Why Wireless TV on the Road Disappoints

on December 3, 2014

Driving home from New York on Saturday, I decided to use my iPad to catch the Michigan-Ohio State game (I was not, of course, behind the wheel at the time). I have used a phone or an iPad often enough for calls or maps while on the road, so I figured it would work fine. I was wrong.

The reason is obvious. A phone conversation does not require a very good wireless connection — something I should have realized for the many times I have been able to make a decent call with one or two dots. Voice service (and SMS messaging) does not require a whole lot of service, which is why it works many places video doesn’t. Map service works acceptably on spotty service; the worst thing you’ll suffer is temporary breaks in the constant updating of road service on Google Map.

TV, by contrast, faces enormous issues while moving. The loss of a frame will, of course, show up with the loss of both audio and video. The bigger problem is losing enough of the signal to keep the program showing. Degrading the image can keep a tolerable program going for a while on a bad signal–our brain can stand the bad picture if the audio maintains the quality. But a loss of the signal will result in video and audio that freeze or go blank.

Traveling on the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike, outages happened a lot on both the iPad on Verizon and the iPhone 4S on AT&T. You could watch the meter on the screen drop from four or five dots of LTE to three or even one of 4G. And the video died. I expect this in rural areas. But it’s depressing along the Garden State, which travels through dense parts of the New York community from Montvale to Iselin. And though the New Jersey Turnpike covers a lot of residential territory, I expected the volume of traffic would justify better quality wireless. However, the phone carriers seem quite content to provide minimal coverage when you get away from prime urban areas.

There’s no easily available solution. The carriers seem to be enhancing their LTE coverage, but the focus is still on cities and some suburbs.

So, if you get video in your car while driving around a big city, the chances are the wireless signal will be pretty good, at least good enough to keep the kids entertained. But you probably should count on something recorded when you head out on the highway.

Odds are, there isn’t much chance of getting this fixed any time soon. The carriers don’t seem to see much evidence for LTE coverage good enough for highways, even though they like to advertise as though they do. And you have to read the footnotes of their coverage map, in this case Verizon: “Access the 4G LTE network within the Verizon Extended Coverage Area; certain conditions may cause your service to connect to 3G in this Area. Some of the Coverage Areas include networks run by other carriers, the coverage depicted is based on their information and public sources, and we cannot ensure its accuracy.”

WiFi is certainly becoming available in many urban areas and the coverage is often better and a lot cheaper than LTE. The problem is, WiFi is not designed to handle more service by switching you to different stations, and certainly not to shift you on the fly between networks. This may be available some day, but not yet. And, in any event, the sheer number of WiFi stations needed to provide wireless around a highway is not likely to be practical.

Fortunately, I didn’t miss too much. Michigan has been a lousy football team all season (coach Brady Hoke was just fired) and even missing a fair number of minutes during the game didn’t cause the loss of plays that deserved to be missed.

There are also some other benefits wireless can provide even with coverage too poor for decent video. A large study by Compass Intelligence found that, while riders are looking forward to video coverage, 66% want a service that can determine and communicate car system flaws, 60% want real time traffic conditions, and over half want to be notified of maintenance service. Not the most exciting features of wireless, but worth it.