May 19 AT 10:46 AM Nick Sarafolean 11 Comments

Coverage or speed? Defining a good network experience.


Once upon a time, there was a man named Richard. Richard was a man who traveled frequently and had to keep in contact with his employers while on the go. During one of his travels, Richard found himself in a bind; he suddenly and desperately needed to contact his employer and was in a poor reception area. Over and over he tried to acquire a signal, but just couldn’t manage it. In a final desperate attempt, Richard climbed onto the top of his moving taxi and raised his phone up to the sky in a final plea for signal. Sadly, Richard came up empty-handed, resulting in a stern lecture from his boss when he returned to the office. Thus ends the heart-wrenching story of Richard, the man without a signal.

In another dimension, we find Cassie, an average teen girl who has just taken several selfies with her favorite boy band member. After working to find her best duck face, Cassie opened Instagram, applied an extra-gaudy filter, threw in a multitude of hashtags and began uploading. Unfortunately for Cassie, she was stuck on a signal that was hovering between 2G and 3G, preventing her from uploading the photo in a timely manner. Much to the annoyance of Cassie, several of her friends managed to upload their own selfies before her. Thus ends the gripping story of Cassie, the girl who just couldn’t upload her duck face in time.

A week or so ago, I wrote up a rather opinionated article expressing the importance (or possible lack of) mobile data. The comments got rather interesting and brought up plenty of good points about. One consistent point was that between coverage and speed, most felt that coverage was more important than speed. What defines a good network experience? Is it the overall coverage? Or is it the speed of the network?

Much can be said for the importance of speedy data. It makes life a very pleasant experience. Tasks fly along with ease, and things done much more quickly with nearly-instant refreshes, quick uploads and rapid searching. Without swift data, things can get frustrating as the data stream creeps along, causing impatience to take root and bitterness to occur.

And yet, is it speed that really makes a good network?

Perhaps a network’s coverage is more important. While speedy data is certainly nice to have, perhaps those praises should instead go to coverage. After all, you can’t access speedy data if you don’t have coverage in the first place. You could have the fastest data in the world, but if it was only available in one spot, it wouldn’t be of any use if you traveled somewhere else. While great coverage doesn’t always include a top-notch speed experience, it does ensure that you’ll actually be able to use your device. Speeds may be somewhat slow, but the data will be there when you need it.

If your goal is to stream video on the go, then a quick data connection will likely be most important. But if you use your phone for things like keeping in contact at work or searching for things while out and about, then a reliable web of coverage could be a greater asset. For many, coverage is more important because of a need for a constant connection. Others, however, may prefer high speeds to an expansive network.

Now the mic is turned to you. Which is more important to you: vast, reliable coverage or speedy data? Comment away, folks.

A nerd at heart, Nick is an average person who has a passion for all things electronic. When not spending his time writing about the latest gadgets, Nick enjoys reading, dabbling in photography, and experimenting with anything and everything coffee. Should you wish to know more about him, you can follow him on Twitter @nsarafolean.

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  • Tangent

    Making this either/or misses what people really want, but I suppose if having to pick between the lesser of two evils I’d want the coverage. Slow data is better than none, but still frustrating. I switched carriers entirely because the one I had provided spotty coverage in my area, and even where I did have signal it was slow. My current carrier has far better coverage, and it’s much faster everywhere to boot. Other carriers had better coverage, *or* faster speeds while being cheaper. I opted to pay more and get both.

    It seems that usually there are 3 options with cellular data: Low price, great coverage, and fast data. You only get to choose 2.

  • Happy Now

    To get both data and coverage is no longer a sprint for me. I mean sprint to find it. A new carrier is on my Horizon and I could not be happier. It is the coverage. Nick is right you can’t sprint if you don’t have coverage. So I pay a little bit more but my data always works.. so far everywhere. I no longer have to sprint around to find it.

