I have a remote get-away cabin in the middle of the Kansas Prairie where I sometimes escape to work for a couple of days. I use my Verizon 4G data service as my Internet connection as this is my best option. Even though I usually have 3 or 4 bars of solid signal, my data service comes and goes. Sometimes it is unbelievably fast, and other times I can’t raise a simple web page before timing out. What gives?
The reason for this variability is the fact that the wireless providers actually have two different networks. One for their traditional phone service, and one for the Internet. Basically what this means is that the tower sites that you are getting your cell signal from actually have two circuits coming in. One is for the traditional cell service, which is almost always available as long as you have a strong signal (5 bars) on your phone. And the other carries the legacy phone connection. Each one taking a different path out from the cell tower.
Limited Data Line to towers. The data service to each tower is subject to local or regional congestion depending on where and how your provider connects you to the Internet. In rural Kansas during the broadband initiative the cellular companies had no Internet presence in the area, so they contracted with the local Internet companies to back haul Internet links to their cell towers. Some of these back haul links to the Internet have very limited data capacity, and hence they can get congested when there are multiple data users competing for this limited resource.
A second reason for slow data service is the limited amount of wireless frequency between your phone and the tower. Even though you may have 4 bars and a good phone connection, it is likely that your wireless provider limits data usage during peak times so they are not forced to drop calls. Think of it like two lanes on a highway, one is the priority lane for phone service , and then there is the data lane which can get jammed with data.
So the next time you can’t find directions to your favorite restaurant, or Siri is having a fit, just remember not all is fair on the data circuit to your tower and beyond.