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Cell phone woes from drivers, homeowners

Why does your cell phone constantly drop calls? Why can't a cell phone work inside your home? And do you need to buy an HDTV?'s Gary Krakow answers your questions about technology and gadgets.

I received hundreds of responses from the first installment of Krakow’s Corner, and I have to say that the majority had to deal with cell phones and why they don’t always work the way we want them to.

The questions basically fall into two categories: “Why does my cell phone drop calls all the time?” and “Why can’t I use my cell phone inside my home?”

Why is it that your cell phone can have full signal strength one second and then go to no service for a few minutes before gaining full strength again without you ever moving an inch?
Mark, Rockville, Md.

Why is it that I cannot use my cell phone inside my house? I have to go outside to be able to get a minimum signal. ...I have been with Verizon until early last year and then switched to Cingular thinking that they can provide better service. You guessed it - the service I get is the same.
Alan B., Eagle, Colo.

Mobile phones are really two-way radios that communicate with their networks via big antennas on towers in your neighborhood. Handheld cell phones are very low power, 0.6 watts, for a few reasons:

  • Many people can use the same broadcast and receive frequencies in your neighborhood.
  • Low power means better battery life.
  • Most importantly, higher power may be a health hazard to your brain.

Each cell tower can handle dozens of channels at the same time. While connecting a call, and during your call, the cellular system is checking and double checking to see if you’re still talking and whether the signal it is receiving is the best quality or if a different cell would provide you with better service. If it decides another cell is better it will switch your call.

Get the idea? If you’re on your cell phone and you move an inch or so, the tower you’re using might decide a different tower would provide you with better service and will try to hand off the call. Sometimes the system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

There are a bunch of reasons for why the system doesn’t work. It could be the tower’s fault. Sometimes it’s your phone’s fault. Sometimes it’s the fault of your neighbors. Ever read about residents fighting the construction of a cell tower in your hometown? Many communities across the country have nixed the construction of needed cells and towers. And that adds up to longer distances between cells — and dropped calls. 

To make things worse, many communities refuse to allow more than one cell phone company to put their antennas on the same tower. Most companies prefer placing cell towers near highways to maximize their use. 

My dilemma is, as a physician, I may be talking with the ICU about a patient in critical condition who requires immediate intervention, and as I am talking with the nurse, the phone suddenly goes dead. The phone company I use, Cellular One, states that a three watt booster installed in my car will solve this problem. Does this sound correct?
Ron Martin, Meadville, Pa.

For best results in your car, consider a cellular car phone. They operate with 3 watts of broadcast power and come with an outside antenna. You can maximize both your outgoing and incoming signals. And the car’s metal body won’t interfere like it does with a handheld phone used inside your car.

Trouble at home
Ever wonder why cell phone service isn't so great when you're at home? Some readers sent in their own explanations. Here’s what Ed Z. wrote:

My cell phone reception at home had deteriorated and I found a reason for it that I would like to share.  My cell phone reception always gets better during the winter months when the trees shed their leaves.  That wasn’t the case this winter after I had my house vinyl sided over the old cedar shakes last fall.  I found out the foam insulation board that went over the old cedar siding is laminated with foil, which is blocking signals from entering my home.  Sometimes it’s not always the cell phone company that is at fault but environmental changes.

Your house may have metal in the roof and/or walls that interferes with all radio signals coming in or out. There’s actually a scientific term for these electronic shields: the metal creates a Faraday cage around your home.

Your choices are to walk outside to see if reception is any better, remove all the metal around your home or buy a repeater for inside installation. There are a number of companies selling booster-antenna systems that you install indoors which should help get the signal in and out.

At some point in time will I have to trash all my old television sets and buy all new ones that get HDTV?  If so, when will this happen? Or will my old ones still work, just not have an HD clear picture (which is totally okay with me)? I want to buy a new little TV-VCR-DVD combo for my kitchen but don’t want to get one that I won’t be able to use in a couple of years.
Sunny Seibert, Pinckneyville, Ill.

The government’s regulatory agency for broadcast television, the Federal Communications Commission, has set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2006 for the transition to all HDTV broadcasting.  That’s right — the end of this year.

The switch will only happen when 85 percent of consumers are able to receive HDTV in their homes. That means when broadcasters can reach 85 percent of the viewing public with an HDTV signal and if there are enough HDTV receivers available, not if 85 percent of the population actually owns HDTVs.

When that threshold is reached, all TV will use the HDTV broadcast frequencies and all older sets will not receive a signal. The current frequencies will be auctioned off to the highest bidders by the government. 

What can you do? You can either buy an HDTV-ready receiver now or purchase one of the new HDTV converter boxes which will flood the market when the time comes. The box will not transform your old set into a high-definition television, but will allow you to watch standard definition TV broadcasts on the new HDTV broadcast frequencies.

If you’re hooked up to a cable/satellite service, don’t worry. You probably won’t even notice when the switch to high-def is made. 

And lastly, a request more than a question:

Why do people save boxes when they purchase audio and computer equipment?  Is there a way to toss the boxes and still be able to return the items if necessary?  Is there a value to the original boxes?
Amy Krakow, New York

If you hadn’t guessed already, Amy is my wife and I think she’s hinting that she wants all the boxes, the ones that come with all the items I test and write about, out of our house. My answer is they’ll leave when I’m done with them!