

She’s far from alone. According to the independent analytics firm RootMetrics, Santa Rosa — which the firm defines roughly as central Sonoma County — ranks 122 out of 125 metro areas for mobile network performance. Only Lancaster, Pa.; Omaha, Neb.; and Hudson Valley, N.Y., fared worse.

The study included America’s four major carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. Each was ranked on reliability, speed, data, call and text performance.

A researcher drove across 734 miles of central Sonoma County’s roads last October, conducting 14,000 network tests in both outdoor and indoor settings. Tests were conducted with off-the-shelf Samsung S5 phones and proprietary software for consistent results.

The survey included Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Healdsburg, Cotati and Sebastopol, but not Petaluma, Sonoma or the county’s rural areas.

The study declared AT&T the top overall carrier in Sonoma County for the second half of 2015, with the other three bunched up close behind. Sprint earned plaudits for dramatically improving its dropped call rate, while T-Mobile received props for ramping up data speed.

However, T-Mobile had more dropped and blocked calls than the other carriers, a finding that came as no surprise to Amparo Hargreaves. The T-Mobile customer said the service is “spotty and unreliable” in her Saint Francis neighborhood in Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley. A former Verizon customer, Hargreaves switched when the company discontinued unlimited data plans.

She said the only reason she doesn’t switch back is because she has teenagers “who need — or so they believe — unlimited data.”

But even customers of top-ranked AT&T have their complaints. Tim Barger, a superintendent with Nordby Construction Co. in Santa Rosa, said he’s lucky to get one signal dot on his iPhone 6 in his office on North Dutton Avenue, across the street from Parkpoint Health Club.

Things are not much better at his Guerneville home, where he gets reception about 75 percent of the time, despite AT&T installing a cell tower on the hill behind his house.

“Cell reception sucks all over the place,” Barger said.

Blame for the Santa Rosa area’s dismal showing in the RootMetrics study falls mostly on Verizon, which has a larger overall share of subscribers and therefore was weighted more heavily in the rankings. Verizon came in second place overall, but third in the categories of speed and data performance. Sprint also struggled in those areas.

Verizon had the lowest median download speed of any of the carriers at 4.8 megabits per second. That means it took as long as 8 seconds to download a song, or 16 minutes for an episode of a TV show.

By comparison, T-Mobile, which had the fastest network speeds, downloaded songs in less than 3 seconds and less than 5 minutes for a show.

The rankings for the two carriers were similar based on the time it took to upload photos and videos.

Verizon consistently is ranked at, or near, the top of national surveys for network performance. The company also scored-highest in California in RootMetrics’ most recent rankings by state. But that only makes the issues identified in the study of the Santa Rosa area all the more puzzling.

Heidi Flato, a Verizon spokeswoman, stated in an email that the report captured a “snapshot in time” and that results can vary depending on the time of day and network conditions.

She said Verizon is adding capacity to several cell sites in Santa Rosa to improve data performance, and “working to add” additional cell sites in the area to improve both coverage and capacity this year.

Julie Dey, a RootMetrics vice president, called Verizon’s download speeds in Sonoma County “quite low” for the carrier. But she couldn’t explain why that is the case.

She said adding more customers can slow network speeds. But Verizon isn’t having similar issues in much larger markets, including Los Angeles and New York City, where the company’s data speeds were the fastest of any major carrier.

Roberts said all carriers tailor their services to individual markets.

“I don’t want to say Verizon isn’t putting time or money into Santa Rosa,” she said. “Perhaps there are areas there that they need to focus on that they haven’t yet.”

Sprint scored lowest for speed and data performance. But the carrier was champs when it came to call performance.

“It’s great having super-fast speeds, but speed doesn’t mean a lot if the connection drops,” Adrienne Norton, a spokeswoman for Sprint, wrote in an email.

She said the company recently deployed an advanced wireless technology called carrier aggregation, which basically doubles the size of its data highway. She said the company also is looking to add more cell sites.

It’s worth pointing out that Sprint’s rate plans are about half the cost of most other carriers, so when it comes to service, customers may be getting what they are paying for.

On the other hand, Doyle feels like she’s already paying a premium for Verizon’s service without the additional expense for a network extender to boost cell coverage at her Rohnert Park condo. The company charges her $72 a month for 2 gigabytes of data.

“I felt Verizon should do something to fix the problem rather than force me to spend more money,” she said.

Cell service isn’t any better at her boyfriend’s house on East Cotati Avenue. Doyle said he, also a Verizon customer, has to be sitting on the edge of the couch at just the right angle to be able to talk on his phone. She has to go outside the house to get a signal.

“It’s like the olden days when you had a flip phone and had to stand near a window,” she said.

To view the full report, click here. To view how the Santa Rosa area did, click here.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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