What’s up with @TMobile in North Carolina?

Check this out:


I took that screen shot at the excellent Oakleaf restaurant in Pittsboro, NC a few days ago. Note the zero bars (or dots) of telephone service, and the very respectable (tested!) data service. To confirm what the hollow dots said, I tried to make a call. Didn’t work.

This seems to be a new thing for T-Mobile in North Carolina, where I spent much of this summer — or at least in the parts of it where I visited.

The company’s mobile phone coverage is pretty lousy to begin with, on the whole: great on highways and in the larger towns; but spotty when you head into the suburbs and countryside. What changed is the sudden near-disappearance of voice phone coverage in some places where it had worked before, and the improvement at the same time of data coverage.

At my sister’s house, near a major interstate highway, I could use my phone on the porch or in the yard, but not indoors, where I’d see the most dreaded two words in mobile telephony: “no service.” Or at least that was the case in July and early August.

Then something strange happened. I started getting data service indoors at her house, and in other places where before there was nothing. But all I got was data, identified by that little “LTE.” Telephony was five empty dots. At my sister’s place I also couldn’t make or get a call out in the yard, on the street, or anywhere in the neighborhood. But the data service was now terrific.

So I’m wondering if this is just me, or if T-Mobile is lately favoring data over telephony in some places. Anybody know? (I note that T-Mobile’s coverage maps only seem to deal with data, not telephony. But maybe I’m missing something.)

By the way, I should add that I wouldn’t trade T-Mobile for any other carrier right now, because I travel a lot outside the country. In addition to fine coverage in New York, Boston, and all the places I tend to go in California, T-Mobile gives me free data roaming and texting everywhere I go, and 20¢/minute on the phone. Yes, the data rates tend to be 2G rather than 3G or 4G/LTE. But it tends to be good enough most of the time. It also makes me tolerant of a less-than-ideal coverage footprint here in the U.S.



  1. PXLated’s avatar

    It might not just be T-Mobile Doc, I’m on Verizon and been traveling in the west for 10 months (15,000 miles) and I’ve almost always had LTE service whereas voice has been sketchy. I don’t have any reference areas like you to compare before/after though. I finally bought a cell booster for the voice part – mixed results on that though.

  2. Esme Vos’s avatar

    T-Mobile service has become almost unusable here in Redwood Shores, CA (which lies between SF and Palo Alto). I have to go outside the house to get a signal. Sure it’s LTE but if I can’t even make a call, who cares what it is. I noticed the change in the last month.

  3. Tom Clancy’s avatar

    Pretty much the same here in Southeastern New Hampshire. It’s fine near the highway but spotty to non-existent in other places. Our new house is 3 doors down from a hidden cellphone tower which I’m guessing T Mobile isn’t on because I only have 3 dots at home.

  4. PXLated’s avatar

    Doc, you know more about wireless radio waves than us but don’t data and voice transmit over separate frequencies so an LTE data indicator has nothing to do with voice? And, the number of bars has nothing to do with wether you can actually make a call, it shows the tower signal strength to the phone not the phone transmission strength back to the tower. That’s the way I understand it anyway.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    The problem with all this, to begin with, is that YMMV for all carriers, for more reasons than we can begin to list but the carriers know well. My question had to do with what, if anything, TMobile was doing in the parts of North Carolina I hung out this summer. Seemed to me that something changed. I haven’t heard an answer, and I don’t expect to get one. (Though TMobile has reached out via Twitter to assure me that they do their best and want to satisfy me, etc.)

    About what the indicators mean, I have long assumed that the five dots, or bars, refer to signal strength of the telephony service, while “LTE” “E” or nothing indicates the presence or absence of data service, but nothing about strength of the signal. The graphic above suggests that my assumption is true, but I don’t know.

  6. Jeff Thomas’s avatar

    My phone (Nexus 5, stock Android) provides only a single set of bars to indicate connection strength, so my assumption is that the bars applies both to telephony and data. Under the “preferred network type” settings, the choices are among LTE, 3G and 2G — and no indication that one may set preferences for data separately from the phone; it’s presented simply as a single network setting. So, if T-Mo is changing anything in the balance betwen telephony and data, it would not be visible on my phone.

    T-Mobile is at its worst when I’m bicycling long distances on blue highways and backroads. People around me are Facetiming with friends, and my T-Mo phone has no bars, no data, nothing.

    But they make overseas travel much less of a hassle, with their international provision of free data/text, and tolerable telephony charges. No need to swap out SIM cards or to sign up for separate international service. They make it very easy.

    Domestically, T-Mo also lets you stream nearly every music service (Amazon notably excepted) from the cell tower, free of data charge. This, to me, is borderline amazing.

    And I must acknowledge that T-Mo’s customer service has been, for me at least, first-rate.

    All of which ameliorates my frustration with their spotty coverage.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Jeff.

    Good analysis, which is entirely consistent with my own experience, except that I haven’t checked out the music streaming yet.

    It would be nice if we knew what the dots or bars actually mean. Strange to get no telephony and fast data at the same time and place.

    The international service is the deal-maker for us. After struggling for years with Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile has been a huge relief. We’ll be in Prague this month, and in the U.K., Brazil and Sweden before the end of the year, and I expect no problems at all. The 2G data rate can be a bit of a slog, but it’s fine for bringing up maps and doing email, which are the main things. (And sometimes it actually does 3G, or so it seems.) And where we go in urban and suburban areas in and around NYC, SF, LA and Boston, T-Mobile is actually better than AT&T (our last carrier) was for us.

    And you’re right about their service. It’s solid and good on the phone. Less so in the stores, which vary a great deal; but they’re all like that.

    Digression… I visited a Verizon store in Ohio, where my son goes to college and Vz is the only mobile game in town. He wanted to switch from Sprint. But, even though Sprint and Vz are compatible — both on CDMA — they didn’t even want to talk unless he was willing to ditch his current phone and buy one from Verizon. So we left.

    Perhaps, in the fullness of time, T-Mobile can beef up coverage on the blue highways at least.

  8. Catherine’s avatar

    I’ve been having the opposite issue – my data signal has been cutting in & out since the beginning of September, but the voice signal is fine. I have a Nexus 4 so no LTE data, only H and 3G (and E when unlucky) are available. I’ve contacted T-Mobile’s help desk but they really weren’t much help.

  9. Catherine’s avatar

    I forgot to mention – I’m in Seattle.

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