    • tetracycloide

      A little? Ok, yeah, sure…

  • graymoment

    One must first have coverage to compare speeds for a given area. The discussion relationship between coverage and speed is if/then, not either/or.

  • jbcooley

    For me, coverage without speed is useless. I’m not interested in a congested 2G network that can’t fetch a webpage without waiting 2 minutes per page. On the other hand, cost is also a factor. I’m not interested in paying for coverage in locations a rarely visit.

  • Bart

    This is far from being a new question. It is as old as consumer cellular itself. Nearly 20 years ago I was a moderator on a cellular discussion board. Feverish fanaticism ran high, each person claiming their carrier was best. Over time, we as a community discovered that each carrier has it “sweet spots” of service. AT&T was great in northern CA, but sucked in New York. Speaking about “pockets” of service, Sprint was infamous for that type of service, but their rates reflected it.

    For business people needing to transact, coverage and speed are both essential. Because of that, it is not uncommon for them to carry at least two phones, one with Verizon the other with ATT. That gives them the greatest saturation of coverage and speed with the least amount of worry and cost.

    For the consumer, let’s face it–they will never be happy. Today’s consumers come across of bunch of prema donas thinking that they “deserve” to have everything and have it now. They complain about their bills, they complain about their service, they complain–period. When I read even by reviewers here how disappointed they are with this or that release of a new phone, I really wonder if they have any concept of how life was before these technologies were around. What we have now enhances our lives in so many ways. I’m grateful for what we do have and eagerly anticipate new technologies while realistically realizing that as much as tech giants want us to believe its the best, the truth is this is yet a growing industry and there will continue to be more hiccups, more problems, more headaches. Pretty much, we all need to chill–reflect back 20 years (if you can) and you’ll be much more appreciative of what we have today.

    • tetracycloide

      Thank science the reviewers are capable of using a scale on which the differences between the variety of technologies available today are highlighted rather than an insane comparison to 2 decades ago when nothing was available (and Bart was glad to get it!) We all pretty much never need to ‘chill’ to the point where we can’t even point out when one thing is better than another.

  • Nigel

    As someone which “just” 3G handset, and looking at 4G, there are actually reasons to want to control when using 4G. The lowest cost monthly PAYG have a cap of 4G and then its 2.5G but I’d like to control when my limited 4GB quota is used. Most of the time I don’t need 4G, most of the time I just need coverage, but sometimes I’d like to ensure I get 4G. I know at the handset level I can turn 4G on/off but the PAYG don’t say there is a cap of 4G, they say its reduced away from 4G after so many GB, meaning I could spend 29 days at 3G and get say my cap of 3GB and on the last I want 4G I’m not allowed.

  • jake

    I’m getting the impression you are a new writer for this site. Your two articles on this subject smell of someone trying to come up with something to write but not having any good ideas, much more so with this article. But I will bite for you: If there is no coverage then there is zero speed, so coverage would be most important. However, if you have the coverage and the speed is too slow, then it will be a very frustrating experience. In short, you need both to have a good network. The more of both you have, the better it is. Similar to military tech, you need armor and speed to be effective on the battlefield. Lose too much of either, and you’re toast.

  • Duane Wills

    Coverage. Speed will come (or, is already here). I drug my feet on switching from AT&T to Verizon because the 3G network that AT&T ran had voice + data, and the 3G network that Verizon ran didn’t. Now that I’ve made the switch, I don’t know WTF I was doing. Slow as shit is still better than nothing at all. (Although, we just got XLTE here, soo…)

  • Lars Hansen

    The answer to this question will always vary by who is asked. Business users will always value coverage first and foremost ahead of network speed especially if they have any degree of travel in their reality which is what drives high ARPU for telcos and makes them chase the mobile, traveling busienss user.

    On the consumer side however range of use is not that variable for most and as a result Speed on the network is what rules as highlighted by the two anecdote examples you sited.

    What is overlooked however in both of these is the battery life on the device itself which I think is an even bigger and common concern for both