Low-income neighborhoods have worse cell phone service, study finds

Poorer areas had fewer regular base stations compared with affluent areas that have equal number of subscribers

Low-income neighborhoods have worse cell phone service
Imperial College London

Poor neighborhoods in the U.S. get 15 percent less cell phone coverage than their richer counterparts, a new study has found.

This confirms the “existence of a mobile-divide in the U.S.,” say the researchers from Imperial College Business School in an abstract of their paper published in Telecommunications Policy via ScienceDirect.

“Operators install two fewer mobile antennas per tract in lower income areas for equal distributions of subscribers,” the London business school says. That’s across the board, and it includes both urban and rural areas. So, it isn’t just a rural-divide issue, the researchers say.

When talking about subscribers, the school includes potential subscribers as subscribers, too.

Fewer base stations, lack of femtocells

On average, poorer areas had fewer regular base stations installed. That alone was a problem, but the group also identified a lack of femtocells in the impoverished regions compared to the wealthier areas.

Femtocells are small cell boosters that route calls along the customers’ own ISP data cables. The customer-installed router-sized device is helpful in areas that have poor service.

“Wealthier households in poorly covered areas were able to compensate for their signal loss by installing femtocell antennas,” a news release says. “Their poorer neighbors were not.”

The business school used a combination of crowdsourced data from six states pertaining to cellular coverage and femtocells, and they mashed it up with demographic income and population data.

“Base stations tend to be at least three times farther from lower-income subscribers,” the researcher say in their abstract.

Base stations are the traditional tower or mast that’s used to create mobile phone cells.

“Our results suggest that there is a mobile divide between individuals and households in affluent and lower-income areas,” says Dr Aija Leiponen, the study’s author, in the release.

That’s a problem for development in areas that need to see growth.

Insufficient mobile coverage may further contribute to the decline or slower development of these areas,” Leiponen says. It hinders electronic-oriented health care, such as submitting health care applications, for example, the researchers say.

“Mobile coverage affects socio-economic communication and performance,” the abstract explains.

Interestingly, the study provides evidence that spotty service isn’t caused just by topography. It’s been easy, as we’ve become reliant on mobile devices as one travels around, to apportion blame for poor service to hills and mountains or distance from cities. That’s not entirely the case, this report suggests.

There are “other factors that influence whether people receive good mobile network coverage,” says Dr. Pantelis Koutroumpis, co-author of the study.

ISPs also a problem

It isn't just mobile services that fail to deliver.

I recently wrote about a school district that is developing its own mobile network using Verizon’s cellular service installed in school buses. It does that in order to provide connectivity for kids.

In that case, the problem has been ISPs not wanting to go into some areas that the poor school district serves, according to the district superintendent and program instigator, speaking with PBS.

So, with that anecdotal statement, it appears there’s perhaps a combination of both fixed-line ISPs and mobile cellular networks not serving impoverished areas adequately.

“These findings have implications for universal service delivery policies,” the abstract concludes.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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