Last weekend we spent some time driving buggies in the middle of the Arabian desert, 40 miles out of Dubai. After an hour of sliding up and down impossible dunes, we stopped to rest. I took out my cellphone to see if it had survived the craziness, which it had, and was surprised to see that I had service available. And not just one bar, but absolutely perfect coverage: the full five bars, EDGE and all. And, according to our friends James and Lu, it gets even better:James and Lucinda have been living and working in Dubai for a few years now. For fun they travel to different spots around the Arab Emirates. According to them, the coverage is great throughout the area, and not just the desert, which doesn't have any structures to block nearby cell nodes, except for the occasional huge power line. Up in the Dubai mountains, for example, you can get coverage deep in a canyon without any trouble.
According to the Wikipedia, cell coverage in open spaces with no physical obstacles can reach up to a 25-mile radius, although it's more likely to be a five-mile radius. Obviously, there were a lot of cell towers in the middle of the desert that I didn't see — or perhaps they use more powerful towers than the ones we have in the US or Europe. This feature is not, however, about the great service all over this sparsely populated part of the world — instead, the question is: Why does cell coverage still suck so much in the rural areas of "advanced countries" such as US and much of the European Union?
The minute you abandon cities over here, you get dropped connections and bad quality, not to mention the dreaded "no service" sign that so often pops up on my cellphone screen when in the car or on the train. In fact, in many US cities, you don't even have to leave the city. In urban areas, "each cell site has a range of up to approximately 0.5 miles" because of all the structures around. Nevertheless, there's full coverage in many cities in Europe and elsewhere without problems.
In the countryside, the carriers think it's not worthy to deploy cell infrastructure in the middle of nowhere where there's not enough people to justify the service. However, the population density of Persian Gulf countries is extremely low: Dubai had 1,422,000 people in 2006, most of them located in the amazing city center, which looks like a combination of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami rising out of the middle of nowhere. Yet they have great coverage everywhere.
Maybe the people in Dubai spend a lot of money on cellphones so the carriers can support the infrastructure to give great service, but the fact is that the European Union and the United States are at the top of the cellphone-spending lists while the United Arab Emirates were number 65 just a couple of years ago. Maybe it's usage, since most people think that everyone in Dubai is loaded. The truth is that most people here are normal workers, not millionaires. In fact, the situation of most of them—construction workers from India and Bangladesh— could be considered quite precarious if not downright outrageous (there has been rioting by building workers over the past months on a few occasions there.) The prices are not that much higher than on the rest of the planet, even while the carrier Etisalat has a virtual monopoly in the area.
So why do we have such bad service everywhere in the West? Do the AT&Ts and T-Mobiles of this world not invest enough or are they too greedy, ignoring low-population areas and keeping people in the cities on the edge with not enough nodes and switchers to go round?
In some European countries there are more-or-less strict laws that force carriers to spend certain amounts in infrastructure to keep their license. Maybe that's the key to guarantee the equilibrium between business and providing a public service that is key for the development of any country: communications. It seems like this is the case in Dubai, where a new telecommunications company that is 40 percent owned by the UAE Federal Government, has been investing billions in new networks.
Now then, do you think that governments all over the world should spend more money—perhaps charging the companies for the usage of these countryside nodes—on communications infrastructure to give full coverage to every single citizen in their states? Or maybe it's enough to impose tougher laws so companies are obliged to provide with full service everywhere?
NOTE: yes, you can't see the full bars on the video because the sun was unbearable and Addy was just worrying about her tan and couldn't give a damn about full bars in the middle of the desert—but trust me, it was full coverage.